My daughter visited a new church with a friend a while back. For as long as she could remember, she had only worshiped in a spirit-filled environment. She came home in shock. “Mom! You wouldn’t believe the service. No one smiled or looked up from their song books. Not a single person lifted their hands.” She was honestly baffled by an apparent lack of joy in the worship there. As she continued to express her confusion, we went through a debriefing process. My daughter had, for the first time, just seen the work of a religious spirit. Her friend's family truly loved the Lord, but rejected anything outside of decades of tradition. My daughter missed feeling God's presence, and the lack of joy in the sanctuary grieved her. She wanted this for her friend's family, too.
The religious spirit steals unabashedly from us by attempting to keep us living very structured, controlled and colorless lives. This spirit focuses on outward things that it claims demonstrate our approval by God. It rejects grace and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Because its emphasis is on appearance and performance, people subject to its influence may exhibit pride, criticism, intolerance, judgment, self-righteousness, legalism and/or self-importance.
Luke 18:9-13 tells of Jesus’ interaction with this religious spirit;
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”
It's interesting to notice that the Pharisee was critically honed in on the tax collector’s sin. He was, however, self-congratulating about his self-perceived righteousness. It did not occur to him that he was a sinner, too, in a different way. This is why the religious spirit is particularly insidious; people who are influenced by it are impressed when they see it in themselves or others! They even encourage and sometimes applaud it in themselves and other people. Religious spirits attract religious spirits. The clincher, however, is that no one can ever do enough to please and satisfy this spirit.
This is why the religious spirit is particularly insidious; people who are influenced by it are impressed when they see it in themselves or others!
Over and over again, as a child, he heard his mother say to him, “I don’t care what you feel inside. What’s important is that you behave and look tidy. You must never embarrass us.” He knew his memory verses by heart, but he had no relationship with Jesus. It's not a surprise that he struggled with rebellion as he grew older. He was not allowed to be his unique self as he grew up. His parents served the Lord with their lives but never understood that in some ways, they lived like Pharisees. They did not understand what they were missing.
Jesus was deeply concerned that we “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” (see Matthew 5:6) The religious spirit distorts this as hunger and thirst to appear righteous. There is rigor toward rules and regulations rather than a passion to be like, know and please our Lord. Emotion, in fact, can be seen as inferior to intellect. Or, in some charismatic churches, emotional demonstration can be seen as a requirement to validate that worship and spiritual experiences are “real.” Both extremes are signs of this spirit. Standards are set and should be attained.
Thinking outside of the defined “box” is frowned upon and criticized. Rules are inflexible. Conformity receives commendation.
A pressure to conform to established church standards and traditions is common where the religious spirit reigns. Tradition, as well as Scripture, takes a high place. Even if only the leadership is influenced by this spirit, the structure and expectations put in place for the church body can control and stifle the entire congregation. At times, the leadership expects their example to be followed as the ideal. This is religious pride, especially when the rules are not in Scripture. This is when thinking outside of the defined “box” is frowned upon and criticized. Rules are inflexible. Conformity receives commendation from these leaders. Jesus said of these rule makers; “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
Creativity is a threat to the religious spirit because it is evidence of freedom and is opposite of conformity and control. The first thing we learn about God is that He was the Creator; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1). Having created us in His image (see Genesis 1:27), we, too, are meant to be creative.
The religious spirit is critical when people think outside of their established standards. A good example would be the rejection of contemporary worship music. Newer lyrics are criticized as being “simple” and “emotional” and “inferior” to the classic hymns. Even though Psalm 96:1 says, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth,” these new songs are rejected. The joy of the Lord is not appreciated because it is not felt. It is suffocated by a spirit of striving that develops when expectations are unrealistic but are put in place, nonetheless.
This is the saddest state to be in; to know Scripture intricately but to reject the offer of knowing Jesus intimately.
In Matthew 23:23, the Greek word ouai (οὐαί) is used by Jesus. It is an expression of grief or public condemnation and is translated as “woe.” This verse says;
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”
If your freedom to worship, create, live joyfully and love extravagantly has been killed, stolen or destroyed by the religious spirit, the Lord desires to free you of its effects and influences. Some of us have never known anything different and have never been able to accept the vastness of God's grace. God wants that to change for you! He wants you to experience joy and freedom.
When God reveals something to us, it's because He wants to heal us of it. It's always helpful to pray with someone who understands spiritual warfare and deliverance. Whether you can do this or not, it's important to repent of agreeing with this spirit and to reject it. A ministry called Jubilee Resources has an article on the religious spirit and prayers of repentance and deliverance. God is faithful to direct us when we ask for His help. God bless you as you move forward to find the freedom to be the unique person that God has created you to be!