How to Tell if Your Christian Faith is Healthy

As a pastor, I’m concerned about people’s spiritual health — especially Christians, since that’s my vocation. As such, I offer a few guidelines that can be of help in determining when our spirituality is off track. These yardsticks could probably translate across faith traditions, but since I’m using a Christian framework I hesitate to make that claim.

So, how do we know if our path is healthy?

  1. Is it fear-based?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

John the Apostle writes later that “perfect love casts out fear.”

Spirituality that produces fear and anxiety should alert us that something is “off” in our understanding of God. Yet many Americans voted for a presidential candidate who ran on a collective fear of immigrants (including the 80% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump, as well as the 58% of other Protestants). Those fears — documented here with fact-checking by the Associated Press — are repeated, daily, in various conservative news sources. Those fears drive many to discard the repeated instructions to care for the wanderers, foreigners, and aliens in our land.

As a pastor of many queer congregants, I’ve heard story after story about Christian parents who say and do terrible things to their LGBTQ+ kids because they fear that, if they don’t say and do those terrible things, their children will suffer eternal torment. In my county, 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ kids, most of whom were kicked out of their “Christian” homes.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Fear. It’s all fear. When anti-LGBTQ+ Christians feel they can say “I love gay people” out of one side of their mouth, but need to add “but I think you should be celibate or try to be straight,” that’s driven by the fear of being an accomplice in another’s damnation. The existence of hell could be dealt with in a whole other blog post, but suffice to say most Christians operating out of fear believe in some form of its existence.

Regardless, perfect love casts out fear. And Jesus repeatedly tells us to “fear not.” What would happen if we didn’t worry about people taking our jobs, or about crimes that could be committed against us, or about another’s eternal rest? If we use Love instead of fear as our spiritual compass, we can take a non-anxious approach both to our faith as well as to other people.

2. Is it judgmental?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

Jesus tells us not to judge others. This includes judging who is “in” and who is “out” of the family of God. That’s God’s job, we’re told, not ours. Practicing radical inclusion is a sign of God’s Good Realm.

When we’re concerned with getting everything right in faith, and then turning around and telling everyone else what we think is right, we’re operating out of fear of getting things wrong. In effect, we’re drawing a self-righteous circle around ourselves and saying, “If you believe the right things, you’re in; if you believe differently, you’re out.” Again, fear shouldn’t been our starting point. And judgment is not our specialty.

I wrote quite a lot about replacing fear and judgment with humility in the book I co-wrote with Ken Wilson, Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance.

3. Does it produce empathy?

In the Sermon on the Mounty, Jesus says,

Something strange is happening in our culture in that there’s more talk than ever about empathy, but people are quantifiably showing it less. That’s according to a 2010 study at the University of Michigan.

We have to be able to imagine how others feel in order to ask whether or not we’d want to be treated the same way. How would this make my neighbor feel? Would I want to be treated that way? There’s a longtime Christian discipline of meditating on Scripture while imagining ourselves as the various characters in the story. If you’ve never done so, I’d encourage you to pick a story in the Bible and try it out. It helps us develop the parts of our brain that can place us in another’s shoes.

4. Does it shape us into people who care about the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and victims of injustices?

Photo by Roi Dimor on Unsplash

In Isaiah 58, the prophet paints a picture of God being angry at God’s own followers.

God goes on to say:

Isaiah tells us religion alone won’t bring peace and happiness to a people. In fact, religion mis-used can bring real harm. But the prophet reminds us that, if our faith is underlined with care for the oppressed and poor, and marked by peacemaking, then damaged communities can begin to heal. That’s hopeful. However, if we don’t do these things, it may not go well for us, Isaiah warns.

Jesus says something similar in the Sermon on the Mount. He cautions us against practicing our faith in ways that say, “Look at me! Look how spiritual I am!” while at the same time neglecting care for the vulnerable.

What Does Your Faith Produce?

Photo by Luke Michael on Unsplash

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,

In other words, people can look and sound religious, but not everyone who slaps the name of Jesus on a belief is actually operating out of the Holy Spirit of Love that’s been unleashed into the world.

So how do we know that something is of God? Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul tell us to discern things by their fruit — by what they produce. Do your beliefs and practices produce love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Right now many people are looking around and saying, “A lot of what markets itself as Christianity doesn’t display love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Instead it displays fear, judgment, exclusion, and lack of empathy.”

Jesus says good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. Sometimes we have to sit and watch for awhile to determine if something’s of God or not. We have to watch the fruit unfold and ripen. If we find we’re walking down the wrong path and the fruit is bad, then we’re called repent! Repent just means “turn around.” Turn around and follow the narrow path that leads to life.

Preserving the Treasure

I, like so many others, have at times barely managed to hold onto my faith tradition — either because of the way it was presented to me or because of the results it produced.

Yet I’ve also experienced something that feels real, is meaningful for me, and has been precious enough for me to want to lean into this whole following Jesus thing in spite of the rubbish. Casting off faith traditions that produce fear, judgmentalism, lack of empathy, and lack of justice is a healthy response. It’s healthy to reject Christian nationalism that’s largely driven by racism and patriarchy. It’s a healthy response to leave spaces that teach you to treat people — including yourself — unkindly. But you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The core of the Judeo-Christian tradition is meant to shape us into Fearless Love Machines. And God knows the world could use more fearless love.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Co-Author with Ken Wilson of Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, and co-pastor of Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, a progressive, fully-inclusive church. Queer.

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