Okay! I don’t think that I have ever admitted this in my life. In my defense, I don’t think I really knew it, but here goes. I love religion. I do. I love the rules. I love the simplicity. I love the “this is right and that is wrong” of it. I love the absolute “this is good” and horrific “this is bad.” It takes the guess work out of life, puts rails on it, and tells you if you go this way everything is going to work out, but if you go that way then doom, death, destruction. Simple! Easy! To the point!
For most of my life, I have lived and breathed religion. As a child, that was great. I didn’t have to deal with issues that were too complex for my mind to grapple with. I just really needed to know what to do to make my parents and God happy with me. As an adult, this simple love relationship I have with religion began to fall apart. My own confused half-humanistic and half-Biblical theist viewpoint caused contradictory behaviors and ideas that wrestled against the religion of my youth. I began to ask the logical question: “Why?” along with the bigger questions of “What is life about?” and “What am I supposed to be doing here?”
Fortunately, I grappled with these challenges in college when everyone else was also in some version of confusion. However, as an adult who is guiding the next generation of South African leaders, I force them to face the comforts of religion and push back at questions of why and what is the point? Last week, at our weekly meeting with our high school students, I asked them why did Jesus die? I smiled as they all responded like the well-trained children they are: For my sins! “Really?” I said, “What’s the problem with sin? Why is that such a big deal?” My smile widened as the usually loud room was blanketed in silence. No one knew. Although I love the fact that they had the “right” answer; religion stole from them the reason why.
Unfortunately, the real problem with religion is that it gives you pat answers without forcing you to engage with the problem. You have a ready-made answer without your brain ever having to fully ask a question. Why can’t we have sex before marriage? What’s wrong with drinking alcohol and doing drugs if it relieves my pain? Why can’t I steal if my family really needs something? Don’t I have the right to do whatever I have to do to take care of my family? These are the questions that my students ask because they never fully got an answer to the ultimate question: What is the big deal with sin, anyway?
It ultimately boils down to this every time: “Why can’t I just live as I want and apologize later?” The answer is clear. Sin separates us from God. Jesus had to die for our sins not so that we could go to heaven (nice side benefit!), but so that we could re-engage in relationship with God. We are not dissatisfied because we are not wealthy enough, pretty enough, smart enough, or powerful enough. We think that if we can just get a bit more then we are going to reach a point of satisfaction. That never happens. The truth is we were created to worship our Creator. Nothing satisfies us more than that, and nothing ever can. We search for fulfillment by committing sins; yet, it is that very thing that steals satisfaction and joy from us. Sin causes separation from God, and being close to Him is really what life is all about. Religion answers this question by saying simply don’t sin because God does not like it. That is great for a season, but it cannot sustain young people who must face questions of sin every day. Religion alone confuses things. It leads us into right doing, but not necessarily into right being. Religion still turns the focus on us, but the focus should always be on the King. Nothing is more important than He is.
My kids and I are still working on seeking out the more complicated answers behind religious questions and that is going to take time to decompress. However, I think they walked away from our rip roaring discussion with this: We have to truly worship God if we want to have any hope of true happiness. I’ll take it.