In the view of many people, what God wants is for everyone to become religious. And given the fact that some religious people are (to be frank) something of a pain in the neck, not surprisingly this view is a hard sell in the world. By “religious” I mean the state whereby a person holds certain private opinions about God and the world, and performs certain rituals which they think will make them acceptable to God. These religious people (as I am using the term “religious”) believe and proclaim that the world is sharply divided into two categories: religious people who are acceptable to God because of their beliefs and rituals, and non-religious people who do not share these beliefs or perform these rituals and who therefore are not acceptable to God. It is often further held that the non-acceptability of the non-religious people means that God will send them to hell when they die. You can see why this view is a hard sell.
The New Testament in general and the words of Jesus in particular give no support to this view. In fact our Lord reserved His harshest criticism for religious people (such as the Pharisees, who were spectacularly religious), and was comparatively easy on such non-religious people as prostitutes and tax-collectors. Indeed, as the late Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann never tired of reminding us, Christ was killed by religious people. One might almost say that He was killed by Religion. I would therefore suggest that God is not that interested in anyone becoming religious.
Notwithstanding the words of the New Testament, one can still find many in the Church who insist that what God wants from us is religion, if not religiosity. They presume and sometime say that a person who (for example) holds the view that the Filioque is true is therefore somehow less acceptable to God than someone who rejects the use of the Filioque; that someone who makes the Sign of the Cross with three fingers instead of two (or with two fingers instead of three), or who makes the Sign from left to right instead of from right to left, is thereby less acceptable to God. Don’t get me wrong: I also reject the use of the Filioque in the Creed, and for the same reason that I reject the belief that two plus two equals five — namely, that it is factually incorrect. And I teach my children and my flock to make the Sign of the Cross as do all the other Orthodox Christians. But I don’t imagine that such usages make one more acceptable to God. One’s acceptability to God is not based on such things.
So, what is our acceptability to God and our salvation based on? What does God want from us? In a word, love.
In the Gospels, someone once asked Christ what He thought God was fundamentally interested in — in Jewish terms, what was “the first and greatest commandment of the Law”. Christ responded, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:29, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5). That is, God wants relationship.
The answer shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since it is found in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. In Psalm 50 for example, the psalmist pours scorn on the notion that God is fundamentally interested in external sacrifice. Indeed, he represents God as rhetorically asking, “If I were hungry, would I tell you?” (Psalm 50:12). Even back then God wanted relationship more than sacrifice: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice and thanksgiving; call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify Me” (v.13-15). Even back then sacrifice only held value to God when it was offered as the expression of gratitude within the context of relationship.
What God wants is our love. This means that God is the greatest victim of unrequited love in all the world. For He loves everyone, every single soul that ever existed, and everyone living today. Yet most of us simply ignore Him, and live as if He didn’t exist. We take all His gifts — life and air, food and water, children and grandchildren, rainfall and sunshine — and never once say “thank you.” He loves us passionately, deeply, relentlessly, tragically, and many people never give Him a second thought. In fact we prefer almost anything to God — money (or “Mammon”), sex, popularity, entertainment, Facebook, golf or jogging or sleeping in on a Sunday morning instead of going to church. We have filled our world with idols, turning these divine gifts into alternatives to God who gave them to us in the first place.
We can see God’s perplexity at this perversity when we read the Scriptures. In the prophecies of Isaiah 5:1f, for example, we find the song of the vineyard belonging to God’s “beloved” (i.e. His people): “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it, and he looked for it to yield grapes — but it yielded wild grapes.” In this song, God is the farmer, taking infinite trouble and care over His vineyard so that it would produce fruit — the spiritual fruit of love for God and of a righteous life. He did everything necessary, and it should’ve produced grapes. But, strangely, with almost miraculous perversity, it produced worthless wild grapes instead. God’s perplexity can be seen in His plaintive question in verse 4: “What more was there for Me to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” This divine perplexity and anguish (to speak boldly) can be seen in Psalm 14:2f: “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God.” He looks in vain: “They have all gone astray; they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good, no, not one”. God’s universal love for us largely goes unrequited.
Love for God, however, has another aspect to it as well. In Christ’s answer to the question of which was the first commandment, He not only said that the first commandment was to love God. Though not asked what was the second commandment, He went on to say as well, “The second is like it: you shall love our neighbour as yourself.” (He cites Leviticus 19:18). Why give the second commandment when He was only asked about the first? Because the first contains the second; it is “like it” as a kind of corollary. Loving God involves also loving His children. Saint John the Evangelist is clear about this too, and speaks with his customary bluntness: “If any one says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).
Religion is okay. But it is not the fundamental thing that God wants. What He wants is for us to love Him back, and to love our neighbour for His sake. Religion has value only insofar as it helps us do these things.