This isn't exactly the best time of year to bring this up, but religion can be oppressive, can't it?

I'm not talking about other religions—Islam, Hinduism, and so forth. They look as oppressive as the next religion to me, but I don't live in them, so I can't really speak to them. I do live inside the Christian religion, and it indeed can be oppressive.

I know it's Christmas! It's one season when our religion feels anything but oppressive, with all the lovely services and general cheerfulness. But as I'll soon note, there are gremlins afoot who are trying to sabotage even this most splendid time of year.

Our religion becomes oppressive when we are not sure what to do with God. He can be so aggravatingly vague. We're told by Jesus that we're supposed to love God. Well, what does that mean? How can you love a God whom you cannot see or touch, and whose voice is so hard to hear most days? So to make our religion manageable, many have decided that to love God means to obey his commandments. That's a lot clearer, since those commandments are in black and white. There's a measure of truth in this. But the funny thing is that if Jesus were really interested in our subservience, I think he would have just said that the greatest commandment is to obey God. But he didn't say that. He said the greatest thing we can do with our lives is to love God.

Another example: the apostle Paul reminds us time and again that we are in Christ. Jesus himself said we are to abide in him. Again, we're often puzzled by what that means. So again, we take refuge in something that makes sense to us: we assume that being in Christ must mean obeying Jesus' ethic or following Jesus' example. But another funny thing is this: Paul and Jesus did not merely tell us to obey Jesus and follow him, but to live in him and abide in him.

But we like practical religion, religion that makes a difference in the world, religion that is less about mystery and more about mastery, a religion that helps us feel good about what we're doing with our lives. That's one reason we're impatient with preachers who wax eloquent about the love of God but then don't "apply" the sermon "to our lives," —that is, they don't tell us what to do. There is something noble in this desire—better this than yawning at the end of your preacher's mighty efforts! And we simply cannot pretend that the Book of James doesn't exist—indeed, faith without works is dead.

But it is just as true that works without love is oppressive. And our fear of not-doing suggests that for many of us, doing has become an addiction.

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The most telling sign of our addiction to doing is what's going on in your head right now. But what about all those commands in Scripture, commands to love, to pray, to give, to serve, to do? We addicts—and yes, I'm one of them—get nervous when someone suggests that doing may not be all its cracked up to be. It's like someone telling an alcoholic that she really doesn't need another shot of Jack Daniels. And we get especially nervous when someone starts saying that the heart of our religion is not responsibility but relationship.

Religion becomes oppressive when it is mostly about doing, doing, doing. Whether it is doing good for God, doing good for others, or doing good in the world; in the end, it all amounts to the same thing. Doing is the major chord and the minor chord, the first and last verse—and the refrain that repeats itself like an endless and vapid praise song.

Ah, but Christmas! Here we have a season that is decidedly not oppressive. Its major theme is not what we do but what God has done; it's not about our journey to heaven, but about heaven coming to earth; it's not building an award-winning church or ministry, but welcoming an infant lowly into our midst—having a baby shower!

In the large scheme of things, baby showers don't sound very important, do they? Which is why religious leaders are not much interested in the inglorious side of Christmas. They mostly see it as a season they can exploit for their ministries. For some it is a great evangelistic season—time to grow the church! For others it's the time to pull more donations out of people—time to grow the budget! It's pretty hard to resist manipulating the season for our ministry ends given all the people who will show up at services. It's pretty hard to let the season be what it is—a simple, magical affirmation of God's extraordinary love for us, and teaching people how to enjoy that.

Religious leaders didn't get to where they are—at the head of impressive ministries and institutions—by prostrating on their knees, basking in the wonder and miracle of God, but by getting things done, balancing budgets, building buildings and programs to make them worth building. So this season, watch your pocketbook, because there will be pleas for last minute donations "to specially mark the season of giving." Watch your Daytimers, because there will be requests to "get more involved in the church this coming year." Watch your spiritual back, because many of our spiritual leaders will not.

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I know of what I speak. I was a religious leader once, a pastor of a church. I know the temptation to reduce the gracious dynamics of divine love to mere religious activity, and to equate an abundant Christian life with the busyness that occurs in the church's building, programs, and ministry.

We sabotage our faith—and make our faith a dreary, oppressive enterprise—if we forget that through Jesus we now have a relationship with the Father, with Jesus as our Elder Brother. And that when Jesus calls us to love God he means first and foremost to bask in that love just as we would happily lie in the arms of our beloved. And that to abide in Christ really means to rest in his presence, like sitting in the glow of a warm fire on a winter night.

Addicted doers worry mightily that this will lead to indolence, to a religion in which people sit around pining after spiritual highs. I don't know. I've never known an emotionally healthy couple, madly in love, whose relationship did not give them more zest than ever to do, to give, and to serve others—and with a joy that can be described as merry. And it all begins with love.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker) and Beyond Bells & Smells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy (Paraclete).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous SoulWork columns include:

Waiting for Jesus to Show Up | Moving from loving the idea of loving God to loving God. (December 10, 2009)
The Impossibility of Thanksgiving | Why gratefulness is more gift than duty. (November 25, 2009)
Yawning at the Word | It's really hard to listen to God when there are really interesting things to think about. (November 5, 2009)

Christianity Today has more articles on Christmas.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: