05 January 2023

Ulterior motives for being religious.

In 2018 Trevin Wax wrote “Routine bible reading can change your life.” Another site changed the title to the clickbaity, “Why so many Christians start, but don’t finish a bible reading plan.” ’Cause that’s what it’s about: Why so many Christians start, yet don’t finish… you know.

Got my attention because at the turn of the year, I usually urge folks to start a bible reading plan. I plug mine, but any will do. I encourage people to do it in a month, in part because I’m convinced longer programs are needlessly so, and you’re more likely to give up on them because they’re longer. You gotta rigidly stick to it for so long—and you’re not gonna get as much out of a bible snippet as you will a whole book.

Wax gave another reason Christians quit on these plans, and it’s quite insightful for a lot of reasons. I’ll quote him. (But yeah, I edited out all his capitalizations to keep it consistent with TXAB’s styleguide.)

One reason may be that we have too high of an expectation of what we will feel every day when we read. We know this is God’s word and that he speaks to us through this book, and yet so many times, when we’re reading the assigned portion of scripture for the day, it all feels so, well, ordinary. We read a story, note a couple of interesting things, don’t see how it applies to our lives today, and then move on. By the time we near the end of the first books of the bible, we’ve gone through extensive instructions on how to build the tabernacle, or how the sacrificial system is to be implemented, or a book of Numbers that is aptly titled. We read the daily portion of scripture, put down our pencil or highlighter and wonder, “Why don’t I feel like my life is changing?”

I sympathize with Christians who feel this way. We’re right to approach the bible with anticipation, to expect to hear from God in a powerful and personal way. But the way the bible does its work on our hearts is often not through the lightning bolt, but through the gentle and quiet rhythms of daily submission, of opening up our lives before this open book and asking God to change us. Change doesn’t always happen overnight. Growth doesn’t happen in an instant. Instead, it happens over time, as we eat and drink and exercise. The same is true of scripture reading. Not every meal is at a steakhouse. Not every meal is memorable. Can you remember what you had for dinner, say, two weeks ago? Probably not. But that meal sustained you, didn’t it? In the same way, we come to feast on God’s word, recognizing that it’s the daily rhythm of submitting ourselves to God and bringing our plans and hopes and fears to him that makes the difference.

If you’re the “too long, didn’t read” sort… well first of all, what’re you doing on TXAB? I write yards of articles. But in summary, Wax correctly points out people read bible because we’re hoping it’ll transform us for the better. And it does! But we want it to change us now. Not gradually, not over the course of the year we take to read it, not as an effect of reading and following it for years: Right bloody now. And if we don’t see immediate results, we’re gonna ditch it like we did cardio. Seems the bible’s just another thing that’ll make us sweaty, tired, hungry, achey, and frustrated.

We already know Christians lack the patience to stick with bible reading plans; again, it’s why I encourage short little one-month plans. But like Wax said, some of this impatience comes from what we expected to get out of reading the bible, and what we want—what we really want—are powerful spiritual experiences. We want every daily bible reading to be an epiphany: “Great Thundering Moses, I can’t believe I never realized that before. Why, that upends everything I ever believed. Now I have the secrets of the universe! I… have… the POWER…” and now you’re quoting He-Man instead of bible.

Probably expect to be glowing like Prince Adam… when he tranforms into a guy who looks exactly the same, only shirtless and more tan.

This is why too many Christians read bible: We want secrets. We want revelations. We want visions. We wanna grow a brain full of profound truths which make us wise and infallible, and know God better than the smartest bible scholars. We wanna infallibly know God’s will, and use that knowledge to have the best possible life in the best possible timeline. The bible is our magic lamp, so start rubbing!

Of course none of this is why we oughta read bible, and all of this betrays many of the reasons people think we need to follow Jesus. We’re not following him because we love him and want to grow closer to him. We’re following him because he’s rich and powerful, and whenever he throws us a bone, it’ll be a golden bone.

Mansions in heaven.

Jesus prepared his students for his departure with, among many words, this:

John 14.2 KJV
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

In the 1500s, mansion meant apartment. Doesn’t mean that anymore, which is why the NIV translates μοναὶ/moné as “rooms.” But in the centuries between the KJV and its updates, plenty of Christians got it into our heads Jesus is taking us to heaven to receive tremendous wealth. There’ll be streets of gold; city gates of pearl, Rv 21.21 we’ll get crowns, Jm 1.12 which westerners always presume will be metal instead of olive leaves. 1Pe 5.4 Heaven’s bathrooms may even have toilets of solid platinum. Somehow it never occurs to these Christians that if God’s using precious materials to make everyday fixtures, it’s because they’re not precious anymore; money is obsolete when our Lord supplies everything freely and without limit! But when people so madly covet wealth, very little occurs to us.

Likewise power. People long for the power to change our world and make it the way we want. We see this every election year—and we regularly witness people go absolutely insane with rage when they lose. Feels like more and more of ’em go mad every time around. Because power is where they’ve placed their hopes—even though history demonstrates time and again how we fallen human beings can’t be trusted with power. And how we seldom use it to make things right; more often we use it to enrich ourselves, and sometimes our friends, but not as much.

So in this world where people lust for money and power, stands to reason they’re gonna bring those lusts into Christianity with them, and imagine Jesus might be the path to getting those things. All we gotta do is trust Jesus, and he’ll enrich and empower us. He’ll make us able to purchase comfort and confound our enemies. How’s he gonna do this? Well it’s probably in the bible, so maybe let’s read the bible.

In so doing we make Jesus our path to power. He’s a means to an end. He’s the guy we suck up to, and if we do it to his satisfaction, he’ll give us everything we ever wanted. He’s our Lord… but only if he gives us the stuff, and only when he doesn’t dare tell us what to do with the stuff once we got it.

Look around Christendom sometime, and you’ll see this attitude everywhere. Everywhere.

Yeah it’s discouraging. But don‘t you fall into it. And if you have, cut it out. Our religion has to be about Jesus, his will, and his plans for our lives—not our own. All our plans have to be submitted to Jesus for approval, revision, or even rejection: He knows best. And if you don’t believe he knows best, stop pretending you follow him, ’cause you don’t.

Even if we figure we have rejected power and money for Jesus, there are still plenty of distracting side effects we still have to reject for Jesus. Trevin Wax wrote about how we too often expect to feel something supernaturally profound whenever we read bible, and are disappointed when we don’t. That’s a very common experience among Christians: We follow Jesus because we want the feels. We don’t know the difference between spiritual and emotional, and think if we’re following the Holy Spirit properly it’s supposed to feel good—and conversely, if we feel nothing, it must mean the Spirit has left the building. Hence we’ve got a lot of wind-tossed Christians Jm 1.6 whose faith is based on their feelings, not in Jesus. If it’s really Jesus, whether you’re on or off your antidepressants should make no difference! (And stay on them if you need ’em.)

Too many Christians are only “religious,” so to speak, for reasons other than Jesus. We have positions in the community. Family obligations. Peer pressure. American politicians are quite aware their constituents won’t vote for atheists, so of course you’ll see them go to church, for Easter at least. For some people, their entire sense of self is connected to this idea they believe in God, try to be a good person, and hope to go to heaven. Of course this doesn’t make them Christian; pagans believe in the very same things. What makes us Christian is we follow Jesus—for his own sake, and not for any other reason. Do otherwise and it’s dead religion.

So it’s time to play search-and-destroy with our ulterior motives. Do you have any? Now’s as good a time as any to be rid of them.