Wilberforce holding the broken chain of slavery, Christ Church, Chelsea.
True religion brings salvation, frees us from the bondage of sin and guilt, and fills us with love for God and our neighbors. False religion damns us and makes us the meanest, most loathsome creatures. You can find both in Christianity. Indeed, you can find both in any church or even in any Christian heart. It amazes me how the same religion that exalts us to heaven can cast us down to the pit of hell. I’ve pondered this contradictory effect of faith for a while and found a new illustration of it in a book I’m currently reading.
The classic memoir Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass is a fascinating first-hand account of American slavery from the perspective of a former slave who became one of the most eloquent and well-known abolitionists. I’m reading this sobering tale in preparation for an important event. Next Saturday, June 18, a statue of Frederick Douglass will be unveiled on the front lawn of the courthouse in Easton, Maryland. (You can read more about the event here.)
After describing a particularly sadistic slave master who was also a devout Christian, Douglass says this:
Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, and most cruel and cowardly, of all others.
Why is that? Atheists would say that all religion is corrosive; it makes good people bad. I think there’s much evidence for this claim but it goes too far. I believe all religion can be corrosive, because all religion can become an excuse for our own sin. A wise man once said, “A surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice because a surplus of virtue is unchecked by the constraints of conscience.” If you think you’re doing God’s work, you can justify anything, because the ends justify the means. At least that’s how many sinners rationalize their evil behavior.
Religion can also be ennobling. It makes bad people good and good people better. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a minister’s daughter whose faith motivated her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Douglass’s Narrative Life, Stowe’s book raised awareness of the horrible realities of slavery and the need to abolish that terrible institution. John Newton grew up without the benefit of a Christian home and worked as a sailor and slave trader. As an adult he had a powerful religious conversion. He quit slave trading and studied theology. After he became a minister of the Gospel, he wrote one of the most well-known and beautiful hymns in the English language: Amazing Grace, which celebrates God’s power to save “a wretch” like himself.
What makes the difference between good and bad religion? Why do some people use faith as an excuse to do evil and others as a motive for good? Why do all of us sometimes use our faith positively and other times negatively? How can the same religion that makes us more like Jesus become an excuse for acting like the devil? I’m not sure I have all the right answers to these questions but they fascinate me.
Perhaps it’s because the Evil One infiltrates the church with counterfeit Christians, sowing tares among the wheat (Mat. 13:24-30). These pseudo-believers are the ones who do evil in the name of Christ. Still, even without the devil’s influence there’s great potential for self-deception. People might think they’re saved when they’re not. On the other hand, even true Christians are capable of immoral behavior. All believers have two natures: the sin nature they’re born with and the new nature they get when they’re born again. We choose which one to follow and sometimes make the wrong choice, yielding to sinful desires rather than walking in the Spirit.
When we see others doing evil, we can use it as an opportunity for reflection. Rather than looking for the mote in our brother’s eye, we should deal with the beam in our own (Mat. 7:3-5).