Religion can be healthy or unhealthy. One key factor differentiating the two is the extent to which religion promotes humility or self-righteousness. In other words, does religion help me focus on myself, and how great I am, or does religion help me focus on loving and serving others and God?
It’s pretty easy for religion to shift toward self-righteousness. We all want to feel good about ourselves, and most religions offer a lot of rules and guidelines for how to live a good life. If we spend a lot of time thinking about these guidelines and adhering to them, it’s easy to start to think we’re doing a pretty good job. Also, there are a lot of religious people in the world—I read one estimate that said there are 4.6 billion people who consider religion to be an important aspect of their lives. People are in all sorts of different places in their faith journeys. It’s easy to compare ourselves to the person struggling next to us, and think we are better than them.
Jesus battled self-righteous religion all the time. When you read the Gospels, self-righteous religion is one of the things that angered Jesus the most. You don’t see Jesus get too upset with the sinners he hung out with. They were humble and knew they needed help. The self-righteous folks were a different story. Consider this story from the Gospel of Luke (Chapter 18).
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It’s pretty clear that a humble of religion is the kind that is honored by God.
Discussion: Does your religion cause you to be more humble or more self-righteous? In the parable, did you identify more with the Pharisee or more with the tax collector? What is one step you could take toward having a more humble religion?