From a sermon series on 1 Kings by See Huang Lim, a missionary at IBF.
Today, I would like to share some reflections about how some people respond to the idea of religion, especially in Japan. We will still read a passage from 1 Kings as part of our on-going study of this book, but I won’t focus on the passage. I’ll only summarize its main point and then reflect on two common attitudes towards religion.
[Read 1 Kings 16:8-28]
The reason for this chaos and death is the same for all 3 kings. The root of the problem was idol worship. Idol worship was not a new problem in Israel. In total, all 20 kings of Israel worshipped idols at some point. Even in Judah, 12 out of 20 kings worshipped idols. Unfortunately, their unfaithfulness to God brought down both kingdoms eventually.
They did not obey God’s fundamental command in Exodus 20 which says: “You shall have no other gods before me. . . . You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
From here, let me explain why my topic today is about attitudes towards religion.
We have heard that the God of Israel and the God of Christians is exclusive. In other words, He does not accept the worship of other gods. As a religion, Christianity is often criticized for this exclusive belief. I would like to respond to two of these criticisms or attitudes.
Views of religion: two main groups
When it comes to religion, some people fall into two groups.
The first group is not interested in religion, or dislikes religion in general. The second group has a positive view of religion and says all religions are equally valid. Of course, there are other groups, but I’ll only talk about these two. I believe many Japanese can identify with these two groups.
Let me summarize: The first group says, “No religion, please. No, thank you!” The second group says, “All religions OK!”
I think it’s difficult for both groups to accept an exclusive God. To the ears of modern Japanese, the God of the Bible may sound harsh. Christianity sounds like an intolerant religion. Japan has many gods, even millions. How dare Christians say it’s wrong to pray to the gods of all our temples and shrines? How arrogant!
As Christians, I think it’s important to understand their feelings and accept that they have a valid viewpoint. At the same time, we should know why our beliefs are also valid.
Response to Group 1 (“No religion, please”)
First, here are my thoughts about Group Number 1, which says, “No religion, please.”
This group feels religion is not for them. In fact, some feel religion is downright bad. Religion is just a tool to control people and is a source of the world’s problems. So, they prefer to keep their distance from religion. For them, it’s enough to do your best to be good and kind to people. Religion is unnecessary.
To some extent, I can agree with this group.
Many Japanese today do not follow a religion, and they are some of the nicest people I have ever met. Generally, Japanese are very considerate of their neighbors. Japan also has world-class customer service. People bow to you and apologize for everything. This hardly happens in Malaysia. In Malaysia, which is a very religious country, people are ruder and more aggressive and there seems to be more crime.
Of course, this is not the full picture. But it’s easy to conclude that Japanese people are good people, and they don’t need religion to be good.
Now, here is my response as a Christian. I would ask, “Why do we need to be good if there is no God? And, if it’s necessary for us to be good, who gets to decide what is good and bad?”
My point is: You have an idea of what is “good” and “bad”, but where does it come from? Also, is there any reason why others must agree with you?
There was an American social activist who went to work in an African country. She wanted to fight for women’s rights, because she was very troubled by the injustice there. But there, a local politician told her, “You say our customs and way of treating women is wrong. On what basis? Aren’t you just imposing your White culture? I know what you have come to do. You came to colonize us again!”
The lady was shaken by that conversation. She eventually returned to the U.S. with a blow to her confidence. After much thought, she concluded that the politician was correct. She had no ultimate basis for claiming that her values were right. Though she was an atheist, she said that without some concept of God, she could not justify her values.
As a Christian, what is my basis for being kind to people and valuing all human life? As Dr. Cha reminded us last month, the Bible says humans were made in the divine image of God. In a way, each of us carries our Creator’s image. Proverbs 14:31 says, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
I agree with Group Number 1 that many bad things have been done in the name of religion, even within Christianity. We should acknowledge the black stains in our history.
But we don’t have to persuade people to like religion or even Christianity. A Brazilian missionary I know suggests that we introduce people not to Christianity but to Jesus. He says there is a difference between the religion called Christianity and the person called Jesus.
Jesus, too, scrutinized religious men during his time and criticized them. He recognized that some religious people missed the point of God’s commands and oppressed people through manmade laws. He looked into their hearts and saw that some were greedy for money even though they appeared holy on the outside.
Over the past 2000 years, Jesus’ teachings, moral standards, and actions have made a tremendous impact on the world. For that reason alone, it’s worth investigating who he is and what he taught. Many people have not actually read for themselves about Jesus in the Bible. Their beliefs are often based on hearsay, news, and other people’s opinions rather than real investigation.
The basis for my faith is not simply that Christianity sounds like a good religion. The basis of my faith is what Jesus has done for me personally.
So I pray that, by God’s grace, people will encounter the person called Jesus and discover that he was more than a moral teacher.
Response to Group 2 (“All religions OK!”)
My prayer is the same for Group Number 2, which says “All religions are OK!”
People in this group say it doesn’t really matter if you are a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever. They say what matters is your religion teaches you to be a good person. Some say all religions – or most religions – are good and equally valid.
But I would say, if you study the world’s major religions, you will know that they don’t merely teach people to be good; every religion also makes bold claims about God, life, and the afterlife. The claims conflict with each other and cannot all be true at the same time.
This fact is acknowledged by many people in Group Number 2. So they say no religion is perfect; each religion has only one portion of the truth. They explain it through an analogy called “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”
Imagine six blind men touching different parts of an elephant. One touches the trunk, another the foot, another the tail, another the ear, and so on. When you ask them, “What is an elephant like?” one will answer, “long like a snake.” Another will answer, “thick like a tree.” Another, “like a big fan.” Each blind man is correct, but they don’t have the whole picture. Likewise, no religion has the complete truth. Therefore, says Group Number 2, Christians shouldn’t believe they know everything and go around trying to convert people.
I agree with the elephant analogy to some extent. I believe that, by God’s grace, people all over the world have understood parts of God’s truth and perceived God’s reality. Therefore, we can learn good things from people of other religions.
But I disagree with the way this analogy is used. You see, this analogy only makes sense if you are not blind and you can see the whole elephant. You can claim Christianity is a blind man only if you yourself can see the whole elephant. If you don’t know the whole truth, how can you claim that other religions only know part of the truth?
So, here is how I prefer to use the elephant analogy: We are all blind, and only God sees perfectly. Rather than leave us in the dark, God has decided to tell us about the elephant. Even after hearing God, we may not fully understand the elephant. But now, we know more because God has told us about it.
God didn’t just tell us through our imagination. He spoke to us in many ways, especially through other humans. He himself spoke through a human voice, the voice of Jesus. The question is, do we believe what Jesus said?
So again, we return to the person of Jesus. Sooner or later, we have to confront what Jesus claimed. He claimed to know God’s mind. He claimed to embody the truth.
In conclusion, I can understand why people dislike the bold claims made by Christians and by Jesus himself.
Sometimes, their negative reaction is a natural response of fear. They fear, mistakenly, that God wants to restrict their freedom and spoil their happiness.
But God does not demand our loyalty to control us like a tyrant. He does not demand our attention like a spoiled brat who wants his parents to indulge him. Rather, God urges us to obey His voice because it’s the only way we can truly live and enjoy a relationship with Him.
Jesus says in John 6:27, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Our souls were made to “feast” on God. Without Him, we die from spiritual starvation. If we seek spiritual food elsewhere, it does not satisfy or last forever.
The prophet Isaiah recorded these words of God in Isaiah 55: “Come, all you who are thirsty; come to the waters . . . Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare . . . listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.”
This is the kind of God we worship, a God who cares for us. May we turn to Him and be satisfied by Him alone.