My hatred of religion recently got support from an unexpected source: The Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Elish). I find it amazing that in this ancient story of the origin of the gods and man, religion is seen as a burden to man rather than a blessing. In the epic, the god Marduk announces that he will create humans and that “They shall bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.” Humans are then created from the blood of Tiamat who is killed by the other gods. We are then told again, “They imposed the burden of the gods on them!”
From the beginning of time, religion has been a burden and has been at war with genuine relationship with God. Religion is best understood as humankind’s efforts to reach, please, and somehow move God or the gods for our benefit. Religion involves a priesthood, religious hierarchy, temples, money, rituals, and rules. It’s a burden. It is man-made.
The prophet Isaiah captures the heart of the difference between religion and relationship in chapter 46. He says of the people’s idols, “Bel is bowed down, Nebo stoops over; Their images are consigned to the beasts and cattle. The things that you carry are burdensome, A load for a weary beast” (v.1). God then addresses Israel:
Listen to Me, O house of Jacob and all the remnant of Israel,
You who have been borne by Me from Israel,
And have been carried from the womb;
You have been borne by Me from Israel,
Even in your old age, I shall be the same,
I have done it, and shall carry you,
And even to your graying years I shall bear you!
And I shall deliver you. (v. 3–4 NASB)
A few verses later Isaiah mocks the absurdity of worshipping idols that we make and “Then lift upon the shoulder and carry” (v. 7). The difference between religion and relationship is the difference between a God who carries you and a god you carry. Of course, it is scary to trust God to carry you. Israel was always trying to wriggle out of God’s arms and back into religion.
In Egypt the Israelites had plenty of opportunities to see just how heavy a burden the gods could be. Egypt had over a thousand gods or names for gods. There was a well-established priesthood with an economic interest in making the burden of the gods even heavier for the average person. Pharaoh’s were worshipped as sons of gods and memorialized by elaborate tombs and pyramids. Up to a point, the magicians and priests of Egypt were even able to match the miracles God did through Moses. As religions go, the Egyptians had an impressive one. As slaves in Egypt, Israel literally carried the burden of the gods.
In contrast is the God of Israel who relentlessly seeks a relationship of trust and faith with Israel. Moses describes a God very different from those of Egypt:
The Lord your God who goes before you will Himself fight on your behalf,
Just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes,
And in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you,
Just as a man carries his son, in all the ways which you have walked,
Until you came to this place (Deut. 1:31)
The idea of a God who comes to us, fights for us, and carries us is the opposite of the heavy burden of religion and the gods.
In the gospels, we often see a showdown between relationship with God and religion. Jesus challenges the spirit of religion when he enters a synagogue. Like hawks ready to pounce, the Pharisees wait to see whether he dare heal a man on the sabbath. They had already caught Jesus’ disciples rubbing some grain in their hands and eating it on the Sabbath. He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In the synagogue Jesus looks at the Pharisees angrily, and then defiantly heals a man’s withered hand. The Pharisees’ response is to conspire with the Herodians on how to destroy Jesus. The spirit of religion is murderous when threatened.
Before we get too busy congratulating ourselves in not being Pharisees, we must be honest about how easily Christianity can become just another religion—a burden of God instead of gods. Our organizations can become ends in themselves and our ministers a bureaucracy of priests. Scoldings from the pulpit can replace the good news of a God who seeks us, loves us, and desires a relationship with us. If we do good works to get blessed instead of doing good because we are blessed, we are carrying the burden of the gods.
Many believers have drifted from the church because they carry the burden of God and have traded religion for relationship and works for grace. Many have been burnt out and worn out by religion. Too easily we forget that on cross the Jesus took on himself the burden of our sin. Jesus invites us to rest in the salvation and freedom that His grace has given.
We must forever remember the invitation of Jesus, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my burden is easy and My load is light.” If our burden is crushing and load too heavy, maybe we are carrying the burden of the gods rather than burden Jesus gives: to love and be loved.