Paul Prather

One way to determine if your religion is healthy: Does it focus on hope or on fear?

Religion has provided the world with true redemption — and about an equal amount of evil.

It’s given us soup kitchens and hospitals — and it’s given us inquisitions and terrorists.

It’s burnished some human hearts until they reflected the divine, but in other hearts it’s magnified ugliness that was already lurking there.

Some worship communities should be cherished; some should be fled.

Here then, in no particular order, are characteristics that distinguish healthy religion from unhealthy. If your own house of worship exhibits too many signs of bad religion, look for a different group to join. There are too many fine religious organizations out there to allow yourself to be warped or victimized by one that’s abusive.

Good religion: Encourages you. This doesn’t mean every sermon or song will be instantly edifying. You need correction and repentance; they’re part of spiritual growth. But the net effect of faith should be that it helps you feel better about God, others and yourself.

Bad religion: Beats you up rather than lifts you up. If going to church is like going to get a weekly whipping, something’s wrong.

Good religion: Worships God instead of people. Probably the central purpose of religion is to introduce us to the Lord and help us know him better. Religion should keep us in touch with the transcendent.

Bad religion: Becomes a cult of personality. People — all people — are flawed and fallen and unworthy of worship. If your faith is mainly about your charismatic, indispensable pastor, priest or imam, you’re practicing idolatry.

Good religion: Promotes humility and compassion. Pretty much every worthwhile, time-tested tradition teaches these virtues as central to its faith.

Bad religion: Promotes a sense of superiority. It suggests the members of its own little clique are intrinsically better than those who worship differently or who don’t worship at all or who are in some manner less fortunate in life.

Good religion: Builds hope. It sees God at work in the world, and it expects that God’s love will transcend most obstacles or differences with opponents.

Bad religion: Focuses on fear. It fosters paranoia. It tells you constantly that outsiders — other faiths, other ethnicities, members of a certain political party, the government, the devil — are out to persecute and destroy you. It keeps you suspicious and angry.

Good religion: Embraces outsiders. It believes it can learn from those who worship differently. It reaches out to the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, the hard-to-love.

Bad religion: Shuns anyone who’s different. It says that if you’re not exactly like us, you’re a danger or not worth knowing or are responsible for society’s problems — or all of the above.

Good religion: Recognizes that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. (In fact, as Anne Lamott observed, certainty is the opposite of faith). It encourages wide-ranging reading and critical thinking. It’s never afraid of facts.

Bad religion: Demands unquestioning adherence. It says you must believe — or pretend to believe — exactly what the leaders tell you, no questions asked.

Good religion: Holds you accountable in a way that’s balanced and humane. One goal of good religion is to help you become a better human. To that end, it suggests reasonable boundaries for behavior and gently guides you in your daily sojourn.

Bad religion: Holds you impossibly accountable, or else not accountable at all. It’s always out of whack. It either micromanages your life or else tells you it’s fine to do any old irrational, hedonistic, destructive thing you please.

Good religion: Asks you to contribute to the common good. It says that because you’re part of a faith community, it’s right for you to help support that community, not to mention the poor, the sick and the homeless.

Bad religion: Majors on money. It seems unable to talk about anything but your wallet. It may be obsessed with your choosing a life of poverty, or it may be obsessed with the proposition that God’s obligated to buy you a Mercedes and a mansion.

Good religion: Draws you closer to your family and loved ones. It sees your kith and kin as gifts God has given you and, in certain instances, as mission fields among whom you can live out God’s grace under difficult circumstances.

Bad religion: Tries to separate you from your family and loved ones. It sees those people as threats and urges you to cut them off in favor of the congregation only.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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