The Caution of Religious Practices

When Abinadi was talking to the priest of King Noah, he said that the commandments are not “written on their hearts,” and that they had not “applied their hearts to understanding” them, and for that reason they were not able to act with wisdom (Mosiah 12,27, 13:11). 

So I’ve been wondering what it means to have our religious practices written on our hearts, and to apply our hearts to understand them in a way that we can participate in them with wisdom. 

As I have been evaluating my religious activity, I feel like it has, in part, been a little stagnant. I’ve learned what I need to do and say and how to walk to appear to be a good active member of the Church. There are many religious practices that we can participate in that help us to feel like “good members of the Church” or even look like good human beings. But I’ve been thinking about that checklist, and I’m not so sure that being able to check off those things on the list is all it takes to be a good Christian. 

And so I’ve been trying to do a bit of spring cleaning with my religious worship practices. Not getting rid of them, but looking at them more closely and evaluating the purpose for those practices and why I do them. 

I think it’s easy to get into a habit of participating in our religious practices for reasons that are not purposeful, maybe even for reasons that are self-serving. Maybe to appear a certain way, or out of fear of condemnation, or to be accepted, or because we were told to do them. 

We use the term “active” in the Church, but what is an active member of the Church? Is it someone who attends Church each Sunday? Is it someone who attends Church on Sunday and holds a current temple recommendation? Is that all it takes to be considered an active member?

I’ve been reading this book called Strangers Drowning and in part of it, it relates the true account of Kimberly Brown-Whale who is a pastor. For the first 20 years of her service as a pastor she served missions in Anguilla, Mozambique, and Senegal with her husband and three kids. She talks about her two older children years later after they were married and had children of their own. Her son didn’t go to Church and that hurt her, but even she had to admit that he was a good person. He helped out in the food pantry and was living an honorable life. Her daughter, she was pleased, was her only child who still went to church regularly, but she did find the way in which she was living her life as honorable. Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar, p.189

Can it be possible, then, to be an active member of the Church but not active in your faith? Is it possible to be “active” and not be actively governing your life by morals, virtue, and integrity? Is it possible that someone could be living a life with honorable morals, integrity, and moral courage and not be “active” in the Church? I am not suggesting that our activity in the Church is pointless, but rather I’m suggesting that our activity alone in the Church is not an accurate way to measure our goodness. 

I’m not suggesting this so that we can find excuses to stop going to Church and to minimize the value of going to the Temple or to push aside the many religious worship practices that we participate on a regular basis. But I ask myself these questions to look closer at why I do these things. 

The way that I understand the Savior’s teaching that “the sabbath was made for man, and not the man for the sabbath (Mark 2:27),” is that the religious practices, the laws, the rules, the commandments are created for us to help in our development, to help us become better human being, to help us develop our character, to become more godly. They weren’t created just so that we could follow a prescribed set of rules and regulations, or so that we could have a checklist of what to do to be sufficiently righteous.

Let me use an example from another religion because sometimes looking at something very different than us, helps us to see ourselves more honestly. Practicing Sikhs wear five articles with them at all times: Uncut hair, an iron bracelet, a sword, a comb, and special underclothing.

Each item has significant meaning. For example, the double edge sword symbolizes the power of knowledge and truth to remind them that it is through truth that they are able to overcome the natural man, which they call the Universal Self. The sword is also a symbol of their God who destroys darkness and who existed before the world was. 

These five symbols are a significant part of Sikhism and the physical observance of these five articles is a big part of being an active in the Sikhism faith. For me, it would be easy to see someone from that faith who was living a good life and to see their goodness even if they weren’t perfectly adhering to the wearing of those five things. Now while I do not participate in their religious practices, it is not hard for me to accept that participating in that act of religious worship can be a valuable experience and can aid in the personal progress and spiritual development of an individual. I also believe that it is possible for someone to adhere to that religious act and not become a better person for doing so. 

And so it causes me to reflect upon the religious practices that I choose to be a part of my life. Do they help me to become a better person? Are they aiding me in my personal and spiritual development? Is my observance of the sabbath, for example, helping me to become a better person or do I just go through the motions of observing the sabbath so that I can feel good about myself? What about fasting? Reading the scriptures? Paying tithing? Going to Church? General Conference? The wearing of garments? 

I am not suggesting in any way that our religious practices have no purpose and are pointless rituals. I do believe and I have testimony that our religious practices have the power to change our hearts, develop our faith, and influence our personal development. But I have also discovered, for myself, that it is possible to participate in religious acts of worship and not have it change, impact, or influence me for the better. 

I think one dangerous idea that we can fall into when participating in our religious practices is the false idea that we are good regardless of the other ways we govern our lives. It can be dangerous because it can make us blind to our short-comings and our weakness and our mistakes. We may not be taking the time to really consider the way we treat others or ourselves. And even worse, we may become critical of those who don’t adhere to their religious practices as perfectly as we do. It may cause us to overlook and minimize the goodness of others because their religious practices don’t match ours. 

It can be tempting and easy to fall into the trap of telling ourselves that we’re doing x,y, and z and to take comfort in our daily religious routine that we stop seeing ourselves. I believe that Christ wants us to stay awake, that He wants us to see ourselves as we are, he wants us to see the motes and beams in our eyes, not so that we feel terrible and miserable about who we are that we want to give up. But so that we don’t become stagnant in our development.  It’s so easy not to take the time to see them when we are busy telling ourselves that we’re doing x,y, and z. 

Our religious practices are to help us become more like Christ, they are there to help us develop our faith, they are there to help us to know who God is. But they, if we are not aware, lead us to turn a blind eye on short-comings and weaknesses.

I think this was one of the lessons that the Savior so masterfully taught when he taught the woman at the well. A woman. A samaritan. An individual who did not adhere to the religious practices of the Jews. Yet, the Savior saw her goodness, he saw her sins, but so did she and perhaps that was the difference. She was willing to see herself honestly rather than to look away and ignore her shortcomings,her  mistakes, and her poor choices. She did not try to convince herself that she didn’t need to change because she was living perfectly her religious practices. Rather she seemed to be saying at least in her heart, “I am flawed, I have made poor choices, and I want to do better.” It seems that by her actions she felt overwhelmingly joy, gratitude, and hope that now she could see the way to becoming the woman she wanted to become, when before that pathway seemed closed to her. Christ is the way. Of course, she ran to tell everyone she could about Him, about the Savior, because she now saw her imperfections with the Savior, when before she saw them alone. Before He came into her life she was trapped beneath the enormous crushing weight of seeing her poor choices with no hope. When we see our shortcomings, our limitations, and poor choices honestly, it hurts, it is hard, it is uncomfortable. But if we allow the Savior to be a part of our lives, that hurt and pain that comes from seeing ourselves is accompanied with hope and freedom. 

Our religious practices are there to bring closer to the Savior, they are there to help us develop our faith, they are created for us, for our benefit, to help us as we strive to develop into women and men we want to become, to help us become more godly.