How Religion Can Damage Your Health (and Some Ways it Can Help)

I don’t know if this strikes you as a funny title for a religious article. Isn’t it rather like the National Smokers Alliance (there is such a thing) sponsoring a lecture on How Smoking Can Damage Your Health—a lecture to be given by a long-term addict? Why would they do it?

If religious people know that religion damages your health, why be religious? Why are we here? Why do I teach in a religious college? On the whole, people outside the church have a strong suspicion that religion does damage your health—that’s one reason they don’t get involved—but in general you would think that people who are involved in religion (of whom I am one) must not be aware of the danger (rather like the frog in the kettle who gets boiled because he doesn’t realize the water is heating up)—otherwise why on earth would they be religious? May it is like smoking—an addiction that you know is bad for you but you just can’t kick the habit. But then you wouldn’t want to hear why it’s bad for you—right?

But I would argue that a lot of religious people also know that religion can be bad for you—but they are also aware that there are benefits to religion which vastly outweigh the disadvantages, and so they are prepared to take the risk. In that way, religion is not so much like smoking: it’s more like an extreme sport—hang-gliding or bungee jumping—which can also damage your health.

Now, when I say religion, I should explain that I’m not speaking about a generic no-name brand kind of religion, nor am I speaking about the great world religions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. They may well have a different take on this topic—I don’t know. I can only speak about Christian faith, that religion that is based in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

And I presume to do this only because I have been a serious follower of Jesus Christ for almost 40 years now, and in that time I think I have seen some of the best and the worst of the Christian religion—times when it was like smoking and times when it was like hang gliding.

I want to begin with Jesus himself. After all, he should give us some clue as to what Christianity is all about. Did he intend to start a religion, a church, an institution, such as we have today? The answer is a clear cut, definitive, dogmatic yes and no.

When he came, he preached an apparently simple message: his first recorded adult words are: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

What does that mean? Sounds suspiciously like a street corner preacher at Yonge and Dundas, doesn’t it? So what does he mean? Well, fundamentally, the Kingdom of God is where everything is done in God’s way. The assumption is that this is God’s world, God made it, God knows how it functions, and the people God made would do well to follow God’s directives for human life. Not very complicated, you would think.

But Jesus is also assuming that people do not do things God’s way. As you may have noticed, people hate and kill and deceive and abuse and lie—the sort of things God is generally believed to disapprove of.  This may be God’s world, but none of us are living in it in God’s way.

So Jesus’ invitation—Repent!—means simply, Change your mind, turn around, stop what you’re doing, quit living your way your way, give your life back to the God who made you, and start doing things his way. Why? Two reasons: one, because the world belongs to God, and God has a right to expect that we will treat his property well—whether that’s our own bodies, or other people, or the environment. But the second reason is hinted at in Jesus’ words “at hand” which tell us that with the coming of Jesus, and specially his death and resurrection, God is doing something new to establish his kingdom, and we’d better be ready and get with the program. That’s repentance.

So the Christian religion, the Christian church, began simply enough, with people responding to Jesus’ preaching: OK, Jesus, we believe you’re right, the kingdom is at hand, we are prepared to repent and come back to God. What do we do now? In fact, New Testament scholar Tom Wright thinks that wherever Jesus went, he would leave behind little groups of people who were his followers, his disciples, who would meet and try to follow his teaching. That makes sense.

And at the heart of the Christian religion for 2,000 years, all over the world, has been this same reality—men and women of all races and all ages and all cultures, coming together to learn from Jesus Christ about who God is and what God has done for us and what God asks of us. This is why churches baptize, because that’s what Jesus taught; that’s why churches have communion services (or the mass, or the Eucharist) because that’s what Jesus taught; that why churches read from the Bible, because the teaching of Jesus is in the Bible; that’s why churches pray, specially what is called “the Lord’s prayer,” because Jesus taught them to do so; that’s why churches try to do good—care for the poor and the hungry and the homeless—because they’re trying to follow the teaching of Jesus.

Well, all this sounds very straightforward–which is not the same as saying it’s easy.
So did Jesus intend to start a religion? In the sense that we mean religion, with a lot of buildings and rituals and complicated belief systems, no. In the sense that he calls people from their old lives to live as a community under the leadership of God, yes.

But let’s look more closely at what churches do wrong. The interesting thing is that Jesus’ most stinging criticisms are reserved for the religious people in his world, not those who were considered “sinners,” who were often his closest friends.  So what can we learn from Jesus about how religion can damage your health—and hopefully avoid those pitfalls?
1.  Religious people are often more concerned for appearance than for reality

The scene is this. Jesus has gone for lunch with a religious leader—a Pharisee—and the Pharisee is amazed to see that Jesus, a religious teacher, does not give his hands the ritual washing that religious people took for granted. Jesus sees the look on his face and takes the opportunity to teach about the dangers of religion. “You religious people,” he says, “you’re always worried about outside things—how you look, how people perceive you, you’re worried about your image–and you forget that God is more concerned about what’s going on on the inside of you, in your heart.” (The Gospel of Luke 11:39-41)

This sadly resonates in our world. It makes us think of televangelist scandals, and abuse at religiously run boarding schools, priests who turn out to be pedophiles—religious people who looked good on the outside, but in their hearts there was corruption. Maybe they could have got help for their heart trouble, but their religion said, You can’t do that: you can’t show anyone what’s on the inside, you’ve got to keep up a good appearance.

The non-religious person sees these things, and they say, See, I knew that religion can damage your health.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus announced is in part at least about allowing God to work on the inside of us, to shape us into the people he longs for us to be—this is at the heart of what it means to be “born again”—so that what’s on the outside becomes an expression of what’s on the inside, so that there’s consistency between the two—not a contradiction—and we grow towards wholeness.

Here’s a second danger that Jesus highlights:
2.  Religious people sometimes lose all sense of proportion

Jesus notices that religious people are often concerned over very trivial things. In this instance, they have taken the principle that it’s good to give a tenth of your income—a tithe—to the work of God, but they have taken it to a ridiculous extreme, where they are even making sure that they’re giving a tenth of the herbs that grow in their back yard (The Gospel of Luke 11:42). “There’s 8 bunches of parsley, 9 bunches of parsley—and one bunch of parsley for God. He will be pleased.”

Well, says Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with that in principle. Giving stuff away is good for us. But the trouble is, majoring on the minors like this can mean minoring on things that are absolutely major—such as justice and the love of God. He’s probably referring to the two great commandments, that human beings should base our lives on loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbour as ourselves. And he’s saying, Folks, you’ve forgotten what it’s all about. You’ve lost your sense of proportion.

If you have been involved in church for any length of time, you will know that not too much has changed from Jesus’ time till now, except that now it’s not likely that we’d be bothering to tithe our herbs. But I can think of occasions in church life when communities have divided over the colour of the new carpet, or the price of a new roof, or (in my tradition) which Prayer Book to use.

For Jesus, religion wasn’t about such nonsense. It was about the big stuff: knowing God, love of neighbour, forgiving your enemy; it was about compassion, justice, generosity, and self-sacrifice. The stuff that makes a difference in the world, the stuff that the Kingdom of God is made of. That’s what’s important to God, and it should be what’s important to those who worship God. Churches should be famous, not for their petty squabbles, but for how passionate they are for God and for justice in the world.

Here’s a third danger that may ring a bell:
 3.  Religious people can load others down with burdens hard to bear

Jesus turns to the lawyers—not lawyers in our sense, but those who studied the laws in the Bible. Some translations just call them “religion scholars”, which is close enough. And he says, You load people down with burdens that they can’t manage, and you give them no help to carry them. (The Gospel of Luke 11:46)

I think of a student I knew who decided to give a Saturday morning to help spring clean the church. A significant sacrifice, I would have said. And as he worked, he whistled a Christian song—perhaps “Shine, Jesus, shine.” And an elder of the church fixed him with a steely eye, and said, “Young man, church rule 473, paragraph d, subsection 16, says there is to be no inappropriate music on the church premises—and that is inappropriate music.” I am not exaggerating (well, maybe it wasn’t rule 473, maybe it was only rule 59). Burdens hard to bear.

I was in Kenya in August, and there bikes are the major form of transportation. I remember seeing a pile of mattresses on the back of a bike so high you couldn’t see the rider; or sheets of plywood so wide they took up a whole lane of the road; there was one man who was riding merrily along with about 15 feet of guttering for his roof balanced on his head (longways, fortunately). And then there are thousands of bikes, the boda-bodas, which serve as taxis, so that for most of the day they are carrying two people, though they were built for one. Not surprisingly, bicycle repair is a major cottage industry in Kenya. Of course: those bikes are being asked to carry loads far bigger than they were ever made for.

Sometimes the life of a church person feels that way. Some of you know what I mean: you want to be a follower of Jesus? There’s lots of rules to follow—a whole pile of things you can’t do (starting with the Ten Commandments—the Big Ten) and a whole bunch of rules you’re supposed to follow.

Then there are things that are not actually commanded in the Bible, but they seem to be expected. You want to be involved in our church? That’s great! You can teach Sunday School, help take up the offering, greet people at the doors, serve on this committee, read this book, come to this seminar. Oh, and don’t forget to work on your relationship with God: read the Bible and pray every day. And you begin to feel like the bike with the mattresses and the plywood and the guttering and even a passenger or two. Burdens hard to bear.

What I find interesting about this criticism is that Jesus says it as though it’s perfectly obvious that loading people down with rules and commitments is not the way to go. Of course there are rules, laws, for life in the Kingdom—but that’s not the heart of it. So God has a law that you don’t have sex with someone who is not your spouse: but if I get up in the morning and say to myself, “I really have to remember not to commit adultery today, it’s a law of God, I’ll really be in trouble if I break it,” then something is wrong! The laws of the Kingdom are the fences that mark the edge of the field—and the fences are important—but it’s a big field with lots of room to run and jump and play and dance and be free—so why hang around near the fences?

There is a yoke to be worn in following Jesus, but he says his yoke is meant to be easy—well-fitting—made to give us life not to drain life out of us.

But perhaps the most damning criticism is the last one:
4.  Religious people can get in the way of others getting to know God

The religion Jesus came to bring—if you want to call it that—the community Jesus came to found, anyway—is one that helps people come into an intimate relationship with their Creator, and live in that relationship in a community of joy and freedom. But these religious people, according to Jesus, don’t want such a relationship and prevent other people entering into such a relationship: “You have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (The Gospel of Luke 11:52)

Yet these people are religious. What’s going on? Isn’t religion a place to find God? Not necessarily. It’s a little-known secret that religion is a great place to hide from God. After all, whoever would think of looking in church for someone who’s trying to avoid God? You can do all the right things and say all the right things, even believe all the right things, but your heart is a million miles away from loving God. And nobody knows! It’s great! And that’s what these people were doing.

As a result, Jesus, who longs for people to know God and live a life of love with God, is furious. It’s bad enough when people outside the church to lead people away from God—but maybe not surprising. When church leaders do, it makes him see red.

As a result of this diatribe against the religious leaders, Luke tells us, it’s not long before they begin to plot how to have him murdered. Are we surprised?

So Jesus knew that religion can damage your health, and warned us in the strongest terms to avoid the pitfalls. Is there a place for religion then? Wouldn’t it be better for us to avoid the dangers, and just worship God however we understand God by ourselves in private, without all the complications that come from trying to organize a religion?

Let me tell you a story.
The Servant Who Forgot His Place

     There was once a queen who was gracious, wise and generous. She lived in a castle, and she loved to welcome her subjects there at any time, to get to know them and to help them. The entrance to the castle was guarded by a small, gentle servant. His job was to greet the visitors and show them into the queen\’s presence.

     One day, however, this servant misbehaved. He began to feel that he was more important than he really was. He imagined that his job was not only to show people into the queen\’s presence, but also to decide or not whether they were worthy to meet her. And as his ideas of his own importance grew, so he grew, taller and taller, broader and broader, until nobody could even see the queen\’s castle.

     When people came to visit the queen, he would tell them that they were not dressed properly to meet the queen, or that they were too evil to see the queen, or that their nose was too long, or their feet were too big. Some of them tried to change in order to please the servant, so that they could get in to see the queen, though few of them ever did. Others went away sad because they knew they could never be good enough to see the queen. Some decided that maybe there never was a queen at all, and they were the saddest of all.

     But there were a few who weren’t satisfied with the servant’s rules, and when he wasn\’t looking, they slipped round the back of the castle, over the wall, and into the queen\’s family room, where she always met her subjects. The queen, of course, hadn\’t had many visitors for some time, and when she heard what had happened, immediately she went to the front door and demanded of the servant What on earth are you doing? As soon as he heard her voice, he shrank back to his original size, like a balloon which you blow up and then let go. Then everything went back to normal.

     But from time to time, quite regularly, the servant would again forget his job, and become swollen and big-headed and indeed behave like a king. So after many arguments, the queen decided that the servant could not be trusted, and she moved her throne out to the front door of the palace where she could keep an eye on the servant, and where her subjects could always see her and approach her whenever they wished.
Right? Religion is a good servant but a bad master. The things we normally think of when we think of religion, at least Christian religion—the services, the structures, the traditions, the doctrines–are actually meant to help us know God and follow Jesus. If you like, they are a scaffolding within which people can construct their spiritual life. But how do those structures—how does that scaffolding—help us?

I want to suggest that there’s nothing wrong with organized religion as such. I realize that on a scale of what is cool it probably rates somewhere between broccoli and orthopedic shoes (that’s how William Cavanaugh puts it). But it’s important, at least in Christian spirituality. The most basic reason is that Jesus did not come to make lots of individual disciples, each happy in the private cocoon of their relationship with God. He came to create a new community. Paul, one of the earliest Christian teachers, said Jesus’ followers are supposed to work together like the parts of a body; he said they’re supposed to behave towards one another like members of a family (in the good sense, that is); one of Jesus first disciples, Peter, said Christians are meant to be as close to one another as the stones cemented into the wall of a temple—and as loyal and as supportive of one another as those stones. So organized religion serves first of all as a way for Christians to come together and learn how to be a community that worships Jesus and follows his teaching.

I think this says something to those of us who are involved in church and to those of us who are wondering whether to be involved in church.

To those of us who are involved in the church, Jesus’ warning of the ways in which religion can damage our spiritual health should cause us to pause and take stock. David Watson once said every church should review its programs once a year, and simply have the courage to cut out all those that have stopped giving life to people, however long-standing those programs are. Instead, they should put their energy into those activities which do help people grow as the community of God. Sad to say, it’s not a popular policy or one that many churches follow. But it’s an important one if the church is to know the blessing of God.

For those of us who are just checking out this church, I would suggest you can legitimately ask of this church (or any church): What is at the heart of this community’s life? Are they just playing religious games? Would Jesus say the same things to them that he said to the religious folk two thousand years ago—that they were more concerned for appearances than for reality, that they major on the minors, that they lay heavy burdens on people, and that they don’t help people get to know God? Don’t hesitate to ask embarrassing questions. After all, that’s what Jesus did to the religious people of his day.

Speaking for myself, I have a love hate relationship with religion and the church.  I have seen the most amazing nonsense happen in churches, in the name of God. But I have also seen Jesus Christ alive and well working in and through the community of people who are called by his name.  When that happens, I find I don\’t want to be anywhere else but in the company of those who are honestly struggling to follow Jesus, because it is there that I find truth and warmth, reality and home . . . and it’s where I find God.
Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto
September 2004