In his 2009 book “Have a Little Faith,” Mitch Albom says that “religion is built on ritual” (p. 25). I understand how he could think that. Growing up in a Jewish family, Mitch participated in endless rituals – lighting candles, chanting prayers and scriptures, observing the sabbath and other holy days.
But even in the pages of the Old Testament, it’s plain that ritual is not the essence of true religion. The prophet Micah writes: “[God] has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). What is the heart of true religion? It’s a life characterized by justice, love, kindness, humility, and obedience to God.
Jesus taught the same thing when he pointed the Pharisees to the words of Hosea: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’” (Matt. 9:13). The endless rituals of the Pharisees could never atone for their self-centeredness and contempt for “sinners.”
In the name of Christian religion, many people light candles, burn incense, count beads, wear robes, make pilgrimages, and kiss pictures of dead people. But Jesus never authorized or encouraged such behavior. In fact, a true Christian can be unwaveringly committed to God even in the absence of material things.
Paul proved that in prison. Some of his greatest letters were written with chained hands (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon). The imprisoned apostle couldn’t assemble with the church on the first day of the week. No doubt, even partaking of the Lord’s Supper was impossible sometimes. But the light of his faith never dimmed.
Ritual is not the cornerstone of true religion. Christian faith is built on Christ. Faith in Jesus is believing his deity claims, trusting in his righteousness, obeying his teachings, following his personal example, submitting to his will, and loving him more than life itself.