THE BUSINESS OF RELIGION
Written by Doug Ponder on January 27, 2013
Imagine standing in an crowded arena surrounded by nearly 25,000 people. You can barely hear yourself think over the deafening roar of the crowd. For two hours they chant in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (That doesn’t flow as well as “We will, we will, rock you,” but they didn’t seem to care.) This was no sporting event, of course. It was a mob, a group of people whipped into a fanatical frenzy by two topics that always seem to generate anger and zeal: money and religion.
You see, the apostle Paul’s preaching was beginning to take effect. Hundreds and hundreds of the Ephesians had been cut to the quick by his message about their Redeeming Creator, the powerful God who uses his authority to judge evil and to heal the broken (cf. Acts 19:1-20). In response they had voluntarily burned their books of false religion, publicly repenting of their old way of life as they committed themselves to the Lord (19:18-19). Someone calculated the value of the books they burned and estimated that they were worth around “fifty thousand drachmas,” an amount that represented the wages of 50,000 work days (which is more than 160 years of working 6 days a week for 52 weeks every year!).
The Business of Religion
Naturally, the people’s repentance had implications for the future, too. Whoever had sold them those religious books—not to mention whatever idols, statues, and trinkets they might have sold—were going to lose a lot of business from this point on. That’s basically why the whole mob started. Some guy named “Demetrius the Silversmith” got ticked off because he realized that conversion to Jesus meant less money for him. (He sold silver statues of the goddess Artemis.)
Of course, it’s not easy to convince a crowd of people to support your own personal monetary plight. So, Demetrius reminded them that they had just lost some of their customers, too (Acts 19:25). For them, Paul’s message seemed like a rival business venture, transferring patrons from one religion to another. That’s isn’t right, of course. But they couldn’t see straight because money was all their religion meant to them. When they began to chant, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” don’t’ think for a second that their real concern was the honor and fame of their goddess. They wanted Artemis to remain great so that traveling worshipers would stay in Ephesus to fund their religious businesses.
False Religions and Empty Worship Today
It’s tempting for us to read passages like this and think, “Whew! I’m glad we don’t have religions like that in our own time.” But we’re foolish to say such things. We think this way because we primarily think of religion as a set of beliefs, instead of understanding it as a way of life, complete with its own system of promises, rules, and rewards. Some of our modern “religions” are not usually viewed as religions at all. For example, our society worships sex, but we don’t think of it as worship. We would never say, “I worship the sex god.” But that’s exactly what we do. It is the most frequent subject of almost every TV show, movie, song, and advertisement. It is a controlling thought on many people’s minds—What will my first sexual encounter be like? When will I have sex again? I wonder if I can get her to have sex with me?—and so on. People sacrifice their paychecks and their purity on the altar of sex, hoping that a few passing moments of pleasure can fill the void in their otherwise vacuous life. You see, to make sacrifices for something, to be willing to do anything to have more of something, to think constantly about something, and to live for something in every way is to worship the object of your desire.
For other people it’s not sex. It may be the desire to be seen as popular, hip, successful, or influential. Many people fawn over how many followers they have on Twitter, how many likes they get on Facebook, or how many times someone comments on pictures of their dinner on Instagram. There are feelings of happiness and contentment when someone’s actions seem to inflate our egos, or to show us how envious they are. But these feelings are fleeting, for there are also feelings of disappointment and discouragement whenever we see someone else who seems to be living a more enjoyable life than we do. This is worship. We are worshiping the thought of having more approval, more acceptance, and more affirmation because, way, way down, we secretly wonder if we’re really all that important in life.
Others of us worship comfort in its many forms. Perhaps we linger too long around the cookie plate, or we take too many trips to the buffet line, or we don’t even blink at how many fast food meals we eat throughout the week. We worship comfort, and food gives it to us (but only for a moment). Some worship comfort through sleep and relaxation. We demand a certain number of hours of sleep each night and always sleep in when there are responsibilities to be done. We live from vacation to vacation, believing that the next trip will find leave us feeling satisfied and peaceful. But it won’t. It can’t, not forever. Some of us worship comfort through entertainment, orienting all the furniture in our homes around the glowing boxes that deliver what we worship: endless hours of streaming video—whatever we want, anytime we want it. And statistics show that we want it a lot. We love entertainment because it brings us the comfort we worship.
Other common idols include sports, which muster angry and excitable crowds far larger than the mob of Ephesus. Many of these “fans” (which is short for “fanatics”) spend lots and lots of time memorizing facts, analyzing statistics, and researching roster changes to learn about “their team.” They spend paycheck after paycheck on tickets, TV packages, and sports gear or memorabilia, even decorating entire rooms in their homes in honor of their favorite team. This is worship.
The list of false gods, or idols, that we worship is virtually endless, but all of them have two things in common. First, they motivate us to live a certain way because of greed, guilt, or fear. That is how idols operate. They appeal to these things to get people to act. For example, suppose you are afraid that no one will like you unless you dress a certain way. Fear will motivate you to buy clothes to achieve the image you want to gain the approval you worship. Or suppose you believe that success will bring you fame and fortune. Then greed will motivate you to do whatever it takes to elevate yourself (even if this means bringing others down). Suppose, still, that you were worried, most of all, of being embarrassed or of disappointing someone. Perhaps guilt would drive you to be as good as you possibly could be, in the hopes of not feeling so bad about yourself in the end.
Jesus vs. Idols
The trouble is that none of our idols make good on what they promise. They offer freedom from fear, the absence of guilt, or the pleasures of greed, but in the end, you never get what you were after. You remain fearful that you haven’t done enough. You still feel guilty because you know that you’re not as good as you could be. And, in spite of all the pleasure you’ve had, your greed will never let you rest. Such is the business of religion. It enslaves, cripples, and kills.
But Jesus frees, strengthens, and brings life. And that’s no cliché. His came to fix our “worship problem,” not with another religion, but with his death for sin and his resurrection that gives us life. In Christ you are completely accepted by God, so there is no need to fear losing his approval. In Christ you are totally forgiven of sin, so there is no lingering guilt or condemnation. In Christ, there are pleasures forevermore, beginning now and coming to complete fruition in the New Heavens and the New Earth—a place without hurt or pain or sorrow or loss. Unlike greed, guilt, and fear, the good news about Jesus motivates people to follow him forever—not because of what we hope to get from him, wonderful though that is—but because of his surpassing excellence and unrivaled splendor. The thought of having Jesus means that if we have nothing else, we’ll make it. But we shoot for everything else, without Jesus, we’ll find ourselves stuck in the vicious rut of false religion’s empty promises and fleeting pleasures.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.