Listen to this devotional
Living by religious rules is a very tempting way to avoid facing the insecurities in our hearts.
But security is actually found in close relationships with God and other people.
These people honor me only with their words, for their hearts are so very distant from me.  They pretend to worship me, but their worship is nothing more than the empty traditions of men.”Matthew 15:8-9 TPT
In the verses above, Jesus quotes a passage of Old Testament scripture to describe the religious scholars of his day. God wanted their hearts, but they gave him lip service and empty traditions instead.
Some of Jesus’ strongest warnings in the Bible go to the most religious people around him. Why?
As a result of their intense focus on rule-following and perfect performance, they became arrogant, heartless, and self-consumed instead of compassionate, grateful, and connected to God.
For our purposes, we’ll define this behavior and performance-focused life as religiosity. Instead of having a relationship with God, the religious strive to perform perfectly, hide their sins and mistakes, and look down on anyone who doesn’t do what they do.
You may be wondering why anyone would choose a rule-following life over a close relationship with God. What we’ve experienced is that living by religious rules is a very tempting way to avoid facing the insecurities in our hearts.
Insecurity makes us wonder if we’re good enough, if we’ll be loved, and if we matter. These feelings can be uncomfortable and vulnerable, so instead of admitting them, we look for ways to make ourselves feel secure. Religiosity and rule-following can be a means to feel secure by performing perfectly and thus being accepted by people around us.
However, religiosity doesn’t actually bring security. It brings stress, frustration, and loneliness because we can never really be perfect and resist letting anyone know who we really are.
Security is created through talking and building truthful relationships with God and other people. This begins with spending time with God to become aware of our insecurities and his care.
In this study, we will examine five ways to stop trying to be a perfect Christian and instead find security in relationships with God and others. Finally, we provide a few tips on how you can learn from God to focus on building relationships.
Help people instead of avoiding them
Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. 11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”
12 When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” 13 Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”Matthew 9:10-13 NLT
The religiosity reflected in this passage shows the Pharisees looking for reasons to avoid people instead of helping people.
I first started attending church events as a college student. One weekend, someone I met at the church invited me to meet him for prayer time early on a Saturday morning at a park.
I accepted, but I was nervous. I was consumed with my performance and all I could think about was figuring out what to say to make him think I prayed all the time.
As we were walking through the park to go to the riverbank, we noticed a couple of people walking our way. I began to walk in a different direction to avoid them, but my friend walked right over to them to introduce himself, get to know them, and invite them to church. I stood at a distance thinking, “What is he doing? No way would I do that.”
Afterward, we continued on to pray. During his prayer, my friend prayed about so many people and their needs with a heart of sincere care. I realized listening to him that the only times I prayed were when I needed help for myself.
I was challenged by this truth, but it was also inspiring that God could help me change my heart to consider other people’s needs and learn how to help instead of avoiding or ignoring them.
One way we can stop trying to be a perfect Christian is by focusing more on caring for other people instead of trying to perform well ourselves.
Pause and reflect
- Who can you begin to pray for daily? How can you help take care of them today?
Ask for help instead of hiding your mistakes
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’
14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”Luke 18:9-14 NLT
The religiosity reflected in this passage is seen in the Pharisees looking to find security in appearing better than other people. The Pharisee doesn’t admit any sins or need for forgiveness and doesn’t ask for any help.
I struggle to this day with fears of being rejected in friendships. I can face insecurities daily because of being adopted and experiencing hardships when I was young. With being adopted, sometimes I am afraid that a friend or loved one will not want to be close if I make a mistake or do not agree with what they feel or think.
I feel pressure to rely on my behavior to be accepted. This anxiety creates a desire to avoid being close because inevitably I will make mistakes. Thankfully, God has taught me to rely on him and how much he wants to be close to me, but sometimes I forget.
I begin to think I need to look and behave perfectly to be accepted, and that is when I want to avoid seeing my sins and weaknesses. I no longer see my need for God. Avoiding the truth about myself and my need for God leads to being prideful, and that hurts God and others.
God is always merciful when he leads me back to see my sins. He shows me how much he wants to both forgive me and help me be humble in receiving his help to change.
Being humble with God helps me feel secure with him, and the same is true in my friendships. When I’m humble and real, I don’t need to compare myself to or criticize others.
Instead, I can be close friends with other people as we help each other with our relationship with God.
Pause and reflect
- What are sins or struggles for which you need to ask God for forgiveness?
- Who can you ask for help to resist those temptations?
Choose compassion instead of self-consumption
“By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him.Luke 10:31-34 NLT
In this passage, we see the most religious people in the story — a priest and a Temple assistant — avoiding giving help or caring for anyone else but themselves.
Why did they ignore this man in need? We don’t know, but we do know that the Samaritan helped the man because he felt compassion. Compassion seems to be missing from both the priest and the Temple assistant.
I can remember a time earlier in my life when I was on the outs with a close friend. The situation was causing me a lot of inner turmoil, and I wanted nothing more than to ignore what was I was feeling about our fallout.
Lucky for me I had another friend who could tell something was up. He came by my place one evening and suggested we pray together to work through my issues in the relationship.
He had compassion on me at that moment, and to this day it’s a standout example to me of what it looks like to be a real friend.
It inspired me to look for others in need myself and to ask how I could help. And even if I could not help them, I could point them to God and encourage them to trust in him strengthening and comforting them.
Pause and reflect
- Who do you think are people in your life who need you to serve them and care for their needs?
Share your heart instead of going through the motions
“Great sorrow awaits you religious scholars and Pharisees—frauds and imposters! You are like one who will only wipe clean the outside of a cup or bowl, leaving the inside filthy. You are foolish to ignore the greed and self-indulgence that live like germs within you.
26 You are blind and deaf to your evil. Shouldn’t the one who cleans the outside also be concerned with cleaning the inside? You need to have more than clean dishes; you need clean hearts!Matthew 23:25-26 TPT
In this passage Jesus challenges the religious scholars for always looking to behave correctly while ignoring the sins in their hearts. He compares their actions to cleaning only the outside of a cup, while leaving the inside filthy.
We can do the same thing by going through the right motions so we look like a ‘perfect Christian’ on the outside, while sins like greed and self-indulgence run rampant on the inside.
A few years ago, some friends and I were helping someone study the Bible to get to know God. The other guys had spent a lot of time building their friendship with him. I did not, but would just be there for the Bible studies to share information.
I was behaving correctly on the outside by showing up to the Bible studies, but I was selfish on the inside. I didn’t want to make the emotional or spiritual effort to share my heart with him, so it was easier for me to just go through the motions.
One day he shared how much he loved the other guys in the Bible study group and felt their care for him. But in relation to me, he just shared, “I appreciate him.”
The guys helped me see that I was holding back my heart from him, and that it was hurting the relationship. I apologized to him for giving in to selfishness and fear and withholding my heart to build a friendship. He quickly forgave me and expressed, “Let’s build this friendship together.”
Pause and reflect
- Do you tend to evaluate yourself more on your outward behavior or on the condition of your heart? Why?
Relax the rules and see what God is doing
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all.
12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?
16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her? 17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.Luke 13:10-17 NIV
In this passage, Jesus tells a story of a religious leader who wanted everyone to stick to the rules more than he wanted a woman to be healed.
When Jesus saw this woman, he noticed her pain and wanted her to be set free. When the religious leader saw the woman, he seemed to see her as a nuisance. She was breaking his rules, and he felt indignant instead of compassionate.
Jesus points out the hypocrisy of these rules in verses 15-16, reminding the leader that the Sabbath rules shouldn’t stop people from taking care of others.
Though our circumstances are different, it’s easy to relate to the religious leader. Following rules is certainly easier emotionally than caring for someone who’s hurting, feeling their pain, and freeing them from it.
I can bring this same heart into relationships. Instead of feeling and embracing my own emotions as well as wanting to listen to other people’s feelings, I work to contain them by not going past certain limits in my conversations when things become “uncomfortable.”
For example, I will only answer vulnerable questions with “yes” or “no” answers rather than expressing my feelings behind the answers. I also typically only want to ask friends about their physical needs, so I can feel like I’m taking care of them, while not wanting to find out about their emotional or spiritual needs that I fear I may not be able to meet.
Read more: 4 Unexpected Benefits of Being Vulnerable
Finally, I can find myself avoiding conversations that I do not want to have or shutting down emotionally when I don’t like the things I’m hearing from my wife, kids, or friends.
All of this I recognize as me working to manage conversations rather than letting go of control. Relaxing control and seeing where God takes a conversation means I have to be loving and courageous enough to let God navigate into territory that may be uncomfortable.
But at the same time, this is where we can find the most rewarding depth and truth in relationships.
Pause and reflect
- Do you try to control or contain other people’s emotions?
- How can you begin to pray and trust God to help others grow?
Here are a few tips on how to take action after this study.
- Identify which aspects of being religious are prominent in your life.
- Reflect on how God can help you change this to care for others the way he does.
- Pray about resisting the religious rules and behaviors that keep you from building close friendships with him and others.
- Initiate with a friend and share what you are learning.
- Study the books of 1 & 2 Thessalonians to gain insight on how to overcome insecurity.