You know what the most common theological problem among Christians is? It’s that, without realizing it, we all tend to twist our religion into something about us, that despite its trappings has very little to do with our lord and savior Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
We are slaves to sin. This is not something we want to admit to anyone, least of all ourselves. We want to believe that we are fundamentally in control of our own lives and our own destinies. We want to believe that we can get into heaven on our own merit. This is “up religion” because We want to believe we can climb up to heaven by ourselves. Even if we can’t control everything, we want to control what we can–there’s an old slogan, “Do your best and let God do the rest.” In other words, most of it rests on us–God just fills in the gaps between what we can do and what we can’t. To make ourselves feel better about our failures, we look around us for people who fail more often than we do, so that we can say “Well, at least I’m better than them.” It leads to works righteousness, the belief that we can create a right relationship with God and with the world around us (be righteous) by doing good works to make up for any sin we might do. It also leads us to turn our focus into our self, a kind of theological navel-gazing. It’s about what we want, not about what God wants.
The problem with “up religion” is that however much we might like the idea, it doesn’t fit what we know of God. God’s deepest and most fundamental relationship with humanity is through Christ Jesus–who did not stay up in heaven and invite us up, but came down to meet us and promised to be with us always down here on Earth in our daily life. Christ Jesus became an ordinary human, and he took our sins on himself through crucifixion–the messiest, most painful, most shameful death imaginable to the time and place he lived. We are sinners and we can’t do enough good to balance out our sin, but God loves us anyway. We cannot climb up to heaven–and if we do, all we will find is a distorted mirror of our own desires, a god made in our image. Instead, God comes down to us and claims us as we are. We cannot go out to find God, but God does come to find us. We can shut God out of our lives, but we cannot bring him in by our own efforts.
So how do we keep from slipping into an “up” religion? First, be aware of the difference. When you think about anything related to God or religion, ask yourself if you’re thinking about it in an “up” way or a “down” way. Is it about you, or is it about God? Are you leaving space for God to work in you and in your life? Do you accept the fact that you are not the one in control of your life? You won’t be perfectly open to this all the time; all have sinned, remember, and “up” religion is one of the most natural heresies to slip into. But that’s okay. God loves you anyway.