Over the years, I have observed a certain cycle which exists among many Christians and churches which seriously inhibits spiritual growth, robs people of joy and keeps people from experiencing the abundant life which Jesus promised (at least, this side of heaven).
Let me show you.
In northwest India there is a place called the Karni Mata temple, which is the home to an innumerable company of rats.
Crowds gather from all over India to this temple throughout the year and worship these rats.
By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France - Le temple de Karni Mata (Deshnoke), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24665070
Many people there believe that when a human dies, they are reincarnated (recreated) in the form of one of these rats.
Then, when the rat dies, it is reincarnated again as a person.
People bow down and kiss the floor where these rats walk, they offer food treats to the rats, pet the rats, and some even eat the rats' food.
They do these things because they believe this will bring them blessings. It is especially lucky if one can catch a glimpse—or even better, touch—one of the four white rats that live in the temple.
If you're like me, the first time you heard of people worshiping rats (of all creatures), you were incredulous!
To Christians who believe and worship the one true GOD that created and sustains all things, the thought of bowing down to a small, insignificant rodent is beyond absurd. To us, it's both laughable and pitiable.
But imagine for a minute that you are a Hindu-practicing Indian, raised to believe that this rat-worshiping is real, genuine and effective. You've never heard of Jehovah GOD or His Son Jesus Christ, Savior of the world. To you, this is how you've always lived. Worshiping these rats and believing in reincarnation are considered normal and how life is supposed to be lived.
What is it that enables the Christian to (properly) view the worship of rats as ridiculous and sinful, while the Indian temple-visitor (improperly) views the practice as normal and expected?
I believe the answer to this question is found by understanding the following process.
Inaccurate View of GOD
Humanity's biggest problem is an inaccurate perception of GOD.
From The Fall in the Garden of Eden, this has been man's issue.
There, Satan lied to Eve, presenting her with a different (and inaccurate) perspective on who GOD is, telling her that GOD wouldn't keep His word (they wouldn't die) and that GOD didn't want them to be like Him, knowing good and evil. Eve believed Satan and Adam failed to intervene, and the results were catastrophic.
This lie continues to be successful in distorting humanity's view of GOD several millenia later and it always will for as long as time continues.
From somewhat subtle distortions such as a god who will save any who simply believe in him; or a god who requires perfect, sinless obedience in order to save someone; to extreme delusions such as a god that wants you to worship rats or knock down skyscrapers and behead "infidels" because they don't worship him—Satan is ultimately at the root of each of them (see John 8:44).
Today, Christians can be tempted to think that, because we aren't making idols out of sticks, totem poles or silver shrines, we don't worship a god other than Jehovah.
The reality is that we, too, can have an imbalanced perception of Jehovah GOD, and, if we go far enough we may develop an idol in our mind that we worship as opposed to GOD Himself.
So, how does one ensure they possess a proper, accurate mental picture of GOD?
Personal Bible Study
We develop a proper understanding of GOD by spending time with Him—alone, without external distractions.
Unlike physical human relationships, GOD is invisible and doesn't speak with us face-to-face today.
But because we need direction and help, and because He loves us immensely, GOD has written down some of His thoughts and all of His will for us to follow. When we read the Bible, we are listening to GOD speak directly to us individually. We see His character and attributes by what He tells us and the historical record of His interactions with man.
The only way that any person can properly understand GOD is to regularly spend time listening to GOD reveal Himself to them through the Bible.
Our view of GOD affects our thinking, and, to a large extent it drives our behavior.
For example, if I think that GOD is pleased when I cut and beat my body because it shows my supposed mastery over my flesh and because I think that all flesh is inherently evil, then that's what I'm going to do in order to please Him.
If I think that GOD is only vengeful, cold, distant and unconcerned with my personal feelings, then I may bow down in utter fear of His power over me, and I would probably not purue a personal relationship with Him because I would think He didn't care.
On the other hand, if I read in the Bible that GOD is love, merciful, gracious, just, holy, forgiving, fearsome, wrathful, all-seing, all-knowing, and eternal, then I begin to properly understand Him—His thinking—and, subsequently, what He expects for me.
But my thoughts on GOD are either coming from my own personal Bible study, letting Him teach me directly, or through listening to others share their views on Him.
Our thinking is reflected in our speech and in our actions.
If I have righteous thoughts that imitate GOD's character, then most of the time my speech and actions will be righteous and holy also.
But if my thinking is not inline with GOD's, then my speech and actions will be unholy and sinful.
And our speech and actions have an influence on others—either for good or bad.
As Christians, often our speech isn't a matter of being righteous or sinful, but of accurate or inaccurate.
Words are important.
In the Bible, the Holy Spirit chose to use specific words and it is extremely important that we properly recognize and understand these words and their meaning. We need to use the words GOD used in the way GOD used them.
Too often, unfortunately, we speak inaccurately about spiritual things. We might use Bible terms but we don't use them the way GOD does.
Sometimes we invent our own phrases that aren't even found in the Bible.
Two examples to illustrate:
- Someone says, "That is a beautiful church over there." We know that the church is people and not a building, yet we fall into the trap of using the word improperly.
- Have you ever used the term "worship services" to refer to a congregational assembly? For many of us, the phrase is written on our "church sign" out front. The phrase "worship services" is not biblical.
Someone says, "So what! Why does this matter so much?"
Our speech matters, because it reflects our thinking.
If our thinking is inaccurate, then our actions will be inaccurate too.
Often, these individual inaccuracies are like a ship's captain being off course by a fraction of a degree. The difference is virtually impossible to see initially, but over long periods of time, the ship gets way off course.
That's how it is with our life.
Humans have a tendency to develop comfortable, repeatable patterns of behavior over time.
People often develop these habits subconsciously or because they make us feel safe and there is comfort in the predictable experience and outcome.
Over time, these individual habits become traditions.
As Christians, we often develop spiritual traditions, such as bowing our heads in prayer before we eat a meal or at bedtime, and attending church meetings on Sunday.
There's nothing inherently wrong with human spiritual traditions (as long as they don't conflict with Scripture), but there is danger in them.
For example, Jesus had a tradition of visiting the synagogues on Saturdays to read the Law.
Spiritual traditions can become problematic, however, when we:
- Fail to follow what the Bible says.
- Begin mindlessly doing something while my heart isn't engaged—the so-called "checklist mentality."
- Start thinking that our tradition is the only way something can be done.
- Start binding our personal tradition upon other people as though it were from GOD.
- Judge, condemn, or disassociate from a fellow Christian who views the matter differently.
Considering that churches are a collection of people, it is natural that congregations have a tendency to develop traditions—their patterns and ways of doing things.
As these traditions get handed down from generation to generation, two trends often occur:
- What was initially thought of as one way of doing things becomes viewed as the way we do things. The tradition(s) becomes more ingrained and, often times, begins to be taught as a matter of right and wrong.
- The tradition(s) becomes more difficult to question, revisit or change. Any attempts to question why things are done this way are met with hostility and resentment. Little thought appears to be given to whether the tradition(s) is effective or accomplishing its original purpose.
When a Christian or congregation develops this mode of thinking, they fall prey to traditionalism.
Jesus' harshest rebukes were for the Jewish religious leaders who had elevated their religious traditions above GOD's commands and were inflicting their traditions upon others.
This is a primary reason why Jesus healed on the Sabbath day so often. He was using the opportunity as an object lesson to point out the fallacy of their thinking.
Thus far we've primarily focused our attention on individuals.
Now let's zoom out a bit and talk about two groups: societies and churches.
Both are comprised of individuals, each possessing their own thoughts, speech and actions. As a whole, these groups have values, beliefs, norms, morals and traditions. These things comprise the group's culture.
Spiritually speaking, a society's culture can be an effective gauge of its individuals' views of GOD.
If the majority of individuals in a society have a high respect for GOD and the Bible, this will be reflected by stronger families, lower crime and divorce rates and a general concern for moral behavior in lifestyles and entertainment interests. And the opposite is true as well.
Our society's culture has a significant impact upon us individualy. This is not surprising because people influence people.
While societies can be measured in terms of general morality, churches have a much higher standard of measurement—obedience to Jesus' standard.
Ideally, a congregation is comprised of Christians who are individually developing a closer, personal relationship with GOD and an accurate view of Him each day.
Sadly, too often the reality is that the majority of Christians in a congregation are primarily developing their view of GOD based on what the preacher, Bible class teacher, elder, or...gasp!...their tradition says. They aren't studying for themselves very much, if at all.
Individual congregations have a culture of their own.
This culture is determined by the thinking, speech and actions of its members.
Congregational culture is manifested in a variety of ways, including leadership, mood, enthusiasm, intimacy, love, and the attitudes of its members.
A congregation's culture is a big factor in its effectiveness.
The more positively people feel about the perceived direction of the group, the more likely they are to be highly engaged and active. The more active the individuals are, the more active the congregation is as a whole.
Changing the culture of an existing group is extremely difficult and requires complete buy-in from the group's leadership.
Even with this buy-in, the process of significant cultural change can take over a decade. The more engrained traditionalism is within a congregation, the more difficult it is for anyone to change the culture.
Returning to our Rat Temple example, the traditions of these Indian people say that reincarnation is real and the rats of the temple are their fellow Indians from a past life. Thus, these beliefs handed down through the generations have become a part of the Indian culture there.
The Cycle Continues
While the graphic to the right indicates a one-way flow, the reality is that all of our input sources (what we read, see, hear, and experience) affect each of the areas of this cycle.
For example, the culture we live in affects the way we perceive things. Our traditions impact our speech and the way we think.
When we read our Bible regularly, our thoughts become more in line with GOD's, and the cycle trends upward toward the example Jesus sets for us.
When we fail to listen to GOD, we trend downward into sin and immorality, further from Him.
The cycle of traditionalism is difficult to break.
Spiritual traditions can be very blinding, making it hard for a person to realize that they are caught in the cycle.
As devout Christians, we think that we are following GOD's will for us. Because traditions are comfortable to us, we really have to be diligent and alert in order to separate tradition from Scripture.
The answer to the question above (What is it that enables the Christian to [properly] view the worship of rats as ridiculous and sinful, while the Indian temple-visitor [improperly] views the practice as normal and expected?) is two-fold:
- Because we've read GOD's word to understand that He alone is GOD and is to be worshiped.
- Because we are on the outside of this tradition and culture looking in, we can obviously see how foolish it is.
Human traditions are much easier to spot when they aren't your traditions.
Separating Tradition from Scripture
How does one identify what is tradition from Scripture?
I believe these are the keys:
- Pray for wisdom and for GOD to reveal tradition to you so you can see it. It is His will that you obey His word and be blessed. This is a request that, when prayed sincerely, GOD will always answer yes.
- Question everything. I mean every thing. When you hear something about spiritual things, demand proof (not with a combative spirit, but persistently seeking to understand). If it isn't in the Bible in the exact way the person stated it, then it's likely they're following a tradition (or perhaps even error, if the Bible contradicts what they're saying).
- Read your Bible regularly. I recommend daily. Find a time that works for you and develop a habit. It's one tradition that I highly recommend.
- Avoid prooftexting. This is where someone will take a verse or two from the Bible and build a doctrine around it. Frequently this is done without considering the context (historical and textual) from which the passage was taken.
- Pay close attention to subjects people frequently disagree or argue over. I have learned over time that, most often when people disagree over something in Scripture it's because they missed a more fundamental truth back up the line some place. Often, people are the most defensive over those beliefs for which they have little-to-no Scriptural grounds upon which to stand.
If you recognize that you've been caught in the cycle of traditionalism, I pray GOD's blessings on you in your quest to overcome.
Simply admiting this to yourself and GOD is a huge first step toward overcoming it.
If I can help you let me know.
Thanks for reading.