How (and How Not) to Think about Religion

This article is part of the How (and How Not) series.

Mistakes about Religion

I cannot speak about religion without lamenting that among so many who claim to be religious, so few understand what it means. Some consider it to be primarily a matter of intellect and understanding and orthodox opinions. The only account that they can give of their religion is that they are of this or that theological persuasion or that they have joined one of the many groups or sects into which Christendom is so unhappily divided. Others consider it to be a matter of outward behavior. They are to be found caught up in a constant round of duties and observances. If they live peaceably with their neighbors, are temperate in their habits, and are regularly at worship—both publicly and in their own homes—and sometimes extend themselves to giving to those in need, then they think they have performed sufficiently.

Still others focus on their emotions. They concentrate on spiritual ecstasy in their devotions. All they aim for is to pray with passion, to think of heaven with pleasure, and to be so overwhelmed with a sense of loving God that they persuade themselves that they do love him. As a result, they are filled with such a great confidence in their own salvation that they consider such confidence in itself to be the most important of Christian virtues.

The Life of God in the Soul of Man

Henry Scougal

In The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Scougal cuts through false ideas about religion and demonstrates how to pursue true unity with God.

Thus, those things that have any semblance of true holiness—or are at best the ways in which holiness may be pursued—are frequently mistaken for the real thing. Indeed, sometimes even wickedness and vice masquerade as true religion. Here I am not speaking about the flagrant and often grotesque practices that are used by pagans in the worship of heathen gods. No; it is about Christians that I am speaking. There are too many who would consecrate their vices and hallow their corrupt affections. Their rugged humor and sullen pride they pass for Christian severity. Their fierce anger and bitter resentment toward their enemies they call holy zeal. And their petulance and stubbornness toward their superiors, not to mention the rebellious spirit that is directed toward those in authority over them, is credited as Christian courage and resolution.

What Religion Is

True religion is quite another thing. Those who are acquainted with it will entertain far different thoughts about it and avoid all false imitations of it. They know by experience that true religion is a union of the soul with God. It is a participation in the divine nature. It is the very image of God drawn upon the soul. In the apostle’s words, it is Christ formed within us.

In short, I do not know how the nature of religion can be more fully expressed than by calling it a divine life. And it is in using these terms that I intend to discuss religion more fully, first of all by showing how it is called a life and then how it may be termed divine.

The Permanence and Stability of Religion

I have chosen to describe religion as a life, first because of its permanence and stability. Religion is not a sudden impulse nor is it a series of passionate impulses, not even if it should cause someone to have an ecstatic experience or behave in some extraordinary way. There are few who do not feel the necessity of doing something for the salvation of their own souls, and this may create the impression of religious fervor. But very soon they flag in their motivation and give up. They were in a hot mood and now they have cooled down. They shot up like some fertilized plant but then quickly withered because they had no root in themselves. Their sudden fits of spiritual zeal may be compared to the violent convulsions of a newly beheaded body. However energetic, such motion cannot be continued.

The movements of a soul bent on holiness are constant and regular, arising from something far more permanent and vital. It is true that the divine life does not always continue with the same strength and vigor but often experiences setbacks. Often Christian men and women find themselves resisting temptations with greater difficulty and they are less fervent in performing their religious duties. But however great the discouragements, the life is not quite extinguished, nor are they ever abandoned to the power of these corrupt affections that sway and control the rest of the world.

The Freedom and Unconstrained Character of Religion

Religion may be defined by the word life because it is an inward, free, and self-moving principle. Those who make progress in it are not motivated by external forces, driven by threats, bribed by promises, or constrained by laws, but are powerfully inclined to that which is good, and they delight in its performance. The love that someone bears toward God and toward goodness comes not so much by virtue of a command to which they are responsive but rather by a new nature instructing them and prompting them in that direction.

Nor are their devotions an appeasement of divine justice or a means of quieting someone’s clamorous conscience. Such religious exercises are the expressions of the divine life and are the natural employment of the newborn soul. The person prays and gives thanks and repents, not only because these things are commanded but because he is conscious of his spiritual needs and of the divine goodness and of the vanity and misery of a sinful life. His charity is not forced nor extorted from him.

His love makes him willing to give—and even if there were an outward obligation to act in such a way, his heart would devise liberal things. Injustice and intemperate behavior and all other vices are just as foreign to his inclinations as are base and vulgar conduct to the most generous of spirits or impudence to those who are naturally modest.

True religion is a union of the soul with God.

So may be said of that person what St. John has written: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9).

Though a spiritual man or woman is careful to obey the law of God and has a high regard for it, yet it is not so much the sanction of the law that inspires their response, but its reasonableness, purity, and goodness. They regard it as excellent and desirable in itself, and in keeping it there is great reward (Ps. 19:11). The divine love that transforms and moves them also makes them become a law unto themselves:

Who shall prescribe a law to those that love?
Love’s a far more powerful law that does them move.

In a word, what our blessed Savior said of himself is in some way applicable to his followers: that it is their meat and drink to do their Father’s will (John 4:34). Thus just as the natural appetite is directed toward food, so are Christ’s followers naturally and without coercion inclined to what is good and commendable.

It is true that external motives are often of great use to excite and stir up this inward principle. This is especially so when the spiritual life is so languid and weak that the person can scarcely discern its existence. Indeed, he may hardly be able to take a single step forward without being pushed off course by his hopes or fears, by the pressure of some affliction and the awareness of God’s mercy, by the authority of the law or the arguments of others.

Now if such a person is conscientious and unswerving in his obedience and is earnestly conscious of his weakness, if he truly desires to perform his duties with more spirit and vigor, then these are the first evidences of the divine life, which although it is faint and weak will surely be nurtured by the influence of God’s Spirit and grow to maturity.

The person who is completely destitute of this inward principle and has no aspiration to live by it—contenting himself with things that are prompted by education, custom, the fear of hell, or carnal notions about heaven—can no more be called a religious person than can a puppet be called a man.

Such forced and artificial religion is characterized by heaviness and inertia. It is cold and lifeless, like the uneasy compliance of a wife married against her will who, out of a sense of duty, consents to the husband whom she does not love. This form of religion is threadbare and cheap, particularly in those aspects that do greatest harm to a man’s carnal inclinations. Such enslaved persons will be sure to do no more than is absolutely required. Their actions will be compelled by a regard for conformity or prescribed duty. They are loathe to go beyond the minimum requirements, whereas the spirit of true religion is free and liberal, far removed from such resentful and narrow reckoning. The person who has given himself entirely to God will never think that he has done too much for him.

This article is adapted from Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal.

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