There is a longing in the heart of each human being to know God, whether we are aware of it or not. Blaise Pascal, the famous French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher, has described this longing in this way, "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus." Different man-made religions are attempts that people have made in this direction without necessarily recognising that it was this longing that drove them. All of them suggest different ways for people to find God, depending on their concept of God, man, and the relationship between the two.
Consider the two most common religions in our country. Hinduism is such a wide collection of concepts - like a forest with trees of different shapes, sizes-that in an attempt to reconcile all of them together some people have come to an assumption that whatever any man thinks is right for him is indeed what is right for him! The Bhagavad Gita describes three paths for man, any of which can satisfy him, according to his individual tastes or preferences. These paths lead to moksha which refers to liberation from the endless cycle of life, death and reincarnation. Karma marga is based on doing good deeds, gnanamarga on acquiring knowledge, and bhakti marga on devotion and worship. Some people add raja yoga also to this list, describing a path of meditation and mind control leading to a state of nirvana which is the peace of mind that comes with moksha. The concept of god can be as a personal deity especially if one follows the mythologies or as an all pervading impersonal force which can be 'experienced' through various processes. Depending on the particular path people follow, they are obliged to follow several religious activities such as pujas, asceticism, rituals, different forms of 'self-denial' such as going without food, keeping silence, walking barefoot and cutting themselves, pilgrimage, meditation, attending discourses, feeding the poor, etc.
When it comes to Islam, things are simpler. Muslims need to have faith in Allah as the true god, and do good deeds. If the good deeds exceed the bad, they can go to heaven. But the Qur'an says that everyone would first spend some time in hell before they go to heaven, the only exception being for martyrs who give their life for Islam, who will enter heaven straightaway. Islamic religious obligations call for praying five times a day, celebrating different festivals, giving to the poor and going on a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. In addition, they usually take on customs related to dress, growing a beard, wearing a cap, etc.
Where do Christians stand when it comes to religious practices? If we want to address this, we would need to look at different groups of Christians, not on the basis of denominations but in relation to their experience of Christ. The term 'Christianity' spans people as different as atheists and disciples of Christ, with several gradations in between!
The term 'Christians' unfortunately includes even atheists and agnostics just because these happen to have been born in a 'Christian' family. This group of people may not participate in any Christian religious activities or may only keep their membership in the church for the social conveniences of weddings and funerals. Some of their less bold comrades who do not want to be identified according to their faith or lack of it may give an outward show of adherence to the religion by participating in some of the church activities and festivals such as New Year, Good Friday, Easter and Christmas. Those who know them personally may be surprised to see them around at these times, but they seem to consider their participation as a part of their religious or social obligations. Their life on other days, however, does not indicate any love for Christ or involvement with Him.
Then there are those who 'believe' in Jesus Christ as the Founder of Christianity and accept His teachings intellectually, and consider themselves as Christians. These people will show various levels of enthusiasm for participating in religious activities, and their attendance at the festivals is almost certain. They may also show up more or less regularly at Sunday services (though not so much at prayer meetings or Bible studies), and may participate in the choir, worship team and the more service-oriented or activity-intensive programmes. To a superficial observer, they may give the impression of genuine Christianity, but they are far from being real because their religion is only in their 'head' and external activities.
Finally, there are Christians who have come into a personal relationship with Christ, and these are the only ones who are eligible to use the name 'Christian'. But it is obvious that they too can be further divided into sub-groups. There are those who have been born again, but are still stunted in their development as children of God. They may have come to believe that since they have become children of God their ticket to heaven is guaranteed! They show more involvement in following up with the external expressions of religion than in the growth of their relationship with the Lord and their own transformation into His nature. They are active in church attendance, congregational singing, choir, worship team, Sunday school, youth/women's/men's programmes, carolling, decoration of houses and church buildings for festivals, etc. But they do not seem to be so interested in quiet times, prayer meetings, Bible studies, witnessing to others, deeper life programmes, etc. Activities and arrangements connected with the festivals seem to be more important to them than the spiritual meaning and personal relevance of these festivals.
Some others are growing Christians. For them, spiritual issues are important, and even while they are active in different programmes and festivities, they keep their focus on the spiritual meaning of what they participate in. When they participate in the festival activities they use such occasions to think about Jesus and to get closer to Him. They are eager to learn from the Lord and grow more, and they are also eager to tell others about Jesus. Many of them also make the effort to tell other Christians about the folly of merely keeping up the external appearances or activities and encourage them to come into a personal relationship with Christ.
Still another group of Christians focus so much on their relationship with the Lord that all their activities proceed from that. Their mind is on what is pleasing to the Lord, what would glorify Him the most, how they can proclaim Him to everyone around them, how to bless the others in His name in various practical ways, etc. They participate actively in the church, but their attention is not on the details of external arrangements as much as in the meaning and purpose of all that they do in the name of Christ. Some of these people shun celebration of any special days because they do not want the meaning behind these days to be obscured by the external celebrations and the worldliness that has crept into them (Col.2:16,17). A few people are put off by the fact that no one knows the exact day on which Jesus was born, and that Christmas and Easter have been adapted from pagan festivals. Others try to make these celebrations as meaningful as possible for themselves and the others so that Jesus can be glorified through them (Rom.14:5,6).
Occasions of the birth of Jesus, His death on the cross and His bodily resurrection on the third day have no real significance to a large number of people who are called Christians. For many of them Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are religious obligations they have to keep. For many others who know that these are significant events that have very special personal significance for them, it is still mixed more or less with fun, songs, food, decorations, new clothes, social giving, etc. But whether we celebrate them in special ways or not, the fact remains that these are events of utmost importance to all mankind. It is when we recognise that the Creator of this universe came down in the form of a man to live here and then die on the cross so that our sins may be forgiven, and that He demonstrated His divinity and victory over all sin by rising again from the dead that we understand the true meaning of these special days. And when we see ourselves personally and individually as people for whom He had to die, and the love of God which He has for us as individuals, we can respond by believing in Him and yielding ourselves to Him in love and gratitude. It is only then that these special days become meaningful to us.
Why is there so much disparity among all of us who are called 'Christians'? One major reason is that preachers and teachers have failed to proclaim the truth of becoming a Christian as a spiritual event and not as an adherence to a religion. As a result many Christians are 'religious' and comparatively few are 'spiritual', and there is also a mixture of the two.
The question we can ask ourselves is why we Christians do what we do as Christians. Is it because we feel obliged to do them since we are Christians, just like people of other religions follow their own practices? Do we attend church only during New Year, Good Friday, Easter and Christmas because we think we should keep our church membership alive or that we should do at least that much for our religion? Do we do good things because we want God to take notice of them and hopefully receive us into heaven because we have done them? Do we take part in celebrating special days because of all the fun and social interactions or because they specially remind us of what God means to us? Do we take part in church activities because they make us happy or because they are ways in which we can serve God?
Or, does the love of Christ for us and in us so compel us in our heart and mind that we love to do all things for Christ? "He died… so that they who live might … live… for Him who died and rose again on their behalf" (2Cor.5:15).