Bad Religion is Worse than No Religion at All – Is the Puritan Method of Intense Self- Examination Healthy
I have a saying and I have said it numerous times from the pulpit. It is that “Bad religion is worse than no religion at all”. As a pastor, I have found this to be totally true. When religion functions in a community as a social norming tool, this is bad religion. When religion creates a sense of social insecurity and fear, this is real bad religion. So what about the intense self-evaluation of Edwards? Can this make a person more self-conscious and less free?
I have taught probably thousands of bible studies and quite often the quest for the knowledge of God through prayer can become a guilt trip for some. The call to know God and pray can become another impossible hurdle and a law. This is a very bad thing. What should we do to maintain a balance of seeking God and learning spiritual disciplines and knowing and living in Grace?
1. I think you really have to know your theology to practice the self-examination of Edwards. I personally was not raised in the church and I never saw Christianity as legalistic but only as a path to liberation. To me the Gospel was always an arrow downward of God empowering me. If you are naturally self-loathing, then you must learn the gospel of forgiveness and grace very well to learn to joyfully be self-examining. Life and spirituality is best when it is an adventure. Are you all right with failure? Do you naturally spin things in your mind in such a way that you see yourself as an idiot? (a bad thing) I encourage memorizing scriptures on Justification by faith alone and really getting grace deep in your psyche.
2. We need mentors. If one is to dive into the transformation of the heart and seek to be deeply self-critical and honest, you need a mentor to help you avoid a legalistic psyche.
3. Let people pray for you. I find that when people lay hands on one another and pray that they say very gracious things to one another. Such a practice is really a great example of love and grace. Learn to receive love from God and let the holiness and beauty of God come to your person in the context of a loving community. I remember when I first learned to receive from God and receive gracious words from others. Such a place of humility was totally foreign to me BUT it changed for the better my understanding of God.
The goal of our seeking God is to love Him and be satisfied in Him alone. I remember a story I read in SPIN magazine. In it, Madonna the pop star was talking about why she is so messed up sexually. She said she used to watch her mother throw dry rice on the floor and then kneel on the rice in prayer. This was some form of self-mutilation. Madonna then says she got confused as to the relationship between pleasure, pain, her body and religion. This is bad religion. Madonna’s mother taught a warped form of self-hatred as religion. Oh my no wonder …
The bottom line is that only grace produces a healthy psyche and trains us in the ways of love and beauty. So if you are convicted by reading the stories of Edwards in the previous posts proceed with caution and always proceed in the ways of grace.