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How religion fails you

We are born with legitimate needs that God wants to meet. The problem arises when men who claim to represent God use religion to meet those needs illegitimately. How many people have seen these manipulations and declared, “If that’s God, then I want nothing to do with him”? They see the sham for …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
We are born with legitimate needs that God wants to meet. The problem arises when men who claim to represent God use religion to meet those needs illegitimately. How many people have seen these manipulations and declared, “If that’s God, then I want nothing to do with him”? They see the sham for what it is.
We would do well to join their argument, de-fanging it by saying, “You’re right, I want nothing to do with that God as well.”
Of course religion per se is a God-ordained thing – it formalizes and adds structure to our response to him. A good example of religion working well can be found in Acts 6 when the disciples choose seven deacons to take care of feeding the widows. An organized, corporate response to this most basic of human needs was exactly right.
At the same time, all five basic human needs Maslow defines can be twisted by religious people for their own ends. In developing countries, people’s need for food and water leads them to convert to whatever faith will feed them. That’s where we get the term “rice Christians” in Asia – missionaries cooking up pots of rice to attract the people to Jesus.
And the other needs we have can be twisted as well. Let’s look at the way religion often uses the other four needs in Maslow’s hierarchy: security, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization.
Security. We have a legitimate need for security. When threatened, our reptilian brain switches to a “fight or flight” mode. Our comfort addiction is just the need for security left unchecked and running amok. It serves an important role in helping us survive in a harsh Hobbesian world. 
Boundaries whether they be walls, homes, or rules protect us and keep us secure. We need them if we are to survive. But religious leaders since Jesus’ time have taken this need to extremes, making ever more narrow rules until legalism is the result. So our legitimate need for security is perverted, landing us in churches that control our behavior instead of setting us free.
Belonging. We are social beings made for community. We all want to be a part of a social structure that gives context and meaning to our lives. But too many churches take this need and create social clubs where attenders are invited to become members. Thus it is a common practice in many Baptist churches to play “Just As I AM” at the end of the service and call people to “transfer their letter” – that is, to move their church membership to that local body.
The problem arises when allegiance to the local body and the legitimate need to belong begins to overshadow the life of Lordship that Jesus requires. Churches develop elaborate protocols and social systems that subvert God’s original intent in his people meeting together.
Self-esteem. We want to feel good about ourselves. Jesus wants us to find our identity in him – it’s a righteous thing, freeing us to be who he originally made us to be. But religion often takes this legitimate need and asks us to find our identity in roles and positions. Thus our service as a group leader or deacon becomes a more important part of our identity than our relationship to Christ. It starts out innocently as we want to make a contribution to the bigger picture, but too often we begin to veer off course and begin defining ourselves according to the tasks we perform.
Self-actualization. The highest need we have is that of finding and fulfilling a call. What a great thing to lose yourself in God’s great purpose of bringing his kingdom to earth. But how many of us veer off in directions he never intended, following a missionary call he never gave us or going to a seminary he never asked us to go to, pursuing a means that doesn’t necessarily serve the ends.
That’s not to say that many missionaries or seminarians aren’t doing exactly what God intended for their lives. It’s just to say that religion often builds a career track for those of us who feel called to serve God in some way. And the career track becomes an end in itself, leading us away from, not toward his kingdom purpose for our lives.
Here’s the bottom line: As a human being you are hard-wired with these needs. They are going to drive you. You will always be motivated to satisfy them. But don’t look to men or the the religious systems they’ve created to satisfy those needs. They will fail you; you should never look to a man to define your call or relationship with God.
Learn to hear God’s voice for yourself and look to him to provide your needs. Yes, he’ll use men and women to do it, and yes, the religious systems they create are often a helpful tool. But recognize that they’re flawed and will create shortcuts that, while seeming to meet your needs, actually can lead you away from God.

Comments (11)

  • Awesome article! Really enjoyed reading and so true! I have experienced this recently, and wow, what a life-changing and freeing experience it has been to get out of that legalistic place!

    Thank you!


  • If anything over this past three years, I’ve learned this fact in how those who serve religion cannot make a mark upon the Humanitarian stage of life. Many under the guise of religion, who act like a valid brother or sister in Christ. How then the fruits of the Spirit reveals who those people are, that are not of God, but imposters. How they cause divisions, and doubt. Keep Christ front and center and He will direct your path.

  • Thanks for the article. There is a particular point of contact in what you’ve written for me. I am a former pastor for whom these “truths” are still transforming and moving me from who I thought Jesus was and toward who He really is. While I am not anti-institutional “church,” I am finding that the institutional setting is not meant to be the norm, and in many cases it doesn’t create an environment for true discipleship, growth or ministry. In the midst of the corporate and personal struggles that these revelations have exposed, I am more and more convinced of the passionate, missional life into which Christ Jesus is leading those who will follow.

    Thanks again.


  • Thanks Seth for this insightful prodding.

    The temptation to find “Jesus” in the life, methods and models promoted by humans (sometimes with good intention) goes all the way back to the early days of Messiah.

    The personal discipline of study, prayer, fasting, silence and reflection can be short circuited by just following the direction of a leader. That is part of the seduction of the Western church. “Don’t discern. Just follow what I/we say”.

    But that is changing.

    And the original formula has never changed.

    We are called to serve not be served.

    We are called to joy not happiness.

    We are called to forgive if we expect forgiveness.

    We are called to sit on the back row not the front.

    We are expected to live knowing eternity is real.

    We are not islands.

    We should expect persecution, suffering and pain.

    Extraordinary suffering does not always mean extreme sin…sometimes it reflects God’s making new facets in a diamond.

    Pressure becomes power.

    God loves His church and she will be framed and molded into exactly what grand design has always been there.

    Our choice is to be part of that or part of a band of pretenders.

    We are all prone to wander.

  • Seth,

    It seems social science has infiltrated institutional church settings and, as a result, many churches have turned to a “social gospel.” Not that there is anything wrong with meeting the needs of society. The issue is that, in many instances, the social programming of our churches becomes the end rather than the means to an end. We can justify falling short of the Mandate of our king by saying we did something positive to impact our community. Jesus said emphatically, “Make disciples.” Apparently, true discipleship is King Jesus’ remedy for social ills. I love the way you framed this topic in social science speak.

    As cliche as it may sound; Jesus truly is the answer.

    Thanks for what you do, Seth, and for facilitating networks around the globe. God richly bless you as you obey His vision.


  • I just finished writing some of my own thoughts on “going to church” vs. “being the church”. I think as disciples we are called to be the church, and yes, we may be persecuted; perhaps too often by other Christians…

    And yes, I have been hurt by religious people. Legalism to an extreme that truly did elicit a response from me just like what you said, “If this is God, then I want nothing to do with Him.” I am just thankful that despite that reaction, God continued to woo me and I met Jesus. And how far off my idea of who Jesus was from who he truly is.

  • Must say I am in agreement with Butch’s post above. Great nuggets of truth therein. And on its heels, Joe Martinez makes an interesting observation as well. One thing that occurs to me in reconciling Jesus’ teaching to “make disciples” and the socialization of the church are the words of James 2:15-17

    “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

    Clearly there is a responsibility to meet the physical, practical needs of people. Balance is important but arguably meeting social needs MORE important depending on severity and circumstances.


    Great thought-provoking post Seth. Thank you.

  • It’s the fine line between the liberation gospel of only meeting physical needs, and the crazies who are so focused on preaching that they forget hungry people don’t listen…
    Because if this is God, then I want EVERYTHING to do with Him. 🙂

    Ahhh I’m exciteddd!

  • This is a very truthful article , well spot on!, i have been experiencing this situation in the religious sect i belong to , there is a lot of spiritual manipulation going on, in my life, reconigtion,positions and personal intrest rules the sect,and i have been there since 1968, i recieved my calling in 1983, but realised in 1987, that my truest calling is Apostolic, i belong to the apostolic ministry, i am still battling with so much life complications.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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