Imagine holding in your hands a knife. A strong knife, with a shiny steel blade and a sturdy handle. The blade tapers to a keen point, the edge as sharp as a razor blade.
Here’s the question: is this knife a good thing, or a bad thing?
The answer, of course, is simple: It depends on how you use it. If you’re cutting up cucumbers for a salad, it’s an essential tool. If you’re a surgeon, a sharp knife can save someone from dying of a ruptured appendix. With a knife you can carve wood, cut rope, or graft scions onto a tree.
If, on the other hand, you were robbing a gas station, that same knife would be an instrument of evil.
Same tool. Different application.
Faith, too, can take different forms, depending on how it’s used. At its best, faith in God makes people happier, healthier, and holier.
However, you don’t have to look far nowadays to find examples of unhealthy, hurtful faith. Not a newscast but references Muslim extremists who kill randomly in the name of Allah. Other stories tell of manipulative, charismatic Christian leaders—people like Jim Jones and David Koresh—who under the banner of faith controlled, coerced, and ultimately destroyed their followers.
How can something as affirming and lovely as faith in God become a toxic, destructive force?
Let me remind you that Satan, the author of evil, is an expert on religious faith. He learned firsthand: he began his career as a leading angel in heaven! Though he rebelled and was forced out of heaven, that experience gave him knowledge that he still uses. He knows intimately about God and God’s purposes for this world. Having been present for the creation of humankind, he knows how our minds work too. He studies religions and their leaders, and knows just how to subvert their good intentions.
With all that inside knowledge, Satan is a dangerous foe.
Any thoughtful person can see that a philosophy of life based on pure selfishness would ultimately be self-destructive. Who would fall for Satan’s temptations if the outcome of evil were made clear? So Satan sometimes takes a more subtle tack: he twists religious faith to undermine God’s purposes.
Let’s start with a foundational biblical truth: God wants us to live happy lives. Jesus said it often: “ ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ ” (John 10:10). “ ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. . . . Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ ” (John 14:27). His reassurance extends beyond the bounds of this life. “ ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ ” (John 3:16; emphasis supplied).
Rather than seeing God as a loving Father, Satan wants us to think God is angry and frightening. The Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards became famous for a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In graphic detail and with theatrical delivery, Edwards described a soul hanging over hell like a spider on a thread. “Thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked . . . the devil is waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and swallow them up.”
The sermon was a success: people screamed, wept, and passed out. Thousands came to the altar. Unfortunately, they were responding, not to God’s love, but to a distorted picture of God. While it is true that God cannot abide wickedness, it is also true that He wants everyone to be saved ( 1 Timothy 2:4) and is quick to forgive those who ask Him (1 John 1:9). While some preachers use fear to turn people to God, that motivation eventually ceases to work, for who would want to serve such a sadistic God, much less be with Him for eternity?
Another distortion is that God only accepts perfection. I once visited a woman who was terrified because way back when she was a teenager, she had told a lie. It had been only a bit of bragging, but it haunted her that she couldn’t confess to the person she’d lied to—who (if she could have managed to find him) would have only been puzzled by a confession of such minor significance.
God, wanting us to live happy lives, filled the Bible with good rules: so good that many of them (not killing, not stealing, not lying) are reflected in virtually every legal code in the world. Inevitably, though, we are going to make mistakes and commit sins. That’s why the Bible repeats that through Jesus, God willingly forgives us! “In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace,” insists Paul (Ephesians 1:7).
I assured this woman that God was much more understanding of her youthful indiscretion than she was of herself!
THE BURDEN OF FEAR
As a young man, Martin Luther was haunted by a fear that some sin would remain unconfessed, and he would be lost. He talked to his confessor so often, about such minor transgressions, that his pastor finally said, “Martin, don’t come back until you commit some real sins!” His fear of God haunted him for years until, while performing a rigorous penance in Rome, a passage from the prophet Habakkuk came into his mind: “ ‘the righteous will live by his faith’ ” (2:4). Luther began to see that God was not unreasonable and demanding, but generous and understanding. All God desired was that we human beings should trust Him. So began the Protestant Reformation with its encouraging message of righteousness by faith in Christ alone.
The most toxic kind of faith is one in which believers come under the control of religious leaders, to their own harm. Back in the 1970s, a Christian pastor in San Francisco began to build a following. Jim Jones was handsome and charming. People naturally gathered to him. He led in such a way as to bring people under his power. Jones insisted on absolute obedience. He taught his followers that he himself was a manifestation of God, and their lives and happiness depended entirely upon him. The story ended in 1978 in what was intended to be utopian settlement in the jungles of Guyana, when hundreds of his followers committed suicide at his command.
Be on guard if you hear phrases from religious leaders such as, “You can only be saved by following me.” “God told me he wants you to give all of your money to my ministry.” “God demands that you do whatever I tell you, even if it seems wrong.” “You cannot understand the Bible for yourself. Only I can tell you what it means.”
I once knew a man who was so convinced that he was right in every aspect of his religious understanding that he beat his children, deprived them of sleep and privacy, and demeaned them.
A healthy faith never oppresses others. On the contrary, Jesus described a healthy faith as one that makes you “free indeed” (John 8:36).
The right kind of faith will lead you in the direction of peace and wholeness. That doesn’t mean a life following God is always sunshine and roses. “ ‘In this world you will have trouble,’ ” Jesus said. Not every moment is happy, not every prayer is answered. But Jesus also added, “ ‘I have overcome the world’ ” (John 16:33) In those five words is the promise of a happy, healthy faith. Here are just a few ways that a healthy faith in God can make you happier:
Believing that God loves you supremely puts life’s difficulties into perspective. Though unemployed, afflicted with pain, or experiencing family problems, you can take heart that God is always with you, even “ ‘to the very end of the age’ ” (Matthew 28:20). While God may not choose to rescue us from every misfortune, He does see and care (Matthew 10:29–31).
No one is beyond the reach of forgiveness. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” wrote Paul (Romans 3:23). No doubt you, along with nearly every other person on earth, regret things you’ve done or said. Yet even when a transgression must be punished by the law, God can still forgive, as many in prisons can attest.
What are you most afraid of? The majority of people would no doubt say “death.” And why not? It seems so final. Yet the Christian faith promises that there is more to life than the life we live now. Beyond death is a better life, with no sickness, no pain, and no tears (Revelation 21:3, 4). Is it possible that the dead can live again? God, by the resurrection of Jesus, proved that He has power even over death! (1 Corinthians 15:20–23). Death can’t win (1 Corinthians 15:55). God will!
Eternal life isn’t just a promise, but a certainty. “I write these things to you,” says John, “so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13; emphasis supplied). Not hope you have eternal life, or want eternal life, or think maybe there’s a possibility of eternal life. No, you can live your life right now knowing that if you were to die this moment, the next thing you see will be the face of Jesus. What confidence that gives us! What courage! “If God is for us,” writes Paul, “who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Even death can’t separate us from Him!
According to a Time magazine cover story (February 12, 2009), scientists have discovered that faith has a powerful influence on our health. “People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend. People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God. No less a killer than AIDS will back off at least a bit when it’s hit with a double-barreled blast of belief.”
A great churchman, Augustine of Hippo, opined that each of us has “a God-shaped void in us that can only be filled by Him.” God hardwired our brains to want to know and trust Him. Is it any wonder, then, that we feel lost without Him, and that we feel complete when we finally let Him into our lives?
So don’t be content with a toxic faith. Instead, seek that full, happy life that Jesus promises, by placing your confidence in our good and loving God.
From the devil in the Garden of Eden to the many cults of today, there have always been people who twist the words of God into a toxic faith. What are some of the characteristics of a toxic religion or leader?
It is totalitarian in control of the behavior of its members. Cults are likely to dictate in great detail what members wear, eat, when and where they work, sleep, and bathe, as well as what to believe, think, and say.
The leaders demand blind obedience. You can only believe what they determine to be “the absolute truth.” There is no room for dialogue. This is especially dangerous if you are called to commit acts of violence in the name of “God.”
Intolerance of those who do not think like they do. Uncompromising judgmental attitudes leading to isolation and breakdown of family relationships.
Extreme views on sex. Believing our bodies or physical pleasures, even within marriage, are evil and to be denied. Conversely, promoting sexual promiscuity.
Twisting scriptures or receiving visions to endorse a personal belief or preference. The leader claims to receive special messages from God or angels that are contrary to what a plain reading of the Bible teaches.
Isolation. Refusing members to have contact with people outside of the cult, including even their families.
Jesus knew the danger of those who proclaimed His name but who would ultimately lead people astray. He warned, “ ‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves’ ” (Matthew 7:15).
The apostle Peter also spoke about false teachers and their destruction. He wrote, “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them— bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1–3).