We all make decisions – we have to, every day, Some of the decisions are relatively easy. What shall I wear today? What will we have for dinner? Others are more difficult. Can I afford to take a holiday this year and where will it be? And in matters of safety or threat, if our neighbour’s flat is on fire for example, our gut instinct and good sense tells us to get out of the building. However, what if we ring the fire service and they tell us to stay put? What if the doctor has given you a tablet which makes you feel iffy, but says you need it for your good health? Do we decide for ourselves what to do or follow what might be considered an authority?
When it comes to stuff like religion, belief and faith, making decisions seems to be much harder. It might be because faith and religion is a lot more fuzzy when it comes to the ‘right’ thing to do. Or the best thing to do. The Bible can give us examples of teachers and prophets saying that the Lord has told them to offer guidance and orders; sometimes with threats about what will happen if guidance and orders are ignored. No human being can really claim to be the authoritative voice of God and demand – you have to obey what I tell you because only I know what God wants you to do. That’s the language of cult leaders and people who manipulate others into blind, unthinking obedience, where individual decisions aren’t allowed.
Religion is not the same as belief, and often belief isn’t the same thing as faith. Religion, as we might understand it, is too often tied up with an institution, a gradually developed system of values, rules, customs, and often boundaries defining who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ Judaism and Islam both say that men who want to be considered Jews or Muslims have to be circumcised. Both of them have rules about what followers can and can’t eat. Christianity insists on baptism as the defining moment when someone officially becomes a Christian.
What’s interesting is that it’s perfectly possible to belong to any of these religions without believing in their doctrines or following their practices. It’s possible to be officially Jewish but not follow the kosher rules or ever go to a synagogue to worship. Someone baptised as a Christian can never be un-baptised. But they may never set a foot in what we consider to be a traditional church, think Christianity is a lot of tosh and don’t believe in any of it even though they may agree with its principles and ethical code. Like my late mother, interestingly enough.
Lord, to whom can we go? When it comes to belief, how many of us have ever been conscious of making a choice? Those people born into a Christian family will probably – though not always – grow up surrounded by reminders of what they’re supposed or expected to believe. And faith, defining that is even more difficult. It’s, well, putting your trust in something that might be unexplainable – like God. Or putting your trust in someone you feel has the best teaching about how life is meant to be lived and shows what God wants for us. Like Jesus. The saying that faith is caught, not taught, is probably true when it comes to people who convert to a belief system, whether starting from claiming to have no faith in the first place, or from one religion to another. The light switch is flipped and it’s just…there.
It’s almost impossible for us now to imagine the feelings of Jesus’ first disciples when they realised that he was, effectively, showing them what God must be like, a humanly understandable reflection of God. All of his first followers were probably faithful Jews, following what they had been taught by their parents, society, and religious leaders. Now there was this strange preacher; recognisably Jewish, someone who said that following the Law was indeed the way of the Lord. But there was a different way of obeying the law in the spirit and not in the oppressive nitty gritty of all the burdensome rules and regulations, which obscured God’s presence with and within them..
Yes – Jesus taught his followers about God and how we can best relate to God and each other. But he never forced anyone to accept that what he said was the only truth, or true at all. When things got tough, and his teaching got difficult even for his friends, he said, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ Can just words persuade us? How do we choose to follow Jesus instead of something or someone else?
In my occasionally provocative way I want to ask us all: Is Christianity a cult or form of brainwashing? Some do see it as just that. I wonder if we’re content to just passively accept what religious leaders tell us about Jesus and God and everything else. Just carrying on with the religion and belief system we were born into and never feel we have to make any choices at all, either with our heads or with our hearts. Or both. Our present-day obsession with needing to know stuff without any doubt can easily get in the way of allowing God to speak to us in ways we can’t understand. What’s called faith – putting our trust in the unknown. Faith and following Jesus is usually something we can’t figure out by intellectual understanding, but only by what we feel. But is relying on feelings a valid or safe way of making decisions? Or is following Jesus, believing in him as the only reflection of God we can possibly know, so overwhelmingly obviously the right decision, the way for us to take, that there isn’t any other option. ‘We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ That’s a pretty strong statement to commit to.
So…is there anyone else who can reach into our hearts and heads in the same way as Jesus; any other way for us if we genuinely want to own our Christian faith for ourselves. ‘Lord, to whom can we go?’ It could be our question as well. The disciples had come to believe that Jesus was the Holy One of God, what he said spoke to them in a way that others didn’t. Their gut feelings told them that his leadership and teachings were true and right, and something which would make their relationship with God more complete. And, in the end, bring everyone together into eternal life with God their creator. Not merely telling them yet more rules to follow to get into heaven – that wasn’t Jesus’ purpose and it shouldn’t be ours either.
When we get into difficult and hard places, of unknowing and spiritual tangles and doubts, and Jesus asks, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ that’s a decision each of us has to make for ourselves. I have to say ‘Lord, to whom else could I go?’ What would you reply?
Leslie Spatt 2021