It’s one of the hardest things for religious people to understand: Religion is not an end in itself. It is not a hobby. It is not even a passion. Religion is not part of a self-improvement program.
The reason to believe in God is that he exists. If he does not exist, then believing in God is not right, even if it helps people sleep better at night or makes them easier to be around. Similarly, religious behavior, as commonly understood, only makes sense if it helps people engage life as it really is.
Sometimes people get the idea they are Christians because they assent to certain doctrinal statements about God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and humanity’s eternal destiny. It often does not occur to them that these doctrines were not formulated to garner assent but to express reality.
The biblical instructions about how to behave are, likewise, intended to guide people into a lifestyle that harmonizes with reality - with the way things really are. Learning God’s “ways” is not about getting a good grade on a report card but about living well. So Moses told his people: “Walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper.”
That there is a way for people who believe in God to live is a new thought to some, but a familiar one to those who know the Bible. It frequently speaks of “God’s way” and the “way of the Lord.” The request in Psalm 86 representative of many biblical prayers: “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth.”
“God’s way” is not a cultural, western way, though many 19th century English and American missionaries made the mistake of thinking so. Rather, God’s way both transcends particular cultures and is applicable in every culture. It is a path anyone can follow, wherever they find themselves, though it must be said that those who follow this way usually go in the opposite direction of the general flow of traffic.
This way is often quite specific. There are paths to follow and paths to avoid. One should avoid the oft-traveled path of using words to manipulate people into doing one’s will. Stay away from lies. Respect people. Don’t judge. Avoid using derogatory language. Never treat people as sexual objects. Honor parents. Pray for enemies. Speak well of those who speak badly of you.
These are just a few paths along the “way of the Lord.” They tend to be precise, not vague, since vague directions are of little help. They cannot be boiled down to a platitude, any more than directions to an address in a distant city can be summarized in a word.
Yet, very often religious people seem to think that the directions given to God’s people can be reduced to something like “Be nice.” That is analogous to telling someone in Iowa that to get to the intersection of Forest Drive and Hicks Avenue in Annapolis, Maryland, they must go east. It’s not that it isn’t true; it just isn’t very helpful.
When Jesus invited people to learn from him, he was expressing his willingness to help them find and walk in the ways of the Lord. He did not intend to pile burdens on people but to remove them, so they could live well in the real world.
But trying to remember all the ways of the Lord and follow them, sometimes across difficult terrain, would be too much even for the best people. So God not only tells people his ways, he accompanies them.
When I was young, our family was passing through Toronto when we temporarily lost our way.
We could see the highway but couldn’t find the entrance ramp. My dad, very uncharacteristically, stopped for directions. When my mother rolled down the window, the French-speaking Canadian she asked simply opened the door and climbed in. He then directed us turn by turn to our destination.
This is similar to what God does for those who ask. He doesn’t merely give them a thousand directions to follow; he climbs in. He gives them his Spirit to guide them.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.