I live in Japan, home to a multitude of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some with a history stretching back over a thousand years. If the Apostle Paul were to visit, he would likely echo the judgment he expressed in Athens, that the citizens of this place must be “very religious” (Acts 17:22).
In this he would be mistaken. Although they participate in traditional religious practices that have been embedded in the culture, most Japanese profess no religious faith. Except at holidays and other special occasions, Japan’s shrines and temples are usually frequented more by tourists than by devotees. Yet very few Japanese would be willing to give up these religious sites, and the vital, if vague, link with the transcendent they represent.
Temples and shrines bear witness to the human desire to make contact with the divine, as our hearts are restless apart from the One who made us. On the other hand, perhaps they equally and ironically reflect a desire to contain the divine, as our hearts are rebellious and fearful of giving up control.
Think about it. Temples are very convenient for us. If God is in the temple, then we know where to find him when we need help. But once we leave the temple, he remains behind while we are free to go on our way and do as we please.
Since the temple belongs to God, when I go there, I play by his rules. I take off my shoes, or bow, or kneel, or do whatever protocol requires. I show proper respect, because after all, the temple is God’s territory.
But once I get home, that’s another story. My house belongs to me, and there I am in charge. My life belongs to me, and I am the boss. If I need help from God, I’ll let him know. Otherwise, he can stay in the temple where he belongs.
In a sense, a temple can serve as a kind of cage for God. In the temple, God is safely locked away, no longer at large where he might catch us by surprise.
Of course, we Christians understand that “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24). Yet we all too easily fall into the “temple” mindset, assigning God His place in the religious sector of our lives while claiming the rest as our own. We’ll give God one day a week and a tenth of our income, but as for the rest of our time and money, well, we would rather God mind His own business, and leave our stuff alone.
But of course none of it is really our stuff. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). Even my life does not really belong to me. God has a claim of ownership on my life, for he created me and gave me breath. Though I once rejected His authority and sold myself as a slave to sin, Jesus died to bring me back to God. He paid the price to purchase my life for himself. And that includes all of my life, not just the bits and pieces I patronizingly offer to Him.
There is no locking this God up in a temple or a church building. He will not submit to our restrictions, or respect the guidelines we make to separate the religious from the secular. He may show up at any place and any time, upsetting all our plans and laying claim to all our possessions – even our lives.
The Lion of Judah cannot be caged. He is not a tame lion.