Is Your Religion Measurable or Messy?

Here’s a story:

Two people go into a place to pray. One clears her throat, looks upward and prays in a loud voice, “Thank you, Holy One, that I am me and not these other people. I tithe my income regularly and fast not just once a week, as I am directed, but twice a week. I know you must be pleased with me.”

The second one prays, almost inaudibly, “Dear Holy One … dearest Holy One … please forgive me, I beg, and allow me into your presence.”

It’s easy to see that the one who prayed first lacked humility, a necessary but not easily practiced virtue. Every major religion speaks of the importance of humility. For some, in fact, it scores third on the religious virtue hit list just behind compassion, the quintessential virtue, and hospitality.

In case you’re wondering how well the three play together just recall “love your neighbor as yourself” and “treat others the way you want to be treated” and you get the idea: They are like hand in glove – be compassionate, be welcoming, be humble.

So the lack of humility on the part of the one who prayed first sticks out like a chocolate mutt in an albino breeding show.

That’s not all, though. Look at the story again. The first one tithes her income. She also fasts, indeed, twice as much as requested.

In other words, he is religious.

There’s nothing wrong with tithing or fasting. Both are referred to by some as spiritual disciplines.

The problem is practicing measurable religion: how much given, how often fasted.

It’s tempting to do so. After all, measuring is neat and tidy and well defined. When I can measure something, I know whether I achieved it. When I wonder if I tithed, I measure it: ten percent or more is yes; anything less is no. Did I fast twice? Measure it: yes or no?

Measurable religion is neat and tidy.

But measurable religion can keep us from God because measurable religion puts control in our hands.

In measurable religion, I track and decide if I’m doing it right, validating my religious self and being validated. “Checking the boxes” sounds pejorative, but essentially that’s what I’m doing.

Religion described by loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving my neighbor as myself, on the other hand, is messy. It changes as others change, and as I change, and as the circumstances surrounding us all change. It’s messy.

It’s said that God desires acting justly, loving mercifully, and walking humbly. I’m not sure how you measure those, but I believe that’s how we are invited to live.

Wilson is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Read his blog at or follow him on Twitter: @nathandaywilson

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