The Great Religions By Which Men Live
Floyd H. Ross and Tynette Hills
15. JESUS AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD
The place of Jesus in history is not solely that of an individual of two thousand years ago. Jesus is a religious symbol. The facts of his life have been embroidered with the hopes and dreams of generations of Christians. For these reasons it is almost impossible to get a true historical picture of the man who unintentionally became the founder of the Christian religion, and even -- to many Christians -- God himself.
We should approach the study of Jesus in the same way that we approach the study of other religious prophets and leaders. We need respect, frankness, and an open mind. It is well to remember that the tendency to glorify or even deify a great religious leader has characterized the growth of most religions. The history of Christian attitudes illustrates this -- as do the histories of Taoism and Buddhism. Intent on exalting the divine role that the Church has given to Jesus, many have missed finding the wisdom of his teachings. They have worshiped him -- but failed to follow him. Yet the Jesus whom some at least can see behind all the adoration sought not to make men accept himself, but to accept his way of life. And what was this way?
STORIES OF JESUS
We have no written records from the time when Jesus lived. The oldest stories about him that we can find are included in the Christian New Testament. The Gospel According to Mark is usually considered to be the earliest of these. Yet it was written over forty years after the death of Jesus. It is interesting to notice that it is the simplest of the Gospels. Years later, other Gospels were written -- Matthew, Luke, and John. Each of them was written for a purpose: to present Jesus and his work in a way that would appeal to a new group of people.
Some parts of these Gospels are similar, but there are a good many differences. For example, the Gospel writers do not agree on the baptism of Jesus or the religious experience that led to his baptism and to his teaching. They do not agree as to the existence of signs from God to prove to everyone that Jesus was his unique son.
The writers disagree -- and so do Christian scholars today -- on Jesus’ belief about the Kingdom of God. Some say that Jesus, like many of the Jews in the Palestine of his day, expected it to come in dramatic, world-shaking fashion. Others say that he thought of it solely as an inner Kingdom, which would emerge slowly in the hearts of people. There are New Testament passages that support each interpretation. There are passages that declare Jesus’ expectation of an important role in the Kingdom, as a representative of God. And there are other passages that present him more as a humble teacher like Amos, Hosea, or the other prophets.
Because of such interesting differences in interpretation of details, scholars recognize that we can never know Jesus as be really was. We can know him only as he was remembered by the children and grandchildren of those who first heard and knew him. The historian knows that this is a problem common to all religions, but Christians have made more attempts to "prove’ things by appealing to their scriptures than many other people have. Such "proof" has not been of great concern to Buddhists and Hindus, for example. They believe that truth is timeless. It is as available to each person through his own experience as it is to important religious leaders.
Thus we should know at the beginning that there is little we can prove about the way that Jesus lived and taught. Where honest scholars disagree, it is important that we read the records for ourselves. In that way we may become aware of the difficult problems involved in choosing any interpretation. Each of us must remember that without real effort he will find in the records only what he wishes to discover there. Too often what we find tells more about our own personalities than it does about the truth we seek.
The story of Jesus is not ended with his death. It stretches into the centuries of Christianity. Jesus committed himself to the will of God, as he understood it, and to the urgent requirements of the Kingdom of God. This commitment and the drama of his life have made Jesus a directing factor in the lives of Christians. More than nineteen centuries have passed since he spoke to disciples and followers. Let us strip back the layers of years to discover, as best we can, how he taught and lived.
JOHN THE BAPTIZER
On an ordinary day in Palestine in about the year 26 AD, a man called John the Baptizer was teaching close by the banks of the River Jordan. His fame as a fiery, stern teacher had already spread about the countryside. And on this day there were many people who had walked long distances to hear him. Once there, they sat on the hard stones in the parching heat.
They were so held by the speaker that they did not notice the discomforts of this arid section of Judea. John spoke to them urgently and sternly. He preached of a new kind of life that they must live -- a life marked by repentance for their past wrongdoings. They must repent now, for the Kingdom of God was about to come, bringing with it peace and satisfaction for the righteous, but dreadful suffering for sinners. The comforts of life, offerings in the Temple, rituals and ceremonies of worship -- these did not matter. What did matter was a radical change of life, with one’s whole being cleansed and righted by repentance.
Among those who listened most attentively to John’s insistent words that afternoon was a young man named Jesus. Jesus had come all the way from Nazareth to hear this new teacher, who lived as a hermit in the wilderness but drew crowds even there through the force of his message. Jesus was strangely stirred by the words he heard, by their boldness, their sincerity, and their power. He watched as others accepted John’s invitation to go down into the River Jordan to be baptized as a sign of their repentance and their promises to live new lives. After a time of listening, Jesus too went down to be baptized by John.
A NEW DECISION
Jesus was profoundly moved by this experience. He seemed to feel that God took notice of his action and was pleased with it. Not long after this, Jesus went away into the wilderness by himself to think through what his life should be thereafter. In the time of his solitary thought, Jesus became convinced that God wanted him to live his life in a special way, teaching others and helping them.
Yet Jesus felt that he did not want to be the same kind of teacher as John, living away from people in the rough and lonely wilds. Instead, Jesus would carry his message to the people in the towns and cities, as well as those in the countryside. He was filled with a great desire to teach those who faced the everyday problems of life and religion -- not just those who were able to leave homes and daily comforts, as John’s followers had. He went home to tell his family and friends what he had decided to do.
It was not easy to carry out his decision. Most people among his family and friends could not understand or appreciate his intentions. To some of them, Jesus had always seemed to be very serious, but they had never expected to see him depart so radically from the usual kind of life. His mother, his brothers, and his sisters had come to depend upon him for their livelihood, since the death of his father, Joseph. How could they get along without him?
He had to face the objections and perhaps the ridicule of the people of his village. Some of them would have approved of his leaving had he been going to join one of the many anti-Roman underground movements. But how was he going to help his people overcome their conquerors merely by becoming a wandering preacher? Possibly, also, Jesus had to face lingering doubts about whether he could actually live in the way he planned. There would be no home, no income, and no friends upon whom he could depend. All that he ever ate or wore would have to be provided by those who listened to what he told them. Would what he taught them be worth what they gave?
Despite all arguments, he went ahead. He had expected such difficulties. What strength he needed to carry out his plans came from the inspiration that had led to them. Alone and lacking the approval of relatives and friends, he set off for Capernaum, to begin there the ministry that led to his death and to the birth of the Christian religion.
GOD AND HIS KINGDOM
Jesus’ decision, like most such decisions, had deep roots. As a child, Jesus had learned the Jewish history and scriptures from his father and from synagogue leaders. He knew well the ever-present Jewish hope for a brighter, better future, when God would help the Jews to regain their freedom and prestige among the nations. This hope flamed high in their hearts as they lived under Roman conquerors.
For some time Jesus had thought carefully about this national hope, and he now knew that he could not fully agree with those who held it. Many of the Jews had gotten into a hopeless feeling that what they as individuals did were not important. They believed that sometime God was going to cause a miracle, bringing into being a new age, when Palestine would be powerful, independent, and respected among the nations. There would be no occupying armies or foreign governors. The Jewish people would live in the same prosperous way they had lived under King David of long ago. To inaugurate this new age, God’s anointed one, the Messiah, would overcome their enemies. Then he would rule in the Kingdom of God, for which generations of Jews had hoped.
This could not be the way in which God would bring a thing to pass, Jesus had decided. God did not send his blessings to some and withhold them from others. God’s blessings came to a person in the quiet, transforming knowledge that his life was the best he could live. The Kingdom of God was not a condition that waited in some undisclosed future. No, the Kingdom of God was a present possibility of goodness that was hidden, like a seed, inside every person. You have only to let it grow naturally, aiding its development by loving attitudes and kind deeds. And behold, it grows gradually until you yourself are part of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ ideas about the Kingdom stemmed very naturally from his beliefs about God. Jesus had had the kind of religious training that all loyal Jews tried to give their children. He had heard the stories of the prophets. He knew many of the Psalms, which described God’s love and mercy. Most important of all, Jesus had taken the time to develop a close personal relationship with his God. Prayer and meditation had led him to feel at home with God. Later, Jesus was to tell many parables describing God as like a father, forgiving, concerned, and loving. Throughout his life, he was to turn to God as to a guide, a source of strength and inspiration, ever available to the call of meditation and prayer.
Often Jesus was to refer to the will of God when he taught and comforted his hearers. God expected something of men, to be sure. He expected them to behave toward each other with loving concern, forgiveness, and patience, just as he dealt with them. This was the righteousness God’s Kingdom required, not a righteousness bound up with many rules and practices. This righteousness went much deeper -- as deep as the thoughts and intentions and desires. From these roots it flowed out into righteous speech, righteous acts, and righteous efforts.
JESUS AND HIS TEACHINGS
In Capernaum and in most of the towns to which he later went, Jesus was well received by the common people. He came to them with a special message of hope. Many of them could not afford the special sacrifices that had to be taken annually to the temple at Jerusalem. The priests had told them that such sacrifices must be offered if they wished to be in God’s favor. What were they to do? Jesus said that the offerings of a contrite heart and a pure life were far more important to God than offerings of first fruits or year-old kids.
Some of the people who listened gladly to Jesus were those who felt extremely guilty for rules they had not kept. There were countless Jewish laws telling them what to eat and how it should be served and prescribing the observance of many small religious customs. The poor people who spent all their time eking out their meager existence had no opportunity and often no information about such rules. Many of the Jewish priests and teachers condemned them as sinners. Jesus told the people that they should not be so concerned with the outward performance of the laws that they forgot the spirit of the laws. The laws and the prophets of his people’s religion had emphasized two things: love of God and love of neighbor.
Some people had become ill because they were so filled with feelings of sinfulness or so upset by their constant failure to do all that their religion required. To people like these, Jesus’ message was like medicine. They were sick at heart, and that had made some of them ill. His words and his understanding made them feel better, and their health returned. Through such situations, Jesus gained a reputation as a healer. Many people were attracted to him for this reason. Sometimes he became discouraged that there were so many people who wanted to be healed, but so few who wanted to join him in living by the will of God.
Not all of the people liked what they heard. There were many Jews who felt that a man could not possibly live a good life unless he fulfilled each Jewish law in the most exacting detail. They did not like to hear anyone say that laws were not important. Some of the religious leaders became very angry as Jesus’ reputation as a healer increased. They thought that sinful people deserved to suffer. What right did Jesus have to make them feel that they had been forgiven? God alone knew whether they were forgiven.
Other Jews were troubled because Jesus seemed to be too peaceful and too loving. He did not even hate their enemies, the occupying Roman soldiers. They knew the history of their race, with all its humiliating defeats and invasions. This Roman occupation was only one of a long chain of occupations by conquerors. Some of Jesus’ followers had hoped that he might prove himself to be the forceful Messiah, who was to come to help them attain a position of power and prosperity once again. When he continued to teach love and patience, some of them gave up in disgust. Some kept on following, still hoping that he would be such a Messiah in the end.
A good many followers could not understand what it was that Jesus was saying when he described his ideas of the Kingdom of God. He emphasized again and again that people did not have to wait until conditions were ideal in order to live in the right way. A man is what he is inside himself.
This quality of the inner life is not determined by occupying armies, by exact following of laws, or by large offerings at the Temple. The thought you have before you speak is more important than what you say. The attitude you have underneath your act is more important than what you do.
Jesus told beautiful stories to make the Kingdom seem real to his listeners. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds. But when it is grown, the mustard plant is very large. Just so, the Kingdom within is at first so tiny that one may not even be aware of it. But when it is fully developed, it overshadows everything else in a person’s life. The Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man discovered it, he rushed out and sold everything he had in order to buy that field. In the same way, when a man discovers the inestimable value of the Kingdom, he gives up everything for it.
To Jesus, the Kingdom of God was the ultimate goal of all human effort. There was really nothing else worth seeking. Men were designed to live in such a Kingdom. It did not depend upon a certain time or a certain place. The Kingdom of God required only righteous people as its citizens, only mercy, kindness, and love as its laws. Wherever there were righteous people using mercy, kindness ness, and love as their way of life, there was the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he was filled with a sense of urgency. People must not fold their hands and wait for God to bring in the Kingdom. The time was now. People must discover their capacity for goodness and begin to live in the right way. Jesus told people that this required repentance. They must leave their old ways of living behind and henceforth choose and live righteously, by the will of God. Then the Kingdom of God would come. God was ready. Men must be, too.
Since he felt so strongly that every person must meet the conditions of the Kingdom, Jesus took his message to many so-called sinful people. Those who criticized him found it easy to point to occasions when he had talked with the hated tax collectors or visited with persons of questionable reputation. How could a man be a good religious teacher if he kept such poor company? Jesus answered, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
Over and over Jesus repeated that God did not blame sinners half so much as some people did. God is ready with forgiveness the moment a person sincerely asks for it. God is like a father who sees his son leave home, bent upon wasting his money and his time in a foolish search for pleasure. The moment the son returns, sadder and wiser, and determined to live rightly, the father welcomes him eagerly, forgetting his blame for the joy of having him again. Even so, the Father in Heaven welcomes those who are so sorry for past foolishness that they are sincerely ready to try to live by His will.
At the end of a year or so of teaching, Jesus had collected a number of followers. Twelve of them, later known as the disciples, had been so impressed with their master’s message that they, too, had given up homes and families and occupations. Like Jesus, they felt that the demands of the Kingdom blotted out all lesser considerations. Everything else was secondary to life’s spiritual search.
Jesus became increasingly aware that his activities were meeting with disapproval from many sources. The officials of the Jewish religion, who had never been enthusiastic about his mission, became more hostile. The Romans, who wished mainly for peace and order, suspected any radical movement of having revolutionary plans. They began to fear Jesus’ talk of the coming Kingdom, even though to Jesus it was completely spiritual.
For a long time, there had been warnings that the way of life he had chosen might lead to his death. There would have been time to change his teachings so that he would not incur the wrath of the powerful priests. There would have been time to reassure the Romans by speaking less emphatically of the Kingdom of God. Such compromises were impossible for Jesus, in the light of his central concern with the will of God. He might have stayed away from Jerusalem, but this was the center of Judaism. He felt he had a message to give and a part to take in the Passover celebration. He had always joined in the religious feasts of his people. So, at the height of the holiday excitement, Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem.
HIS MINISTRY ENDS
During this visit, Jesus was put to death on the cross, at the hands of the Romans. Probably some of the priests or some of the zealous Jewish patriots had helped to convince them that this man was a rabble-rouser who worked against the welfare of the state. Some of the patriots were disappointed that Jesus still refused to lead revolt against Rome. The priests could feel more secure in their positions after he was gone. There were no masses of people to cry out in Jesus’ behalf. The large numbers of followers had left him before that, discouraged with the fruitless waiting for him to declare himself to be the Messiah. It seemed to some of his disciples that the whole religious adventure had begun to demand too much. They abandoned Jesus in fear for their own safety.
Jesus must have had many moments of discouragement in his last days. He had seen people who wished him to do things his convictions would not let him do. He had seen his disciples acting in ways that showed they still did not fully understand what he had tried so long to teach them about the will of God. He had known for some time that he might be killed. Was his death to come before he accomplished all he had set out to do? Was he to leave his people still unprepared to be the avenues through which God would work to bring in the Kingdom? How hard it must have been to see his efforts ended before he had reached his goals.
But the end had come. The bewildered disciples went into hiding. Later, when they felt safe, they met together and talked in hushed tones of the tragic thing that had happened. Their sorrow led them into deeper fellowship, and they recalled together the experiences they had shared with Jesus. From this early fellowship, Christianity began.
In many ways, Christianity differs greatly from the simple religion of Jesus. But for the chief ideas of its faith, it looks back to the humble, dedicated young man from Galilee, who said that a man must commit himself wholly to God, and then to his neighbor. Jesus’ death, as a consequence of his beliefs, was the next logical step in his own life of consecration to the task of bringing the Kingdom of God on earth.
16. FOUNDATIONS OF THE FAITH
It is easy to understand the bewilderment and fear of those early followers of Jesus who witnessed his arrest and his crucifixion. He was killed as a criminal, and they, having shared in his work, feared that they must surely share in his punishment. With great haste they hid, and for a time the movement seemed no longer to exist.
When the danger had passed and the disciples of Jesus had begun to see each other again, they recalled the joys and sorrows of their days spent with the Master. Together they looked for comfort for their grief in telling and retelling stories of Jesus. So constantly did they live with his memory that Jesus seemed still with them. Some began to believe that he was not dead. True, he had died upon the cross and had been buried. But now he lived again. He had left them only briefly, to prepare for ushering in the new age, the Kingdom of God.
THE FIRST CHRISTIANS
These convictions came easily to the first-century Christians. They were men of their time, whose ignorance often held them to superstitious beliefs. Sometimes they believed literally in their dreams and visions. They believed in demons and angels. They believed that dead bodies could sometimes come out of graves. Now they believed that Jesus would return.
To nourish their hope, they recalled statements they thought Jesus had made. Had he not announced that the Kingdom was coming almost immediately? Had he not called them from their ordinary lives to work with him for its coming? Had he not promised that they could share in it? Surely it was so. He would come again, and the Kingdom of God would come with him. He was, after all, the Messiah!
A fire with the urgency of their message, the disciples rushed to tell others. Jesus would be back soon to bring in the Kingdom of God. This would happen within their generation! Numbers of Jews heard and heeded the warning to prepare themselves. Later, when year after year passed and nothing happened, the urgency of the message began to be spent.
CHIRISTIANITY LEAVES JUDAISM
Jesus’ teachings were never to become a part of his native Jewish religion. Jesus had directed his message to those who had not found comfort in strict Judaism. Many followers were drawn from the fringes of Jewish life, both in religion and in politics. Strengthened by the influence of Jesus, these people moved farther than ever from the more orthodox Jesus. Even so, it was a long time before the Jewish-Christians would admit Gentiles (non-Jews) into their fellowship.
The disciple Peter was among those who insisted upon keeping the movement exclusively Jewish. But later, when Paul became a Christian, he persuaded Peter and others to admit Gentiles into the group. After that, it was not long before non-Jews outnumbered Jews in the Christian movement.
JESUS AS THE CHRIST OF CHRISTIANITY
Of all the people associated with the beginnings of Christianity, Paul was most responsible for the turn its beliefs took. He added a new note that determined its future course. The new idea came from the popular "mystery cult" religions that abounded in the Mediterranean lands. The "mystery" applied to a mystical, symbolic union with a god who lived in human form, died, but came to life again. Through a secret ceremony that symbolically united him with his god, the believer was assured that he could change his human nature to divine nature and thus gain a happy afterlife. There were a number of mystery cults, with different gods. But all of them emphasized the salvation resulting from dedication to a dying-rising Lord.
It is interesting that the word Kyrios (Lord), which the Greeks applied to the dying-rising god, was used by Paul to apply to Jesus. It was natural that those who heard Jesus called Kyrios should interpret him in a mystery-cult sense. For many converts to Christianity, Jesus was from the first a savior-god in a human body.
One of the greatest debates in Christian history was about whether Jesus was a god, like God, or the God. After a great deal of angry oratory, it was finally decided that Jesus was "very God of very God." This debate was only one of many theological wrangles, most of which would not have developed had Jesus lived lone enough to help organize a new and growing religion. As it was, Jesus probably would not have been interested anyway. Life, to him, was not something to be argued and debated. Neither was religion. A man must live religion, not debate it.
Christians have said that Jesus is a personal savior. Usually, they call him the Christ, which means Deliverer or Messiah. They say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Most Christians have believed that he shares in God’s divinity, that he is God himself. He lived and died as a man and for men. But he arose from the grave and ascended into heaven to "sit at the right hand of God," as one famous creed declares.
These definitions developed from the mystery-cult ideas, which are so ancient that most modern Christians do not know of their origin or the reasons for their existence. The ideas have lived long beyond their sources, because they have been included in the creeds of the orthodox Christian churches. There is an old Christian story, which tells about the ancient ideas. It is called by many the "story of salvation." It describes men as having been steeped in sinfulness, from the time of the very first people. Men were so filled with wickedness that they no longer knew about goodness. Only God could do anything to redeem them from the situation. So God chose the Hebrew-Jewish people to teach men to rise above their continuing sinfulness.
The Jews did not play their proper part in the plan. So God sent Jesus Christ, his only Son, to bring men back into harmony with himself. Through his life, death, resurrection, and subsequent ascension into Heaven, Jesus did everything that was needed. Through this one divine sacrifice, men could obtain cancellation or forgiveness for their vast sins against God.
Practically all Christians accept the central items in the great dramatic tale as being true, although some do not look upon the words as telling what actually happened. Some feel that it is a way of picturing something that is true. They have said that the story means that people were originally intended to be complete and in right relationship to God.
However, person after person, in generation after generation, made improper choices. They lost the right relationship, and thus they lost the ability to live perfectly. Each person must go through the difficult but rewarding process of finding it again. At the same time that a man is honestly trying, God is interested in his welfare. God has made it possible for a man to find himself again.
By far the majority of Christians have said that Jesus was an essential part of God’s way of making salvation possible. This has led Christians to pray to the Christ and to worship him, just as they worship God. In Jesus Christ, many Christians have found all the god they know.
All Christians claim that their beliefs stem from something that Jesus said or did, even though Christians of all sects believe many things of which Jesus himself never heard or spoke. Throughout the development of Christianity, Christians have faced the same universal questions of the nature of man and the nature of God. Most Christians have found answers to these questions that differ greatly from Jesus’ own answers. Answers depend upon personal experience. So Christian answers have varied with times and places. But the questions about which people have wondered, in Jesus’ day and in our own, are very similar, because men are basically alike.
WHAT AM I?
Christians generally would say that a man is more than what he appears to be. That which is visible, the body, actually is the house of an invisible self. Traditionally, Christians have called this inner self the "soul." A human body is a temporary thing, which finally dies. Its elements blend once more with the elements of the earth. But a human soul is eternal, surviving the death of the body, say most Christians.
The human soul is akin to God in this sense. God is the eternal spirit, existing from before creation. Human souls are created by God, and once created, they also are eternal. Christians believe that each soul is individual, having been united with an individual body since before the person’s birth. Through the union of soul and body, a person is brought into being.
Christians have tried to describe the soul in various ways. Some have thought it might be connected with the intelligence, or with the life force, or with something else. But Christians as a whole have never been able to agree on another word for it. They say "soul," and they mean that it is "that eternal something" which is not some thing. It is not affected by death or other destructive forces. It is that which underlies a man’s whole conscious life. It cannot be seen. It occupies no space. It is timeless and changeless. Its existence cannot be proved. It is taken "on faith."
WHAT IS GOD?
A newborn baby does not know himself to be a person. He must gradually experience the fact that he is someone different from his mother, and then from all those other people he comes to know. He must learn to be conscious of himself. Then he becomes conscious of more and more people with whom he comes into contact.
As he grows and matures in his relationships with himself and with others, he becomes ready for larger experiences. The orderly and changeless laws of nature, which he has observed since childhood; the hopes and needs he shares with his fellows; the dependable cycle of growth and decay, in which he sees all things and beings participate -- these are gradually making him conscious of something beyond himself and those like himself. There seems to be a meaning and a plan to life. What is it? What is back of it all?
Such questions have been among the most universal of human wonderings. They have led most people to suggest that something or someone they call God is back of it all. Christians have offered many descriptions of God, even though they admit that God is beyond human understanding and description. He is unlimited in power, in wisdom, in mercy, and in love. He is boundless, invisible, and gracious. He is Judge, Lord, Father.
What these descriptions mean to a person depends entirely on his own experience. Any one of the terms cannot be equally valuable to all. Such descriptions have been like sign posts or pointers along the way. But they have not been as final as some theologians have claimed. It is helpful to remember that when Jesus wanted to pass on something of his own faith and philosophy, he used parables, stories, and poetic figures of speech.
The pages of Christian history reveal many leaders who did not know as much about people as Jesus did. He knew that there is no real understanding apart from experience, either direct or indirect. A person must know and define God for himself. But Christian history contains tales of compulsory beliefs. There have been times when the faith was defined and all who could not accept it were forced to leave the church. There were arguments and wars and persecution, in the name of one creed or another.
Yet always, even at the height of persecution and compulsion, there were some thoughtful people who knew that faith is personal. Creeds cannot really be enforced. One’s idea of God is as individual as one’s response to a symphony. I cannot possibly hear the symphony for you, nor can I experience God for you. Then why must we describe them in the same terms?
WHAT IS THE HOLY SPIRIT
The Christian story of salvation tells that God revealed his great love when he sent his son among men to be a guide and savior. But Jesus is no longer here to lead people into better ways of living. In his place, says the old story, God sent the Holy Spirit. For many years, great arguments were held in orthodox circles as to the place and function of the Holy Spirit. Most modern Christians are no longer concerned with such debates. The Holy Spirit is looked upon as God is another form. It is the power of God working in and through the life of the believer to sustain him and to keep him in right relationship to God and to his neighbor.
Christianity, then, has three gods or it has one -- depending upon the opinions of the person who is doing the explaining. Christians are usually indignant when someone says that Christianity is not monotheistic. However, people in non-Christian lands find it very difficult to understand how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit can be one God. Christians often answer that God can appear in many roles, just as one man may be a son, a husband, and a father.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP TO GOD?
The orthodox Christian is one who affirms the doctrines expressed in the great church creeds. Often the creeds have answered a Christian’s questions before he ever had a real chance to ask them. Yet millions of orthodox Christians are still claiming to be satisfied by the answers of the creeds.
According to the orthodox teachings, God created the world and everything in it because of his love for goodness. He decided to embody goodness in the universe, in all living things, in everything that exists. This is a difficult doctrine to understand, as are all attempts to explain the very beginnings of creation.
Orthodox Christians say that once God had created men and put them on this earth to live, he would not leave them without knowledge of his will. He would give them a continuing revelation of their responsibilities. He would make it possible for them to live good and satisfying lives. This is because of an important quality God has -- grace.
The grace of God makes it possible for men to know God, and his will for them in their daily lives. It makes it possible for people to shed their old errors and strive again after perfection, or at least betterment. God’s grace has led to a possibility of "eternal life," or an eternal quality of life, that is not destroyed by the death of a person.
Most Christians insist that there is some kind of heaven to which faithful believers may look forward with confidence. They view this "paradise" in different ways, though churches have long cautioned their members not to wish for material rewards for what should be a spiritual endeavor. Many orthodox Christians have also believed in a personal devil, called Satan, and in some kind of hell or eternal torment for those who are not "saved."
The underlying causes of the belief in heavens and hells, devils and angels, and the like are only partially understood even now. None of these things may have any actual existence. Yet they all say something about human needs. They tell of the torment brought by feelings of guilt and of "lost ness." They tell also of moments of inner peace that seem "heavenly."
Persons who do not find freedom and joy in the present tend to worry unduly about the past or the future. Often their disappointment and disillusion leads them to hope for a tomorrow that will solve the problems, which presently trouble them. The intense concern about the "afterlife," which so many religious folk have felt, is not a sign of inner health and genuine faith in life’s possibilities. Rather, it reveals a lack of real faith and confidence in life.
Some Christians have always insisted that heaven and hell are not places to be inhabited in some remote future. They are conditions of the mind and soul. People were intended to live at peace with God. Because they are so designed, doing God’s will brings them serenity. This is heaven. It is not necessary to die to find it. In the same way, one who violates the requirements for peace with God is living now in hell.
WHAT IS THE GOOD LIFE?
To live at one’s best is not easy. It requires effort and sometimes pain. It is not enough to be kind and helpful to others, to follow rituals of private devotion to God, and to be sorry for past shortcomings. Details fall into proper place for Christians who recall that Jesus said men must first love God and then their neighbors. The good life requires a whole recentering around a Spirit of love. Only in this way can good acts and sincere devotion have meaning and purpose. Then life is complete.
Most Christians believe that a person may still make mistakes in his day-to-day living, even when he has recentered his life around an attitude of love. They call such mistakes "sins." Sins can vary in their seriousness from sins against men to sins against God. Most of the organized Christian churches have catalogued sins and the extent of their wickedness. Members are warned against committing sins and instructed in ways of obtaining forgiveness once they have been committed.
Living by warnings, guilt, and regret is very different from the creative living that some Christians have achieved. They have discovered that a good life does not come from memorizing lists of things to do and things not to do. It comes from facing each experience with confidence and concern. Then all contacts and experiences are religious. All life is religious. And we are true to the best we can be.
All of present-day manners and morals appear to be built upon foundations of self-restraint and respect for others. Through wise and temperate living, a person builds good habits. Good habits are an aid to a good life. But thoughtful Christians remember that every new act demands a new decision. The good life is attained by choosing wisely, weighing what may be temporary values against enduring ones.
For centuries, Christians have believed that they could find a deep, lasting happiness by living a life of devotion to God and to others. A person’s greatest opportunity is to seek this end. But Christians admit that there are many people around us whose lives do not seem to reveal this quality. Still, each person is offered the opportunity. God does not choose for him. Devoted Christians have chosen for themselves, saying, as Jesus said: "Thy will be done."
17. PATH TO SALVATION
It was from Jesus that Christianity got its start and its name. Jesus, however, would probably feel himself a stranger in discussions of Christian beliefs. As Jesus had found, to his sorrow, people are often more eager to pay respect to a trusted teacher than to follow his example of courageous seeking. From the first century, Christians forgot or ignored most of what Jesus taught. Instead they clung to Jesus. They saw in him many things, which he apparently never dreamed of claiming for himself. Christianity is not the religion of Jesus. It is the religion about Jesus.
The chief reason for the differences Christianity has shown lies in a simple fact: the world is not the same as it was in Jesus’ time. Because the world changes, religions change. No religion stands still. Every religion goes through a process of growth and alteration so long as it is a living force among people. It takes into itself ideas, hopes, fears, and customs. As a religion changes people, it too is changed.
So Christians have been changed by their beliefs, and gradually the beliefs have been altered. Often the different beliefs have formed the basis for a new fellowship or congregation of people, who see in it a stronger hope for a better life. Thus Christianity is represented by many different groups, each considering its own way to be an important, and perhaps better, path to salvation.
THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
Roman Catholics trace their beginnings back to a conversation between Jesus and Peter, as reported in Matthew 16:17 -- 19. In this passage, Jesus tells Peter that he is the foundation of the Church. Peter is God’s deputy on earth, with power to decide between right and wrong and to forgive sins or withhold forgiveness. Roman Catholics say that this statement proved that Jesus established their Church.
They say that God made Peter the first Pope, with full authority over all Christians. The line of Popes has extended down to the present day, with each Pope receiving the authority that was once Peter’s. Each Pope is the visible head of the Church. Christ is the invisible ruler.
To Roman Catholics, the Church is an essential part of God’s plan for the salvation of men. God, out of His love and grace, established the Church to make clear and definite the means of man’s redemption. This is the only reason that the Church exists. Remembering this, Catholic leaders, from the Pope down to the priests, have constantly sought to make the Church effective in even the smallest details of man’s salvation.
Faith. The Catholic is not asked to understand the plan of salvation. He is not asked to understand God -- indeed he cannot. He is asked to believe and obey. His belief and his obedience rest on one basic doctrine: that if God were an infinitely loving God, he would set up some definite channel for saving mankind. The Roman Catholic Church insists that this is exactly what God did when he sent Jesus, his son, into the world. Jesus, in turn, gave to Peter the "keys of the kingdom."
All men need to be saved because of their share in the original sin that mankind committed in rebelling against God. Catholics believe the old story of how God provided a way of salvation from the burden of sins. By suffering as he did for men, Jesus paid the debt men could never hope to satisfy. Jesus made it possible for all people to receive salvation.
The Beatific Vision. Salvation brings a person the highest happiness he can know, the Beatific Vision. This does not mean simply "heaven." While it takes place in heaven, it is actually experience of coming face to face with God. Only after death is this possible. While one lives, there are only suggestions of it.
Here in the world, our knowledge is limited. We can see only parts of truth. But we are made to know God and to know wholeness, and only through this knowledge can we find deep happiness. The Beatific Vision brings full knowledge of Truth, through the vision of God. It is beyond understanding and interpretation, but the Church assures Catholics that it is the greatest blessing.
The Bible. The scriptures, like the ritual, of Roman Catholicism are usually in Latin. In recent years, translations into other languages have been allowed. The Roman Catholic Bible includes the familiar books of the Old and New Testaments and an additional section known as the Apocrypha.
Catholics revere the Bible chiefly because it contains the story of salvation. They believe that there are no errors or uncertainties in the Bible. However, most Catholics do not study the Bible personally. They are not expected to interpret it for themselves, since the Church teaches a meaning for most of its passages. It is far more important that a Catholic study the teachings of the Church than that he read the Bible.
The Sacraments. A Roman Catholic comes into contact with his Church most frequently through his use of the seven sacraments, which give him guidance and strength on the path to salvation. He thinks of them as symbols of God’s grace, which is channeled through the Church. Roman Catholics do not claim that the sacraments are the only way to salvation. But they offer a safe and sure escape from eternal unhappiness and punishment to those who use them.
Usually a Roman Catholic receives the sacrament of Baptism in his infancy. It removes the guilt of original sin and any sins committed up to that time. The sacrament of Confirmation is given when he is old enough to understand. It bestows the blessings of the Holy Spirit, which help the person to renew his intention and courage to follow God’s will, as interpreted by the Church.
When a Catholic marries, the sacrament of Matrimony confers God’s blessing and approval upon the marriage and upon the children who may be born to the couple. The Church considers this to be so important that it refuses to consider as a marriage any ceremony other than its own. Roman Catholics are taught that marriage is the eternal and holy union of a man and woman for the purpose of continuing the human race.
The sacrament of Ordination is given to purify and dedicate men and women for service in the holy orders of monks and nuns and for the priesthood. The ordained person puts aside his daily concerns, including marriage and family life. This is the supreme task of a Christian. For those who are able to undertake its demands, it offers more opportunities for salvation than any other way of life.
Persons about to die receive the sacrament of Extreme Unction from the priest. It grants forgiveness of their last sins.
There are two other sacraments, the Eucharist and Penance, which make available more frequent spiritual blessing. Each Sunday and on certain other days. Catholics are expected to attend a service called the Mass, which celebrates the Eucharist. It is an age-old rite of remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples and of his death upon the cross as a sacrifice for men’s sins. In it, the priest performs a twofold miracle on wine and bread, turning them into the blood and body of Christ, without changing their appearance.
Catholics believe that this miracle of transubstantiation takes place when the priest offers the elements to God, in re-enactment of the death of Christ. The priest then partakes of both the transformed bread and wine. Unless illness prevents, Catholics are required to participate in the Eucharist through receiving the consecrated bread from the priest at the altar rail at least once annually, during Easter season. Through the repetition of this religious drama, a Catholic believes that he is aided in his progress toward salvation.
Since none of the sacraments remove a human being’s tendency to sin, a Catholic frequently needs to seek forgiveness of his recent sins. This is possible through the sacrament of Penance. Penance includes regretting the sin, confessing to a priest, accomplishing penalties assigned by the priest, and obtaining forgiveness from the priest.
Saints. The saints honored by Roman Catholics include the early disciples, some members of holy orders, and others whose faith and actions showed their full dedication to the search for salvation. Catholics believe that these saintly persons lived the life that leads to salvation so successfully that they can help others. Through prayer to the saint, through burning candles before his image, and through other acts of honoring his spirit, the Roman Catholic believes that he may obtain some of the saint’s merit for himself.
Mary. Roman Catholics revere the mother of Jesus as "Holy Mary, Mother of God." They believe that God extraordinarily honored her when he chose her to be the virgin mother of his miraculously conceived son. To many Catholics, Mary seems nearer and more concerned with their daily problems than either Christ or God, who inspire worshipers with awe. They sometimes call her "Queen of Heaven," and they ask her to pray for them, now and at the time of their deaths.
The Church and History. The word catholic means universal or general in its effects on men. Certainly the Roman Catholic Church has affected a large part of mankind. It has spoken to millions of people whose chief desire was a sense of comfort and certainty in a life ridden with distress and doubt. To these it has been a beacon of hope and security for the life they live now and the life they expect to come.
THE EASTERN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN CHURCH
Students of cultures have long noted that great differences exist between peoples of the Eastern and Western hemispheres. From its infancy, the Christian religion was jarred by the differences. There were conflicts and disagreements that were partly political, partly racial, and partly religious. Finally, in the eleventh century the conflicts resulted in a break that has never been mended. The Eastern and Western churches excommunicated each other, each claiming to be the one orthodox Christian Church.
Church. The Eastern churches have no pope. Each church is part of an area known as a patriarchate, which belongs to a federation of patriarchates. Eastern Christians believe that they are members of the only authentic Church stemming directly from the work of the first Christians. They call it the "Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church."
Creed. The Eastern churches have not changed the creeds, but they do not interpret them literally. Roman Catholics have concentrated upon the salvation available through the death of Jesus. But Eastern Catholics have been far more interested in his divine-human nature. Roman Catholics have tried harder to obey the teachings of the Church. But Eastern Christians have tried harder to feel at one with God. Other Christians have been occupied with winning salvation for the next life. But Eastern Christians have sought a spiritual rebirth in this life.
Sacraments. The Eastern Orthodox Christians observe seven sacraments. Like Roman Catholics, they consider the mass their most important act of worship but both the cup and the bread are offered to the congregation.
Priesthood. Priests are looked upon as necessary agents between God and man. A priest may be married, if the marriage takes place before his ordination. Monks, of course, take the usual vows of devotion, chastity, obedience, and poverty. From among the monks, bishops are chosen for each patriarchate. They are known as patriarchs or metropolitans. They are equal in rank, though one may be designated as honorary leader.
Worship. The formal and impressive services of worship are dear to the Eastern Christians. Their priests intone the words of the ritual in Greek, or in Old Church Slavonic. Churches are decorated with special religious paintings called icons -- never with statues.
Scriptures. The scriptures are substantially the same as the Bible familiar to all Christians. Priests encourage their people to read the Bible, and all may interpret what they read.
Practice. The Eastern Orthodox Christian has usually felt that his religion demanded a change in his inner life. He has not felt that it asked great changes in society or governments. For this reason, Eastern churches have sometimes accepted governmental and social activities that Westerners have condemned.
Most of the Eastern Orthodox Christians are found in eastern Europe, in Asia, and in Egypt. Since they have not usually been interested in recruiting new converts, their religion has spread to the United States and other lands almost solely through emigration.
Wherever sincere Eastern Christians have gone, they have taken the quiet beauty and rich symbolism of their worship service and their churches. They have impressed others with their quiet, unhurried search for an inner life that surpasses the human and links them with the divine.
PROTESTANT CHRISTIAN CHURCHES
The Christian Church was to split again. A young German named Martin Luther drove the opening wedge. Little did he realize that his actions on that day in 1517 would lead to the far-reaching Protestant Reformation. All he did was announce his wish to debate his reasons for condemning a highly publicized sale of "indulgences," which guaranteed forgiveness of sins.
It happened that the sale he condemned was offered by an official of the Roman Catholic Church and approved by the Pope. And Luther himself was a priest. His announcement nailed to a church door was a startling challenge to the authority of the Pope and the Church, in a day when the whole of society was governed by their dictates. Faced with the demand that he retract his statements, Luther found that he could not do so honestly. His countrymen rallied around him, and the Protestant Reformation had begun.
Later leaders made other extensive "protests" against the authority of the Church. Their motives varied, but all of them had one belief in common. The way to salvation was not exclusively linked with the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. Most of the protests were against the church system, not against the doctrine. For most Protestants, there are still no radical doctrinal disagreements.
There are now scores of different sects in Protestantism, with no single authority over them all. Most Protestants believe in the rights of others to choose their own religious beliefs and their own religious fellowships. Freedom of belief and choice of church have led to many variations on the Protestant theme. Despite this, Protestants are finding increasing areas of agreement, in their creeds and in their social-service efforts.
Salvation by Faith. Most Protestants claim that no person, regardless of what he does, can earn salvation for himself or anyone else. Salvation is a gift of God. One must believe that Jesus’ life and death enabled people to regain a harmonious relationship with God. God’s greatest blessing lies in this plan of salvation, which is open to all. All that is required is faith.
Dedicated Living. The religious life does not require that a person leave marriage, family, and daily human interests. Protestants have almost no monks or nuns, and their ministers are usually men with families. Faith, not works, constitutes the path to salvation. Faith does not depend on one’s occupation, but God does call a person to give of his best efforts wherever he is. Religion is not a matter of church-going and pious meditation. It is the way you live each day.
The Priesthood of All Believers. Each person can go directly to God for himself. The task of the Church and its ministers is to teach men, not to act for them or command them. This is the real core of Protestantism. There are different reasons for the existence of the Church: to interpret God’s will, to foster a fellowship of mutually helpful members who seek the same goals. Church governments vary, some being directed by ministers, some by ministers and designated members, and some by the entire membership.
The Bible. Most Protestants believe that the Bible contains the rules for faith and practice of religion. Protestants therefore study their Bibles seriously, reading them in their own language. Although many Protestants are now interpreting the Bible much less rigidly, there are still some who claim for it full authority, to the smallest word, without regard for its historical meaning.
Worship. Protestants are encouraged to pray sincerely and frequently. To some, prayer is a method of asking God for things. Or it is a way of helping friends from a predicament or "converting’ someone. To the most thoughtful, it is an attempt to see things for what they really are, to come into a right relationship with oneself, with one’s God, and with one’s world.
Most Protestants observe two sacraments, baptism and communion. They do not believe the doctrine of transubstantiation. To Protestants, a person’s feelings and intentions when he takes a sacrament are more important than the rites of the sacrament. This is also true of other religious duties, which include an offering to support the church, attendance at services, and participation in the Christian fellowship.
A Protestant is free to live the best and most dedicated life he can, choosing the fellowship in which he feels most able to do it. For help in living this way, some Protestants lean in faith on Jesus as their personal Savior and the Savior of all who believe. Others gain inspiration for the religious life from the noble example of Jesus’ life.
Evangelical Protestants. The majority of Protestant churches are known as Evangelical Protestant churches. These groups have stressed their separation from the Roman Catholic Church, contending that such authority is a perversion of religion. The original protests were sincere and effective, but later each denomination developed an authority of its own not vastly different from what it had condemned.
Evangelical churches claim to support the orthodox doctrines. Chief among these are man’s need for salvation and God’s plan for man’s salvation. In the first half of the twentieth century there has been a renewed emphasis upon the old doctrines, in what is known as the neo-orthodox movement.
Some Protestant sects have claimed that certain teachings are fundamental to Christianity. Especially do they stress the complete truth of the Bible and all the miracles it reports. These Christians are called Fundamentalists. They are known for their strong emotional attempts to convert others to their faith.
Liberal Protestants. From the very beginning of Christianity, there were some thoughtful persons who saw that not everyone could be satisfied with the same words and the same experiences. Modern Christians who insist on freedom of belief have a well-founded tradition in the past of their religion. They are called the Liberals -- a minority group in Protestantism. Slowly but steadily their number grows. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that their influence helps, little by little, to liberalize the more orthodox groups.
The true Liberal believes that each person must have an opportunity to grow in religious experience and understanding and to experiment with better ways of living. He believes that religion is for the whole person, both his feelings and his reason. He supports a church as an institution that helps people mature as individuals and as members of a democratic fellowship. The salvation the Liberal Protestant seeks comes through living life in its wholeness.
Christianity is not any one path or church or group. Christianity is what Christians make it. It is like a river continually flowing toward an unseen sea. The streams that flow into it are sometimes brackish. The eddies that form along its edges may sometimes stagnate. But, like all the other major religions of the world, Christianity continues toward a future no one can fully predict. With it go the hopes and aspirations, as well as the fears and anxieties, of the many millions who call themselves Christians.
18. A RELIGION TO LIVE BY
Religion at its best fills basic human needs. In the final analysis, all of us seem to need the same things. We need to feel that we are important to those around us. We need to feel that we have a place among our fellow men. We need to feel a purpose and a sense of direction in our lives. And we need to feel that we are moving toward our highest goals.
In every year since Jesus spoke and walked in the paths of Palestine, some people have found answers to their deepest needs in what he said and did. It matters very little that their disagreements in what to believe have often outnumbered their agreements. The important thing is that they have lived more richly because of Jesus’ life.
Christians say that Jesus’ message is timeless, because he drew teachings directly from the experiences of people he knew. To them, many of his statements are as true today as when he uttered them. His Sermon on the Mount has inspired numbers of devoted Christians to thoughtful living by his parables or by his Sermon on the Mount. Studied carefully and used thoughtfully, such teachings still bring peace of mind to present-day Christians.
Many of the people whom Jesus knew had lost a sense of their own true worth. They felt that they were not important to God or to men. The priests and religious teachers had only added to their problems by labeling them "sinners" and "unclean." To such troubled people, Jesus preached a message of confidence. "You are the salt of the earth!" "You are the light of the world!"
Sometimes loss of self-respect causes a person to cringe before someone else who seems to be important. There have been many over-humble Christians who have followed the dictates and directives of leaders in their churches. They have not dared to doubt, to question, or to investigate, for fear they would make further mistakes. But nowhere in Jesus’ message is there a reference to the right of some to dictate beliefs to others. Jesus issued an open invitation to people to join him in the search for the abundant life. In this search, all are equal.
We live today in a world filled with anxiety. Human beings produce this condition, and it could be eliminated by intelligent human efforts. We worry about countless things -- losing something we have, wanting something we lack. We are anxious about big things and little things, and our worries penetrate every part of our lives. We become increasingly unable to do the things we should and could do, because we are worrying so about the things we cannot do. Jesus tried to still such fears by pointing out real values.
Do not worry about life, wondering what you will have to eat or drink, or about your body, wondering what you will have to wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body than clothes? Look at the wild birds. They do not sow or reap, or store their food in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Now, as in Jesus’ time, people can become emotionally and physically sick when they no longer respect themselves. Sometimes the sickness takes the form of contempt for personal desires, or feelings, or appearance. Jesus never ceased to encourage a person to respect himself. He knew that a person does not reach maturity unless he is able to accept himself as he is.
If one of us hates very much the way he acts or the way he looks, he will see only what he dislikes about himself. Is this a true picture of what he is? Indeed not. In the same way, some persons fail to get satisfaction from contacts with other people. They are thinking about appearances and manners of their friends, instead of really knowing them.
Jesus taught people that they should love their neighbors in the same way that they love themselves. If we are to love other people, we must first love ourselves. We have often been told to love ourselves last. But if this were the case, we would never love anyone. Loving oneself wisely is the basis of loving others well.
LOVE OTHER PEOPLE
Too many people mistake possessiveness for love. They attempt to persuade the loved one, to make decisions for him, or even to act for him. Real love, said Jesus, consists simply of granting the person the right to be himself.
Now and then we try to make someone over or reform him. We usually learn that this destroys friendship. The more we try to force people into our pattern, the less influence we have with them. Force defeats itself. Love and acceptance are the greatest powers. They draw love and acceptance in return.
This is the hardest lesson of parenthood. Of course, babies must be protected from the possible danger their immature decisions might bring. However, as the years go by, parents must learn to let their children assume increasing responsibilities for their own lives. No one can become mature unless he is allowed to be himself.
There is a well-known saying, "I will forgive but I won’t forget." A person "makes up" with the friend with whom he has quarreled, but he still cherishes secret resentments. These hurt feelings buried under the outward forgiveness have a chance to grow and fester. They prevent richer relationships with others.
Jesus was apparently well aware of the fact that if one does not truly forgive, be himself cannot be happy:
If you forgive others when they offend you, your heavenly Father will forgive you too. But if you do not forgive others when they offend you, your heavenly Father will not forgive you for your offenses.
And in the familiar prayer based on Jesus’ suggestions to his followers, there is this request: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
Jesus was always reminding people that forgiveness was just as important to the wronged person as to the person who had committed the wrong. Forgiveness must be given as often as it is needed. There must be no limit to it. Otherwise, resentments will creep in and gradually prevent the unforgiving person from living happily.
Jesus taught that love was the law for all areas of human life, between friend and friend, between members of a family, and between groups of people. Christians have disagreed radically among themselves as to the application of this teaching. Some say that it cannot be applied to the relationships between groups of people and nations. They have even said that it is a "counsel of perfection," not intended to be followed by anyone on this earth. Some Christians have been able to bless wars, torture, and executions in the name of their faith. Others have insisted that love is to be applied in all phases of one’s life, to the greatest possible extent.
Only when we have learned to love can we be honest with ourselves and with others. To Jesus, inner honesty was of first importance in living the good life. He called for people to be good, not just to practice goodness. He was distressed by pretenders who stood up to pray in the synagogues or on the street corners so that people would think them pious. Jesus said that the prayer said in the privacy of one’s own heart and home was far, far better than a prayer for its public effect.
He told his followers that they would get nowhere in the spiritual search by repeating "empty phrases." How distressing it is sometimes that many Christians of today think that religion consists of repeating creeds and prayers, which mean nothing to them. The real danger is that this dishonesty blinds us to our need for something more, and we go along trying to pretend that we are satisfied.
We are dishonest in other ways. We do good deeds to impress people favorably, without feeling the goodness. We learn polite words to say, without feeling the politeness. We join organizations and social groups, but we do not learn to love people more. We wear these fine false faces in public, and often we fool even ourselves. But the feeling inside is much more important than what we show on the surface. It is only when our inner intentions match our outward acts that we live abundantly. This is being honest.
The person living at his best is one who is still searching for better ways to live. Such a person has kept his ability to wonder about life. He expects every day to teach him something new and better. He is open-minded and openhearted, like a little child filled with wonder and delight at every new experience.
Jesus found that many "religious" people, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were not teachable. They felt that they already knew all the answers. So there was no need to raise the questions. Everything was settled according to the "Law" or the "Book." Life could teach them nothing new. It only made them certain that their answers were the only answers.
Countless Christians have learned the values of being eager to learn more. They have gone on examining their lives steadily and with concern. They have refused to accept the answers of someone else without trying them out. They have tried to follow this suggestion made by Jesus:
Ask, and what you ask will be given you. Search, and you will find what you search for. Knock, and the door will be open to you. For it is always the one who asks who receives, and the one who searches who finds, and the one who knocks to whom the door opens.
"Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for uprightness, for they will be satisfied!" This is a prescription for religious living that has been applied and recommended by Christians as far apart in time as Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, and Rufus Jones.
Because of petty problems and unimportant concerns, we often fail to see how generous life has been with us. It is a marvelous world in which we live. No one can take from us the basic, simple joys of living -- the taste of food, the scent of pine trees in the rain, the beauty of a moonlit night, the sound of a waterfall, the colors of a sunset, the joy of loving and being loved. That is to say, no one can really take them away from us, except ourselves. Life’s tragedy is not simply the inhumanity of man to man, in the form of concentration camps, exploitation, and wars. Life’s tragedy is also the torture that we impose upon ourselves because of our failure to accept what is ours.
Life is a gift. "Freely you have received," said Jesus; "freely give." All of the fundamental joys of life are gifts that come to us without our having earned them. Most of us remain unaware of this too much of the time. Jesus often emphasized the wonderful gifts that life offers.
There is real significance in his parable of the prodigal son, the young man who wasted everything life had given to him, until he was "living on husks." To many Christians, this parable has said: You may have wasted everything life has offered you so far. You may be living on the husks -- fear, anxiety, guilt, and resentment. Even so, the gracious life-giving forces are still at work in the universe, and in you, to restore you to your true self. The climax of Jesus parable is when the harassed young man "came to himself."
Any one of us can come to himself, for each moment renews our opportunity. As long as we live, we face the challenge of continuing to grow mentally and emotionally. There for us all the while, said Jesus, are the richness of life and its resources for our deepest happiness. The Christian who meets his opportunity finds for himself the truth that Jesus spoke. "Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you."
Sincere thanks to Venerable
Thich Tam Quang for making this digital version available.
(Bình Anson, 05-2004)
last updated: 26-05-2004