Symbolism over Substance

Symbolism over Substance

In life, there are lots of symbols that mean things. I chuckle when I see this: #. To me, growing up around music it has always simply been the symbol indicating the next note 1/2 step above. Now, it is a symbol with a much different usage. Symbols are good but symbolism can be confusing especially when it becomes more important that true substance.

Religion is one place where symbolism seems to flourish. In the New Testament, the Pharisees were very keen on symbolism. They loved physical, external trinkets and expressions that symbolize religious elements. In Matthew 9:9-13, Jesus “reclined” at a meal with tax collectors and it really messed with the Pharisees way of doing things. They complained to the disciples that it looked bad for Jesus to eat with sinners. Their concern was want it looked like (symbolism) rather than understand what had happened (substance—Matthew’s heart was transformed!).

A cross, praying hands, or even a bible “charm” worn as a necklace can be such symbols and used to promote or communicate faith. However, I think pretty much everyone would know those are really just things, or just symbols, and they aren’t really the items the project. In other words, the cross of Christ is a real thing and carries much meaning for a true believer. The real cross has much significance in the Gospel story of Jesus and all He did to obtain our salvation. A cross worn on a necklace is just the symbol of the real thing.

The confusion comes when the symbol itself becomes the “thing” and the substance of the real meaning gets lost. This happens quite frequently in church life, I am sad to say.

It happens probably most often when the church gathers for public worship. The act of worship, including favorite worship hymns, favorite musicians, and favorite personalities can all become symbolism over substance if care is not taken by all. What is done, how it is done, can quickly get in front of why it is done and genuine, heart-linked, head-engaged worship gets lost. What becomes important is what is done and how it is done. This leads to idolatry and idolatry takes us down the highway of self-righteousness with very few exits available to get off. Over time, you can go a long way the wrong direction and not even be aware of it because you are doing what has always been done and how it has always been done. Then, someone has the courage to stand up and say, “Why are we doing this?”

Symbolism over substance. It happens when we place such a high value on looking like you are something rather than actually being that something.

What are some ways we can avoid this in the life of the church?

1. Keep asking why. This is what good leadership in the church is for. Constantly asking, “Now, why are we doing this?” is helpful. But it is also helpful for the followship to do the same. It makes us all go back and re-state what is important and what does God’s Word really say about this particular thing we are doing.

2. Live in the tensions of old and new. Doing things on purpose for a purpose can over time grow into a good case of symbolism over substance! So, often it is good to review the “why” but note that it can be done a different way and still communicate the “why”. There is always tension with changing things. Always. Learn to enjoy tension and see it as a helpful tool to perhaps give new life to something that has perhaps gotten a bit outdated.

3. Love God, and love others! These are two of God’s greatest commands and we should not do church life without them! There is much substance that is necessary for both of those commands and it takes the Spirit of God working in all of us for us to bring that substance to the table of church fellowship. However, symbolism can quickly choke the life-giving nature of the work of the Spirit. For instance, we can say we are going to have “Fellowship Night” and it can be merely a symbol of something we would like to happen, but never really give ourselves to genuine, Christ-centered fellowship. Loving God and loving people is very hard work and it often doesn’t come easy. So, having a good, shiny symbol of loving God and others like “Fellowship Night” is good for the conscience. We can think, “Well, it is probably getting done with some, so it’s all good if I leave it up to someone else to do!” This is symbolism over substance because you, yourself didn’t really work at loving people. Just love God passionately and love people intentionally and the symbol will become the opportunity!

4. Put a high value on repentance and faith. Scripture tells us God resists the proud (1Peter 5:5). Probably nothing establishes mere symbolism more than our pride. We as God’s people must learn constantly the importance of standing before the mirror of God’s Word and rejoice in the grace God gives for repentance and faith in the finished work of Jesus on our behalf. When church leadership loses the necessity of repentance, the followship is in trouble. When the church followship walks away in their pride, the weight on the leadership begins to really mount. God’s people must own repentance and bathe in the faith that only comes through the Word! A learners heart will grow and maturity will form in the heart and the true substance of Christ will be seen. When this repentance and faith is genuine, there is really no need of a symbol to express it. It speaks for itself. The problem comes when repentance and faith is missing, people scramble for some sort of symbol so they will at least look the part.

It can creep in. It is dangerous and destructive. May God keep us from it.

Eric Sipe