Standing on the precipice of the New Year is a good place to ask what we should expect from a working religion. One may answer that such a religion provides labels – markers of things that are “good” and things that are “bad”. Life is always a journey and a working religion provides clear guidance for that journey. Some choices will benefit and others will cause harm. A working religion not only labels the difference but nudges us – or nags us – into making the right choice. Such a simple view is by no means all wrong: and in these days of moral confusion it is refreshing sometimes to hear plainly that there are “good” choices and “bad” choices.
Yet, reducing the grand purpose of religion to making choices seems to place our faith on the “self-help” shelf of the bookstore. That shelf is already crowded. And placed alongside other intriguing titles may suggest that one is as good as the other. Is there anything about a solid working religion that separates it from pop psychology? A working religion that holds promise for the New Year must offer more substance than a guide to the simple choices we will face.
I propose that the Christian faith does offer more. First, the Christian faith provides a system of priorities and equips the follower with the capacity to make wise choices within particular circumstances and contexts. This is of particular value when presented with a number of otherwise “good” choices. An example might be where you will spend more time in the New Year: home and family; career development and advancement; social obligations and commitments; church and any number of other worthy activities. Once identified, it becomes difficult to number them one, two, three. They are all good, and time, energy and thought must be divided among them. What is one to do? For the Christian struggling with this difficulty Jesus speaks, “Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33 Common English Bible) Here is our priority. God’s kingdom is wider and deeper than any list we may construct. If our deepest desire in the New Year is to pursue God’s kingdom there is the promise that God will order all our other decisions.
The second gift of a working religion is a relationship – a relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ. In the life and ministry of Jesus Christ the church is promised the capacity to make wise and useful decisions in the complexity of life. But more is needed. Life is hard. Life is exhausting. Life will leave each one of us feeling defeated at times. Wisdom gleaned from ordered priorities has limited capacity to move forward the one who is beaten down by difficulty. Fortunately Jesus promises more; Jesus promises Himself: “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20 Common English Bible) That is what we can expect from a working religion. It is what we receive.