True Religion ~ 2011-04-29
What is the purpose of religion? I have heard it said that religion is just a way of controlling people. Many believe that religion is just a scam to gain income by playing on people's fears, or that it is nothing more than entertainment. Some people say that religion was created by man and only gets in the way of a sincere heart.
I believe all of the above to be accurate in many cases. When I hear people bashing religion I rarely have any trouble agreeing with them. However, I believe that true religion is much more than this.
What is true religion?
I think that to understand true religion we must be able to answer a few key questions:
- Is God real?
- What is God like (What characteristics would such a being possess)?
- What does God want for us?
- How does God work to help us?
Go ahead... take a minute to answer those questions in your own mind if you like. Then see if the thoughts I share below make sense to you.
Is God Real?
When I say "God" I am referring to the idea that there is an eternal being of great power and intelligence that creates all things and continues to manage those creations.
Exhibit A: The Universe - The more we learn through our petty scientific efforts, the more questions we have. The complexity and balance astounds us. How is any of this possible? Everything testifies that there is a God; a force beyond our comprehension that keeps balance in the universe. There is clearly some great intelligence out there, designing worlds and galaxies and creating all the very particular circumstances required for life to exist. This is one thing that deep down I believe every one of us knows is true. However, some of us have trouble trusting our feelings. Some have chosen to believe otherwise due to bitter experiences in their own lives or tragedies they have witnessed or heard about in the world. The question is often asked, "If God is real, how could he let so many terrible things happen in the world?" This is not an uncommon concern! One of the key issues in religion and philosophy throughout recorded history has been to find meaning in pain and suffering, or to find release from them. My flippant reply is, "If God does not exist, how could there be so much unexplained good and beauty in the world?"
I believe there are deeper answers to questions regarding the purpose of pain and suffering in the world, but that these can only be found by first being willing to accept the idea that God might exist. The trap many people seem to fall into is refusing to believe anything until they know everything. Well if you're waiting around for that you'll have an entire life devoid of hope! Remember that even in the scientific community, one of the base principles is "we don't know." That's why we developed the scientific method. We do research, develop a hypothesis (a guess based on available information) and then develop methods to test that hypothesis. If we were not willing to assume that a hypothesis might be accurate, there would be no purpose in performing tests based on that hypothesis. So give God a chance; be willing to accept the fact that he might be real. Because anything less is just not good science.
What Is God Like?
Assuming that God is real, what would his characteristics be? Cruel? Selfish? Kind? Caring? Demanding? Forgiving? Ignorant? Intelligent?
All life forms have an instinct for self-preservation. Otherwise, life would not continue. As humans, we also know that doing things that hurt other people is wrong. Now, we don't always live by that knowledge, and sometimes circumstances arise where we must choose between not hurting others and self-preservation, but I will stand by my assertion that all intelligent life is innately aware of these two principles. Treating all life (or even all things) with respect is good. Treating life with disrespect is bad. Even with all our weakness and lack of understanding, we know this and we have a single word for it: love. Pure 'God-like' love is always acting in the best interest of all God's creations.
Imagine now a being so much more advanced than us that he is able to create things: flowers, grass, trees, animal life, people, mountains, rivers, even planets and galaxies. Do you think a being so advanced would have anything less than ultimate love for all creation? Creating is good. Destroying is bad. What then is God like? He is the embodiment of every good attribute. He is, after all, The Creator. If anyone is going to cherish all his creations, it will be him.
What Does God Want For Us?
He wants us to be like He is. Could it be any simpler? He wants us to have the same love for all His creations that He has! He wants us to live by that great principle we were born already knowing: Love for ourselves and for others... ALL His creations. And of course, how can we love all God's creations without loving the being who created them? It's really the same thing.
I think anyone who has 'created' something (in the mortal sense of the world) understands that those things have value. If we have written a book, composed a song, built a building, landscaped a yard, nurtured a relationship, had children or any other of the many ways we enjoy sharing God's creations, we want others to respect and appreciate those creations. We don't want our creations mocked, defaced or destroyed. We don't want our children hurt or neglected. We understand the value of our own creations; how much more must God understand the value of His?
How Does God Work To Help Us?
You could sum it all up by saying simply: God wants us to choose to do good things and choose not do bad things. Note that word choose. Freedom to choose whether to follow what God wants for us is not just a key part of the plan; it IS the plan. The WHOLE POINT is that we grow and learn through our own choices. What does God do to help us? He gives us our free agency.
Now if you're stuck back on question number one - whether or not to believe in God - then the idea of agency doesn't matter. If there is no supreme being then there is nothing to be 'free' from. You can do whatever you want and then regardless of what you do, at some point you will die and none of it will have mattered anyway.
Hence, the value of our free agency is only evident when we realize that there IS an all-powerful being who created all things and could have made us be whatever He wanted to, yet He chose to make us - of all His creations - self-aware. He gave us freedom to choose on a level that is shared by no other creation that we know of.
For those of you who still have difficulty with the question of pain and suffering in the world, this might be a good time to look back at that one. Pain and suffering exist in the world because God gave us free agency. Pain and suffering exist because God loves us.
But what of the pain and suffering that seem to be caused not by the exercise of free agency, but by natural disaster, disease and just plain old age? Well I can't claim to have an answer for every one of those situations, but I have a few thoughts:
- Mortal existence is a temporary home and we've all gotta go sometime.
- Sometimes the lucky ones are taken home early
- In an eternal perspective, a few short years of physical pain might not be all that significant, though they can be difficult to bear at the time.
- Sometimes we can lose faith when we spend too much time trying to make sense of other people's pain. Eventually, each of us must find the meaning in our own pain and let others do the same.
What is true religion?
Let's establish a working definition of religion in general. Religion is much more than a physical building where people are supposed to meet each week. For the purposes of this discussion, let's define religion as any organized system of beliefs and moral codes perpetuated by a group.
True religion must be built on the principle of encouraging us to use our free agency to choose to become what God wants us to be. True religion must teach us - and allow us to learn from our own experience - to exercise God's pure love. Now some of you out there may be thinking, "Well, all religions preach love; there's nothing revolutionary about that!" but do they preach the kind of growth, sacrifice, and personal accountability for choice that God's pure love requires? Remember our definition of love: Always acting in the best interest of all God's creations.
Yes, most religions teach love or at least they use the word a lot. But do their actions bear out what their words are saying? My experience with almost all religions is that they do not require the kind of personal commitment and sacrifice necessary to engender growth in the individual. False religion has found that it has to be soft on things like sin, sacrifice, self-discipline and living the commandments and instead focus on things like grace, fun, socializing, entertainment, appearance and adrenalin. Otherwise it loses too many customers. Of course false religion is also prone to spending a good deal of time tearing down other religions, for the same reason.
True religion does not have to take it easy on the hard doctrines that require personal dedication and lifetime commitment; in true religion people are there because they are choosing the path of dedication. They desire growth; they desire opportunities to stretch themselves and to become what God wants them to be.
The Final Elements
In order for a religion to be true in the full sense of the word it must be more than just a group of people trying their best to do what's right. True religion has to be authorized by God. Now up to this point in our discussion things have been pretty much logical; one stone being placed squarely on the next. I fear that in these final paragraphs I may encounter some stiff resistance, but I simply ask that you test the hypothesis before throwing it out. Be willing to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe if God is real and loves us and wants us to be able to follow Him, then He has provided ways for us to learn the truth besides just figuring it all out on our own. Here are some of those ways:
The Spirit of God - This is a gift given to all people who choose to listen to it. Everyone is born with an internal sense of right and wrong. Usually this is a very quiet voice in the back of your head; if you ignore it, it can go away and be replaced by other, darker voices. If you listen to it, it will help you make wise decisions. At certain key moments in your life, this voice may become so strong that it overwhelms you to the point of tears or feels as though it is speaking out loud.
Messengers of God - Surely if God loves all His creations, then He must have been revealing himself to any groups of people who were committed to following him since the creation of this world. But due to His respect for our free agency, He usually does not reveal himself in full glory to large masses of people. For many people, this would spoil the test and destroy their reliance on faith. So He reveals himself in person to only a few specifically called witnesses as needed. These special witnesses, also known as prophets and apostles, are called to lead His church in the place and time where they serve. It becomes their responsibility to convey His teachings and commandments to the people at large.
Records of previous generations - We have available for our use a huge repository of the records of other civilizations who have written down the things they knew to be true about the path, and the things they learned from prophets and apostles in their generation. These books contain many motivating and faith-promoting accounts from which we can learn much, and include the Holy Bible and other sacred records from various times and locations. Rather than needing to have all things revealed to us again in our time, we can gain huge profit by studying the dealings of God with other people in other places and times.
It is my claim that there is only one religion on the Earth that contains all of these elements described above. I believe that this religion is directly guided by God through His living prophet and apostles on the Earth today, containing all the truth that God has seen fit to reveal to us. The name of this religion is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons. I pray you will study this out in your own mind and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If you are willing to try to do good things and try not to do bad things, relying on the forgiveness we have through Jesus Christ to make up for our shortcomings, I believe you will find a home with us as we work together towards becoming what God wants us to be.