Bored with Religion?
JUNE 1, 2022
It may be June for you, but I’m writing this on the Monday after Easter.
This morning a friend emailed me saying that he hoped I had a “Happy Easter.” Then he added, “Saying ‘Happy Easter’ seems so trite when one is talking about the resurrection.” Good point, that. Better to sing “The Hallelujah Chorus” . . . and maybe even dance and shout.
Do you remember when Jesus visited his hometown of Nazareth? “And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.’ And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:57-58). The writer of Lamentations wrote about Jerusalem’s destruction but included an arresting phrase that describes what went on in Nazareth, “how the gold has grown dim” (4:1).
That can happen if you aren’t careful. It’s why, in David’s confessional psalm, he said, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12).
Do you ever pray that prayer?
I do, and probably far more than you do . . . because I’m the most religious friend you’ve got. I used to tell seminary students that to have a devotional life, they would need to junk the popular devotional books most Christians use. I told them, “This seminary has ruined that for you, among other things. Now you have to find something different.” I would then give them a bibliography of devotional classics and suggestions to keep the gold from growing dim. “Religious professionals” need to find a way to “fan the flame” since there is a real danger of becoming just a talking head or even finding Buddhism more attractive.
But unless you’re a new Christian, you have the same problem. Its formal name is “acedia,” one of the seven deadly sins. Sometimes it’s called “laziness,” but it’s more than that. It’s when the gold grows dim, and while it’s still gold (and you know that), you’re just plain tired of it. One more church service, one more prayer, one more cliché, one more hymn or worship song, and you’ll go bonkers. Of course, we would never say that publicly. Just see what happens if you admit that you’re bored with religion at a Christian gathering. You’ll be greeted like a wet shaggy dog shaking himself at the Miss America Pageant (as Clarence Jordan put it).
If you never experience the gold growing dim, you don’t have to read any further, and I’ve saved you some precious minutes from your busy day. (Don’t thank me. I was glad to help.)
On the other hand, if you struggle with the gold growing dim, let’s talk. I’ve been there, done that, and have the T-shirt. And I still sometimes struggle with it. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, it takes a drunk to help a drunk. Just so, it takes someone who struggles with dimming gold to help someone else struggling with the same thing. One of my life principles is never to take advice from anyone about anything difficult if they don’t first agree that it is difficult. The Psalmist expressed what we all feel on occasion: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God . . .” (Psalm 42:1-2).
Speaking of A.A., if you have a drinking problem, the first thing to know is that having another drink is not the solution. Likewise, whatever you’re presently doing to fix your dimming gold (reading Scripture more, praying more, going to church more, being more religious, etc.), stop it. Why? Because being religious was probably the cause of the problem in the first place.
There was a time when ice cream sundaes were my favorite health food. I had very little money to spend on sundaes in those days, so it was a major delight when I could afford one. Later, when I could afford all the sundaes I wanted, my taste for them lessened. Religion is sort of like that. New Christians are so excited, and the gold shines so brightly, but that doesn’t last. At that point, the worst thing we can do is to increase the religious input . . . and, if that doesn’t work, fake it, hoping to “fake it till we make it.” That only makes it worse.
There is another reason to avoid the “religious pill.” When the gold is dim, God is often the one who took the shine away. Thomas à Kempis prayed, “Sometimes Thou hast withdrawn Thyself from us that we might know the sweetness of Thy presence.” There are times when acceptance is better and more spiritually helpful than action.
The writer of Ecclesiastes said that “for everything there is a season” and then gives a list of different seasons. I would add to that. For everything there is a season . . . A time to speak in tongues (if you do that) and a time to babble. A time to bask in God’s presence and a time to wonder where he’s gone. A time to believe and a time to doubt. A time to sing the songs and mean it, and a time when those same songs are only words. A time when you can “reach out and touch him” and a time when it feels like he has left the building. In all of that, God deals the cards and deals them exactly as they ought to be dealt. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing when the gold grows dim.
One of the problems with our culture is that we have developed what R.R. Reno calls “secular perfectionism.” Reno, the editor of First Things magazine, quoted Niebuhr (a former theological liberal who didn’t play well with the other children in that particular playground) as saying that while secular, moralistic, and sentimental perfectionism might seem innocent, it has a very dark side. While Reno and Niebuhr were referring to another context, their understanding of human nature is very helpful when dealing with the belief that the gold should always shine. We can’t always live on the mountaintop. To get there—and I might add, to get down—we are required to walk through some dark valleys.
I have a friend who says he’s an atheist until he gets his first cup of coffee in the morning. That’s not only funny; it lets me know that he’s also in touch with the reality that gold doesn’t always shine. We think that if something is wrong, out of sync, or lacking, it is fixable, but if not, then it’s somebody else’s fault. It’s the reaction of “snowflakes” (and we’re all that sometimes) to a fallen world in which so many things can’t be fixed, and fixing ourselves is often impossible. For instance, if you don’t love God, what can you do about it? If you keep falling asleep during your prayers, how can you stay awake? Where do you find joy? (After all, there isn’t a “joy faucet” you can turn off and on.) And if you don’t feel like God loves you, forgave you, and is present in your dark, what can you do about that?
One of the most asked questions we get at Key Life is from people who know the truth but struggle to feel it’s true. How can we move the truth from head to heart to make it real? In response, I often offer suggestions that may or may not be helpful. Frankly, though, the best thing for them to do is just go out and play. Either God will fix our struggle with dimming gold, or he won’t. Either way, it’s still fun to go out and play.
Despite what I just wrote, now that I think about it, there is something you can do. Do what you’re supposed to do. Don’t stop praying, worshiping, or hanging out with other Christians. Live your life with kindness and compassion. Speak the truth even when you’re not sure it’s true.
I love The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 for at least one reason that may surprise you. It’s short, and it covers everything needful. (As an aside, this is not “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s the “disciples’ prayer.” The real one is in John 17.) Jesus even said in that same text, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
One other thing before I’m finished. When the gold grows dim, a little honesty before the God with whom we have become bored is always in order. When was the last time you opened your prayer time with, “Frankly, Lord, I don’t want to be here. I would rather go to the dentist”? Pray that, and the angels will gasp, and Jesus will be pleased. It isn’t as if he doesn’t already know. So, if you’re going to lie, don’t lie to him. Jesus said he was “the truth,” which means that whenever truth is spoken, he is present. Conversely, when we lie, Jesus leaves the building. An honest prayer may be the first step down the road to finding the shining gold we have lost.
You watch and wait.
In Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, two characters engage in some pretty dark discussions as they wait for Godot . . . and Godot never shows. I suspect we fear that Jesus won’t either. You’ve probably heard me say that unbelievers don’t pray because they’re afraid God will show, and that scares the spit out of them. And Christians don’t pray because we’re afraid that God won’t show, so, as a substitute, we get busy doing religious stuff. Then we wonder why the gold has grown dim. Duh.
Just so you know, I’ve been doing this religious thing for longer than most of you have been alive, so I’ve put in a whole lot of watching and waiting.
I’ve checked. God always shows. He decides the time and the place, but he always shows.
And when that happens for you, with as much humility as I can muster, I’ll say, “I told you so.”
At any rate, he asked me to remind you.