As a pastor, I’m concerned about people’s spiritual health — especially Christians, since that’s my vocation. As such, I offer a few guidelines that can be of help in determining when our spirituality is off track. These yardsticks could probably translate across faith traditions, but since I’m using a Christian framework I hesitate to make that claim.
So, how do we know if our path is healthy?
- Is it fear-based?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. … Seek first God’s Good Realm and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
John the Apostle writes later that “perfect love casts out fear.”
Spirituality that produces fear and anxiety should alert us that something is “off” in our understanding of God. Yet many Americans voted for a presidential candidate who ran on a collective fear of immigrants (including the 80% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump, as well as the 58% of other Protestants). Those fears — documented here with fact-checking by the Associated Press — are repeated, daily, in various conservative news sources. Those fears drive many to discard the repeated instructions to care for the wanderers, foreigners, and aliens in our land.
As a pastor of many queer congregants, I’ve heard story after story about Christian parents who say and do terrible things to their LGBTQ+ kids because they fear that, if they don’t say and do those terrible things, their children will suffer eternal torment. In my county, 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ kids, most of whom were kicked out of their “Christian” homes.
Fear. It’s all fear. When anti-LGBTQ+ Christians feel they can say “I love gay people” out of one side of their mouth, but need to add “but I think you should be celibate or try to be straight,” that’s driven by the fear of being an accomplice in another’s damnation. The existence of hell could be dealt with in a whole other blog post, but suffice to say most Christians operating out of fear believe in some form of its existence.
Regardless, perfect love casts out fear. And Jesus repeatedly tells us to “fear not.” What would happen if we didn’t worry about people taking our jobs, or about crimes that could be committed against us, or about another’s eternal rest? If we use Love instead of fear as our spiritual compass, we can take a non-anxious approach both to our faith as well as to other people.
2. Is it judgmental?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Jesus tells us not to judge others. This includes judging who is “in” and who is “out” of the family of God. That’s God’s job, we’re told, not ours. Practicing radical inclusion is a sign of God’s Good Realm.
When we’re concerned with getting everything right in faith, and then turning around and telling everyone else what we think is right, we’re operating out of fear of getting things wrong. In effect, we’re drawing a self-righteous circle around ourselves and saying, “If you believe the right things, you’re in; if you believe differently, you’re out.” Again, fear shouldn’t been our starting point. And judgment is not our specialty.
3. Does it produce empathy?
In the Sermon on the Mounty, Jesus says,
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Something strange is happening in our culture in that there’s more talk than ever about empathy, but people are quantifiably showing it less. That’s according to a 2010 study at the University of Michigan.
We have to be able to imagine how others feel in order to ask whether or not we’d want to be treated the same way. How would this make my neighbor feel? Would I want to be treated that way? There’s a longtime Christian discipline of meditating on Scripture while imagining ourselves as the various characters in the story. If you’ve never done so, I’d encourage you to pick a story in the Bible and try it out. It helps us develop the parts of our brain that can place us in another’s shoes.
4. Does it shape us into people who care about the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and victims of injustices?
In Isaiah 58, the prophet paints a picture of God being angry at God’s own followers.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you [God] have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ [God replies,] “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”
God goes on to say:
“Is not THIS the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
Isaiah tells us religion alone won’t bring peace and happiness to a people. In fact, religion mis-used can bring real harm. But the prophet reminds us that, if our faith is underlined with care for the oppressed and poor, and marked by peacemaking, then damaged communities can begin to heal. That’s hopeful. However, if we don’t do these things, it may not go well for us, Isaiah warns.
Jesus says something similar in the Sermon on the Mount. He cautions us against practicing our faith in ways that say, “Look at me! Look how spiritual I am!” while at the same time neglecting care for the vulnerable.
What Does Your Faith Produce?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them … Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit … Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them … Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
In other words, people can look and sound religious, but not everyone who slaps the name of Jesus on a belief is actually operating out of the Holy Spirit of Love that’s been unleashed into the world.
So how do we know that something is of God? Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul tell us to discern things by their fruit — by what they produce. Do your beliefs and practices produce love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Right now many people are looking around and saying, “A lot of what markets itself as Christianity doesn’t display love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Instead it displays fear, judgment, exclusion, and lack of empathy.”
Jesus says good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. Sometimes we have to sit and watch for awhile to determine if something’s of God or not. We have to watch the fruit unfold and ripen. If we find we’re walking down the wrong path and the fruit is bad, then we’re called repent! Repent just means “turn around.” Turn around and follow the narrow path that leads to life.
Preserving the Treasure
I, like so many others, have at times barely managed to hold onto my faith tradition — either because of the way it was presented to me or because of the results it produced.
Yet I’ve also experienced something that feels real, is meaningful for me, and has been precious enough for me to want to lean into this whole following Jesus thing in spite of the rubbish. Casting off faith traditions that produce fear, judgmentalism, lack of empathy, and lack of justice is a healthy response. It’s healthy to reject Christian nationalism that’s largely driven by racism and patriarchy. It’s a healthy response to leave spaces that teach you to treat people — including yourself — unkindly. But you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The core of the Judeo-Christian tradition is meant to shape us into Fearless Love Machines. And God knows the world could use more fearless love.