CAN YOU TAKE RELIGION TOO FAR?

QUESTION:

I have a relative who is extremely Christian. They once told me that an article of clothing I wore was demon possessed. They also once claimed I was demon possessed myself and forcibly tried praying over me. This really altered my view on Christianity. It caused me to resent and rebel from God and the church once I could do so. I know this person means well, but I think they take the religion thing too far and it’s damaged relationship. Is there a thing about taking religion too far?

ANSWER:

Lots of people have been turned away from Jesus by people who claim to follow Jesus, for three reasons:

Sometimes, this is because the Christian is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” – insincere and fraudulent.

Other times it’s because they are sincerely trying to follow Jesus but they’re ignorant or immature. I’m guessing your relative is in this camp. If you’ve been soured by a person like this, it’s important to remember that Jesus doesn’t bar the door on anyone coming to him. He takes everyone. So, if you’ve been beat up by life, had a poor childhood, been abandoned, or were formed by bad influences and as a result have lousy coping or conflict resolution skills, or terrible discernment, you can become a Christian. That’s the beauty and the point of Christianity, in fact. “I have not come for the well, but for the sick”, Jesus said. While turning to Jesus DOES give us new power to live lives of love, it does NOT immediately remove all our prior impediments to such a life. It takes time to dispel ignorance and immaturity, but it’s a phase all Christians go through. (1 Peter 2:2)

A third reason is from those who are faithfully following Jesus, and they are neither immature nor ignorant. But their authentic faith turns someone off because that person’s worldview is so opposite of a Christian one. So, the Christian is actually mature, but their values literally repulse the investigator because they are operating from a completely different attitude toward God/religion/morals. The Apostle Paul noted that depending on a person’s posture,

“…to some people we are a deadly fragrance, while to others we are a life-giving fragrance.” (2 Cor 2:16)

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING?

In the case of your relative, I’m assuming they are in the immature or ignorant camp. And it’s important to remember that immaturity or ignorance can often present as maturity and knowledge. If they come across as “super spiritual”, they give outsiders the idea that this is Christianity in its most potent form. But often the opposite is true. It is the mature that recognize how far they have to go, and often the immature who think they have it all together – suggesting that this version of Christianity is the truest, when it’s really not.

Given that fact, my answer to your main question may surprise you. The way you framed the question was: “can someone take religion too far?” If by “religion” we mean “having a true and growing relationship with the Living God” then the answer to your question is “no, you can’t take religion too far.” Can you ever have too much of a true and growing relationship with the living God? Assuming Christianity is true, you can never have too much of that. It’s like saying, someone can be too good looking!

IMMATURITY IS MISSING BALANCE

Here’s the thing: when we say “too much” and apply it to anything that on the surface is obviously good (like being a Christian), we imply that the good thing is missing a balancing counter measure of some kind. Which turns the good thing, bad. I think it was Socrates who said, “all virtue is one.” What he means is that we can take virtues apart and parse them with a bunch of descriptors, like love, self-discipline, truthfulness, kindness, honor etc. But really, they all weave together and must touch each other for each part to be fully realized. And if they don’t touch each other, in some way you lose them all.

LOVING TOO MUCH

Let me give you an example: when we say, “that mom was way too loving of her kids…” we can’t really mean that she loved too much because love is an inherent good. How can you possibly have too much love? It is only too much when it lacks some other balancing virtue. In this case, the mom who “loves too much” is too indulgent, or she gives her kids too much stuff, or she over protects.

We call this “love” because she thinks of her actions as loving, but of course we know that to over-provide or over-protect your children isn’t loving at all. What is missing? Things like discipline (“there will be consequences for doing that!”), or truth telling (“no sweetie, you can’t have that”) etc. I like to tell couples who I coach through conflict that truth without love isn’t really truthful, and love without truth isn’t really loving.

I’d assume your relative was loving you as best they could. But if they were trying to drive the evil out of you and taught you that hats or a picture could be demonically possessed, and then drove you to hate God because of that… then any good that they thought they were doing was lost because it wasn’t balanced with other Christian virtues.

NOT RELIGIOUS ENOUGH

Here’s a bible example: In 1 Peter 3:15 the apostle tells Christians to “be ready to give a reason or our hope.” So that’s a virtuous thing, to share the good news about God’s love with others. But then he follows this up with, “but do this with gentleness and respect.” So, let’s say you are putting “your religion” into practice, by giving reasons for faith to a friend. You might soon run into counter arguments or someone who is just uninterested or unkind to you.

In that case, if you keep on trying to give your reasons, you might start to argue or get defensive or even belligerent. You think you’re a doing good but all the good is lost because it’s not done with balancing virtues explicitly mentioned: “gentleness and respect.” Are you being “too religious” if you keep on arguing and getting combative or abusive? No! If by religious we mean, fully devoted to God, you are actually not being religious enough!

AN EXTREME CHRISTIAN

So, when this person tried to force an exorcism on you, was this taking religion too far? No. Judge by the verses from Peter, and the right answer is that they did not take their religion far enough!! Because if they had taken their Christianity “all the way” they would have practiced it ALL, not just part of it. This person clearly was very focused on spiritual protection and taking spiritual evil seriously. This is a valid Christian concern. But did they also apply every relational injunction from Scripture or every command about spiritual discernment or wisdom, or community, or non-coercion? I’m guessing they did not.

This makes them a “non-extreme” Christian, not an extreme Christian. A truly “extreme” Christian is an awesome Christian, one who is FULLY devoted, not devoted only on matters that they think are important, and usually for less than noble reasons, while deliberately, conveniently “forgetting” other matters of equal or greater importance.

ZEAL WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE

I had a relative who would profess to be a very mature and knowledgeable Christian. But she practiced shaming and guilting others regularly. And she had the most wooden, legalistic reading of the Bible you can imagine. Which meant that when she read the Bible faithfully but applied it wrongly – she was taking it LESS seriously, not MORE. You see? She thought if I have the most strict, legalistic reading then God will be happy because somehow that makes me SUPER devoted! But what if this zeal is misplaced because she’s ignorant or just plain immature? She was both those things.

Paul talks about his Jewish friends who rejected Jesus this way:

‘For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.’ Romans 10:2

It seems clear to me that your relative was zealous for God. But zeal not based on knowledge isn’t true religion. It’s false BY DEFINITION – because a lack of knowledge means a lack of truth. At the point they were forcing their faith on you, whatever justification they had from Christian principles were violating OTHER principles the Lord taught us. For example: when he told his disciples to “wipe the dust off their feet” when going about sharing good news, because if people don’t accept your message, you are NOT responsible for their choice.

COERCION JUNKS IT UP

When it comes to faith in Jesus, Christians get excited about others discovering the hope they’ve found. But when excitement turns to coercion, it always junks it up. Coercion reveals that either A) we are taking too much responsibility to do what only God can do, or B) we are projecting our control onto someone we love because of fear or guilt. Either situation reveals immaturity or ignorance and keeps us in the “zeal without knowledge” camp.

You can force a baptism, you can’t force a conversion. You can force an exorcism, you can’t force life change. You can shame a person for lack of devotion, you can’t force love for God. Christianity in its totality teaches us that clearly. So any Christian with too aggressive tactics is not “taking their religion too far” but not far enough.

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