After we welcome God into our lives, we run the risk of falling into the trap of using religion to placate our consciences in order to avoid the painful process of further conversion. This danger is not isolated to one or two religions but cuts across the landscape of all of them, for it is part of our human nature to resist personal internal change and to grasp at anything convenient to help us extinguish the gnawing realization that we need to change and become better individuals. What better tool to use than religion itself?
Accordingly, individuals in all religions use the tenets of their faith to actually dam their spiritual progress. How this is done varies from religion to religion. Nevertheless, it happens in all religions, so we need to guard against falling into that trap ourselves without realizing it. It is easy to look at others and see how they misuse religion, but that does us very little good unless we are willing to look inside ourselves to see if we are doing the very same thing in a different way.
History is replete with examples of people soothing their conscience in order to avoid true personal growth. We all look back with incredulity at the widespread practice of idolatry during Old Testament times. Later, during the time of Christ, many scribes and Pharisees justified their rejection of the Savior by their strict obedience to voluminous rules and customs. People bought indulgences during the Middle Ages to avoid the effort of truly repenting. Some Christians today believe that all they have to do is profess their acceptance of Christ, and they can continue living their lives without any changes. Others try to prove their worthiness through their works in an effort to feel good about themselves. Often, the most devout followers of the various religions actually are the most resistant to change and true conversion. Islamist extremists who believe they will go to heaven for killing innocent people are an obvious example of this point.
It is hard for us to understand the widespread practice of idolatry during Old Testament times. How could anyone actually worship something they made with their own hands and sacrifice humans to it? Yet the practice was widespread. I believe people naturally pursued this abominable practice because it enabled them to feel good about themselves while they did whatever they felt like doing. Often, idolatry, violence, and lasciviousness were closely related. The Sodomites intermingled idolatry with homosexual activity and were a significant problem in Old Testament times. Anthropologists refer to many of these religions as orgasmic religions because of the intense emotional state created by mixing blood and sex, similar to many movies today. Scholars identify the god Baal, who is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, with Zeus of Greece and all the dysfunctional activity of the Greek gods. If the gods were involved in bizarre behavior, why should humanity aspire to be any better? Consequently, people used idolatry to assuage their conscience and avoid spiritual growth.
On the other hand, many devout Jews refused to accept Christ when he, their actual God, lived in their mist because they were bound by the traditions of their fathers. These individuals failed to recognize that the Law of Moses points people to Christ. Many individuals were not receptive to His message because they felt God had already accepted them due to their obedience to a myriad of rules. They focused their attention on following procedures instead of allowing the process to turn their hearts to God. It was easier to use their obedience to various regulations as a means of justifying their current status than to attempt the more difficult task of allowing their obedience to change their hearts. They were not seeking light and truth, so they did not see the source of all truth and goodness when he was living in their mist. It was easier to obey a bunch of rules than to open up their hearts to God and follow Christ. Surely focusing on the letter of the law brings spiritual death while striving to understand and obey the spirit of the law facilitates a rebirth into a more abundant spiritual life. (See Romans 7:6).
The selling of indulgences during the Middle Ages had the same effect. Back then, the Catholic Church issued certificates granting remission from the punishment of sins in exchange for a donation to the Church. Part of the faulty logic used to justify the trafficking of indulgences was that charity is the ultimate virtue, and we demonstrate our charity by giving alms, so who better to give alms to than to God’s church? Therefore, we are saved by giving alms to the Church. By focusing on the results and not on the underlying motivation of actions, an insidious practice became widespread, lulling many good persons into a false sense of security. This deceptive practice invariably became part of the rationalization some people used to justify actions that were offensive to God.
Purchasing indulgences offered an easy way for individuals to comfortably remain the same, unconverted. Some individuals even purchased indulgences before they committed a sin in case they died before they could buy an indulgence afterward. Initially, indulgences were issued by the Church as remission from the punishment of the sins that one had already fully repented of. However, because of our aversion to making deep personal changes, individuals purchased indulgences as a means to avoid true repentance, which denotes a real change of heart and behavior. It was easier to part with some money than to change one’s heart. The Church said they were forgiven, so no further change, growth or development in Christ were required. Consequently, some individuals’ personal progress ceased, and the quality of their lives decayed like dammed, stagnate water.
Is the reason the practice of selling indulgences thrived unique to the dark ages? I am afraid not. It is part of human nature to grasp for ways to silence our conscience, and this hinders people’s acceptance of God’s will today as well.
As an attorney, I frequently have individuals come to me for help in solving problems caused by the wrongful acts of others. Unfortunately, the story is often the same: “I trusted him. He was so religious. He claimed to be a good Christian. How could someone who goes to church all the time do such a thing?” I do not doubt that the perpetrator had a moving spiritual experience at some point in his life. Unfortunately, many well-intended Christians do not really understand Christian doctrine. Some mistakenly believe that they simply need to proclaim that Jesus is the Christ without truly turning their whole life over to Him. Consequently, Christ is unable to fully convert them. These pseudo-Christians believe that all they have to do is “accept Christ” in word only, and they can continue living their lives without any changes. It is as if they view God’s gospel as a license to sin. To truly accept Christ, one must take up his cross and follow Him and not hold on to any ungodliness. Our old sinful lives need to die so we can be born again in Christ. It is easier, however, to profess religion than to actually be converted.
On the other hand, many religious people fall into the same pit but from the opposite side of the chasm. Christians are correctly taught that works are the fruits of the Spirit. Unfortunately, too often they look beyond the mark and concentrate on the result (works) and not on the cause (faith). Again, just as some seek comfort in obeying rules, rituals, or hollow words, others avoid true conversion by concentrating on a checklist of things to do. Some devout individuals’ obsession with obedience to rules may actually be a means of avoiding obedience to God’s greater command: to come unto Him and be converted. Again, it is much easier to follow a few rules than to be honest with ourselves and allow God to change our nature.
The key to conversion is truly submitting ourselves to God, trusting in His Love, and seeking to know and do His will. God is always there, waiting for us to invite Him into our lives. If we invite God into our lives by being willing to do His will for His sake and not to demonstrate how good we are or for any other self-centered purpose, God will heal our souls and make us whole. He will convert us into joint heirs with Christ. We all need to be converted (changed), and concentrating on a list of rules and actions can actually promote the status quo. It all depends on how each individual approaches it. Because of our pride, we look for ways to justify our current position and to feel good about ourselves in the meantime in order to avoid changing or improving.
Many individuals try to quiet their conscience by looking for a religion that does not require anything from them, while others look for ways to judge people so they can feel vindicated when those other people do not measure up. This method allows them to feel that they do not need to change. This is one reason we seek petty rules to obey while avoiding the weightier matter of true conversion. As previously mentioned, God provided the Law of Moses to help point the people of Israel to Christ. However, many looked beyond the mark through strict observance and missed the whole purpose of the law. Likewise, God’s current instructions can also be misapplied, just as the Law of Moses was.
The goal of our existence is to become unified with God by incorporating His characteristics into ourselves to the point that they become second nature to us. That is the whole point of the atonement or, in other words, the at-one-ment. In order for this to happen, we need to go through a process of being born again into a new life in Christ. This requires us to change. Our very nature needs to be converted from our current selfish, sinful state into a caring and loving one. But we naturally resist this conversion. Consequently, we grasp at things that will placate our conscience while we maintain the status quo.
The best way to realize our divine destiny is to follow the Savior’s example. He showed us the way when He said, “I can of mine own self do nothing. . . . [M]y judgment is just because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30).
The key then is to be humble and to seek to do the Father’s will and not gratify our pride, vain ambitions, and appetites. It is the power of God that converts or changes us, not our own efforts. Just as heat is often needed for a chemical reaction to occur, likewise, we need to be born again by the fire of the Lord’s spirit in order for our nature to be converted. God is ready, willing, and able to do this if we really want Him to. We need to invite Him into our hearts and surrender our whole souls to Him so he can purge all the impurities inside us. Being completely submerged under the water in the baptismal ordinance symbolizes our willingness to completely turn our lives over to God.
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). The greatest commandment, of course, is to love God with all our hearts or, in other words, all our feelings, all our mind or thoughts, and all our strength or physical being. We need to do this in order to learn and to do God’s will for His sake so that we may become united with Him and not in order to prove how great we are.
As we demonstrate our love for God by seeking truth and goodness, He will bless us with His Spirit, which will fill our souls with love so we will care for other individuals more deeply. Through this means, Christ can be in us as God the Father is in Christ until we all become one as God the Father and Christ are one (John 17:21, 26).