My daughter started catechism last year. I´m still not quite sure what to think of it. Part of me really likes it. Part of me loathes it. Usually, that´s to one very small, very loaded, and very pervasive phrase.
You have to . . .
Now, I´m not a big fan of being told that I “have to” do anything. Remember the Book-It reading program in elementary school? We “had to” read so many books or for so many minutes in a month and Pizza Hut would reward us with a free individual pizza. Overall, it was a great reading incentive.
However, I HATED writing down exactly how many minutes I was reading and exactly what I was reading. I was a voracious reader. I needed no incentive to read. (Of course, getting pizza was nice.) But I hated the feeling of someone breathing down my neck, checking up on me to make sure I was reading.
I get the same feeling in religious circles. I know people mean well. I know they´re merely suggesting practices or activities that would strenghten my faith or my relationship with God. For example, the last time I got irked by this phrase, a friend of mine was explaining the virtues of practicing the Liturgy of the Hours to someone who was unfamiliar with it. My neighborhood Bible study was on the point of breaking up, but for the last few months, we hung together, practicing this Liturgy of the Hours–a lovely mix of prayers, call and response, and scripture readings. It is a nice practice, and something I was looking forward to getting in the habit of doing on a regular basis.
And then, letting ethusiasm take over her tongue, my friend proclaimed, “Reading the Bible and practicing the Liturgy of the Hours are two things that we HAVE TO do.”
I know she meant well. And I know it is a good practice.
But, let´s face it–we don´t “have to” do anything.
For starters, we don´t even have to respond to God´s grace.
Yes, Jesus died for us. Yes, He´d love it if we all rushed to accept him. But God gave us free will. He lets us decide on our own. He could force us. But he doesn´t. We´re free to walk away from Him.
We don´t even “have to” accept God.
Yet, if we choose to accept God, are there some things we “have to” do?
Not at all. If my Lutheran education drilled anything into my head, it´s that we are saved by grace alone. There is absolutely NOTHING we can do (let alone “have to” do) to earn our salvation. Now, there is that little clause about being saved by grace THROUGH faith.
So basically we have to believe that God actually does want to save us.
But that´s it.
In evangelical circles, one hears often about accepting Christ into your heart. “Have you asked Christ into your heart?” In conversations, it appears that one is not “officially” a Christian unless they´ve prayed “The Prayer”: Jesus, please come into my heart.
This isn´t a bad idea. Again, like the Liturgy of the Hours, it´s a great thing to do. But are we turning the idea of turning to God into a series of magic words? If I simply say these magic words, my soul will get to live in heaven? Hmm . . .
And then in a letter, the apostle James makes that famous statement that “faith without works is dead”. He´s certainly got a point. But do we have to do certain things to prove that we have faith so we can be saved?
God knows our hearts. God knows our faith–no doubt, much better than we do.
When Jesus was dying on the cross, one of the criminals who was being executed with him, simply asked him, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom”. And then Jesus said, “TODAY you´ll be with me in paradise.” The criminal dying next to him didn´t have to do anything or prove anything in order to gain access to heaven. He was about to die. He received the death penalty for crimes he admitted. He had no way to go about proving anything. However, as Jesus said so many times to so many other people, “your faith has saved you”.
So, sure–there are all kinds of practices we can do to strenghten our faith. There are all kinds of things we can do that are beneficial. But is there anything that we HAVE to do?
It seems to me that in any Christian tradition, it´s easy to get hung up on certain beneficial practices. We identify ourselves by saying, “because I am [this type of Christian], we do this. In plenty of instances, it might be more of a cultural context than a spiritual or religious one. But again, whatever that certain practice is, it may be a great thing to do.
But is it something we “have to” do?
Not on your life.