The Most Tragic Type of Fig Leaf

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Throughout these 40 days, I’ve been drawing our attention to various fig leaves we like to wear, as well as the ways these fig leaves manifest themselves as “false selves.” For instance, take a look at Days 17 (link), 23 (link) and 34 (link).

Today, on the high and holy day we call Good Friday, I want to draw our attention to the most insidious version of the false self, one generated by the dawning of fig leaves that make us look particularly pious, devout, and faithful.

We might call this version of ourselves the religious false self.

Robert Mulholland provides a great description of this self: “Our religious false self may be rigorous in religiosity, devoted in discipleship, and sacrificial in service—without being in loving union with God.”  (The Deeper Journey, p. 47)

In other words, we can participate in a lot of religious activity—including 40 days of devotions and Good Friday Tenebrae services—without being in loving union with God, which is a tragedy.

For a picture of what this looks like, you can read the Gospel narratives about the Pharisees or you can listen to the testimony of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3 (link).

It hits much closer to home, however, when we think about how it shows up in our own lives. Sometimes, we carry a very subtle assumption that if we are involved in church activities, then everything is fine in our relationship with God. However, that’s not always the case. It’s so easy to project an image of faith instead of having our behaviors arise from our faith. While this sort of religious façade can, for a short time, be the envy of some of our neighbors, it is ultimately damaging—both for ourselves and for those around us.

Mulholland provides this penetrating turn of phrase to describe those who are caught up in the religious false self: “They are so busy being in the world for God that they fail to be in God for the world.” There is a vast difference between those two ways of being. We need God’s pruning power if we’re caught up in the former.

As we come to the end of this Lenten devotional, it is my prayer that we did not merely participate in religious activity and in the process, discover new fig leaves to utilize.

Rather, it is my hope that lifeless branches were removed so that we can focus more distinctly on abiding in Christ, on loving union with God.   


TODAY’s PRAYER: Triune God, I do not merely want to participate in church activities. Prune away pious religiosity and replace it with loving union with you. I want to abide in you and experience ever-growing intimacy with you. I love you.

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