Choiceless Religion

Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.

C. S. Lewis

There's this really troubling scene in Luke 9 when Jesus approaches someone on the road and says, "Follow me." Instead of being like Simon and Andrew who dropped everything to follow Jesus, this person instead replies, "Master, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus' response is chilling:

"Let the dead bury their own dead."

This seems unrealistic at best, cruel at worst. Here is a man who apparently had just lost his father, and instead of a patient reaction from Jesus, he instead receives a dismissive response, lacking any semblance empathy.

However, the truth is much better - and much more challenging - than that.

We need to recognize a couple things about this man that Jesus meets. Firstly, if the man's father had actually just passed away, it's immensely unlikely that he would have been out on the roadside with Jesus in the first place (Luke 9:57). Rather we would expect him to be following Jewish custom, keeping the week-long vigil with the body of his father and preparing for the funeral.

Secondly, in yet another case of having to read Scripture as foreigners looking back into another time and culture, the idiom "bury my father" was actually the standard idiom used to refer to taking care of one's parents in their old age.

So, on the one hand, no, Jesus is not rudely dismissing a son's fresh grief.

On the other hand, this duty to "bury one's father," to take care of your parents through their old age and eventual death, was one of the highest responsibilities of a Jew, as it stands in many cultures. What the man was requesting from Jesus was not just one day more of funeral preparation, but instead a multi-year delay in his discipleship with Jesus in order to fulfill his cultural and filial responsibilities.

Therefore Jesus' response, properly understood, ends up being even more shocking. No self-respecting rabbi would be so cavalier with family responsibility and fulfilling the fifth commandment. Yet here is Jesus saying, "Follow me. Put following me above everything, above honoring your family, your parents, your culture's expectations. Follow me first."

When Jesus says "Follow me," it puts us in a situation where we are forced to make a decision. Will we follow Jesus or will we continue doing the same things we've done, in the same ways we've always done them? Will we follow Jesus or will we go on in the same habits and patterns that we always have?


One giant indicator that perhaps we aren't actually following Jesus is if our Jesus never asks us to make any decisions, choices, or sacrifices. If our faith never demands us to start or stop anything, to never give up or to never take on anything, then perhaps we have fallen for a choiceless religion.

Choiceless religion is when we voice our affirmation to certain aspects of a faith system, but do not allow those affirmations to actually change our behavior, character, or values.

It's choice-less because this particular flavor of religion is polite enough that it doesn't make us choose between itself and the way that we naturally desire to live and behave. Nothing in our schedule needs cut; nothing about behavior bothers us; nothing about our values needs to be affected. Choiceless religion is crazy convenient because we can just lay it on top of whatever life we had before and it always seems to fit right in.

Unfortunately, choiceless religion is also deadly. It fools its adherents into believing that they have the real thing, when all they really have is a poisonous knock-off. We can go to church occasionally, get our spiritual kicks, and then go home thinking that we're encountered the living God. Suspiciously, this God hasn't challenged us in a while, hasn't pushed back on our assumptions, or asked us to do anything all that uncomfortable. But perhaps we've just made it to a part of our lives when that doesn't really happen anymore. Oh well.

When we look at how Jesus discipled others, though, we see that choiceless religion wasn't really, well, a choice! The invitation to "Follow me" by definition meant leaving a familiar life behind. The call to "take up your cross" is going to include discomfort and pain. The command to "Go and make disciples in all the earth" is going to include leaving our subdivisions, our private schools, our safe-side-of-tracks, and thus rubbing elbows with those who make us uneasy.

Life with Jesus isn't like chess club or tennis. It's not an extracurricular that we add on top of our lives that are already replete with a certain way of doing things. Following Jesus isn't a hobby, something we make time for, or squeeze in. It is everything.

Following Jesus isn't an accessory to our life, a neat option for the base package. Rather following Jesus is the filter through which everything in our life goes. Some - much! - will be filtered out. Some will be able to stay, but it will have to be purified.

Christ says 'Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked -- the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.'

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC