Why Religion Is Not About Being Good

Name the 10 Commandments. What’s the first one you think of?

Most of the time people say the “thou shalt nots.”

Thou salt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not covet.

What’s interesting is they don’t start that way! The first commandment is not a “thou shalt not,” and it holds the key to understanding the rest.

So why do so many people concentrate on the negative? It’s easy, we view religion through the lens of law, and laws make people good.

But is being good what Christianity is really all about?

Why do we view religion through the lens of law?

We’re conditioned to think this way. We live in a rules-based society.

There are rules in society and rules in our homes. When you were growing up, most likely your parents corrected you by saying, “don’t do this or don’t say that.” It’s kind of the way we operate.

Now there’s a “new parenting” that stresses making only positive statements. Don’t correct the negative they tell you. But I can’t help it. I still fall into that same “don’t do that” mentality.

Is religion about being good?

There’s a problem with this rules-based viewpoint when it comes to religion. People think Christianity is just about being good and not breaking the rules.

There are two things I hear all the time.

  1. “Why do I need religion? I’m basically a good person. I follow all the rules already. There’s nothing religion can do for me.”
  2. “I’m a good Christian because I don’t break any commandments. Christianity’s about being good and I’m good because I follow the rules. I don’t need to go any deeper.”

A rules-based viewpoint only gets people thinking about the bare minimum they need to get by. What rules do they have to follow to be good? Why follow the rules if I’m already good?

However, you can’t really get the full benefit of Christianity by just following the rules. Christianity is not merely about being good. It’s about relationship.

The first commandment sets the tone

If you don’t get the first commandment, all the rest might as well be just a bunch of rules. The first commandment sets the tone.

The first commandment is delivered within the context of relationship.

Worship the Lord your God

“I am the Lord you God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

God reminds the Israelites of all he’s done for them. He rescued them from Pharaoh. They made a sacrifice, ate a meal, put blood on their doorposts, and were saved.

God asked them to cut all ties with their former life. He promised to take care of them and they trusted. They pledged themselves to God and he took them in as part of his family.

Him alone shall you serve

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

It sounds like God is petty and maybe a little afraid of competition. If he’s so great, why is he afraid of rivals? Does he have low self-esteem?

You have to look deeper than that. God is saying, “If you’re going to be in relationship with me, I have to be in the center or it won’t work. God knows that we need him. And, he knows that life doesn’t work right if he’s not in the center.

God can’t be just one of those hundreds of things hovering around you in orbit. He has to have the center place.

Your one-stop God

This is radical for the Israelites! They were used to having lots of gods. They had a god for every need. And, when they needed something, they would take that god out, put it on a shelf, and pray to it.

God said all that had to stop. He couldn’t be put on a shelf and taken off when needed. He didn’t want them placing their trust in hundreds of other things. He had to be the only one. He wanted to be their one-stop God.

Who or what are your gods?

And, don’t you do that too? I know I do. I rely on talent, hard work, and extra hours to make the difference in my work instead of turing to God for help. I’ll often place a hundred other interests and concerns in front of devotions to the Lord, to prayer, and to penance.

I have time for hobbies but I often don’t have time for prayer.

Catechetical takeaway

Religion is not merely about following rules or being good. It’s not about being bad either though.

Religion is primarily about being in union with God.

From the beginning, God has made us to be united with him. That is our goal and destiny.

God first established a relationship with Israel. He asked them to believe in him, to trust in him completely, and to be a part of his family. Only after this relationship of faith and trust was established did he give them rules for family life.

The 10 Commandments are rules for living in God’s family. If you want to be a part of it and share in the great benefits, this is how you should live. Otherwise, you should be in another family.

The rules are ordered toward relationship with God. They are necessary for continued and deeper union with him. God wants us to be good because he is good. In acting like him we stay close to him.

The commandments are not the goal, they are the means. Like everything else in Catholicism, the goal is union and the love that never ends.

Image: John Taylor


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  1. Marc,

    Another great post! You make excellent points. The more we can lead our students, lead our adults, lead God’s people into this relationship the more conversion will occur. I think since we live in a rules based society that is why it’s easy for so many Catholics to sit in the pew (when they do attend Mass) but not do much else. Yes, at least they are trying to follow the rules, but our response to God needs to be like our response to our spouse, our friend where we give time and attention and go beyond the minimum in order to foster a valuable and dynamic relationship.

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      Thanks William! I really think you’re right. Our rules based society leads people into thinking toward the minimum. Relationship is the secret sauce that carries people further than following the rules. That’s a good start but there needs to be more.

  2. Very well-written, and William went and stole my comment, so just, uh, thumbs up! Heh. I always come back to marriage as a metaphor for our relationship with God because it makes so much sense to say “hey, just because I don’t steal from my husband’s wallet or cheat on him, that doesn’t make me a great wife.” Kids understand that – the idea of going beyond the bare minimum.

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      Thanks Dorian! Great analogy using marriage. There’s much more in a marriage relationship than not committing these basic offenses against your spouse. I’m going to use that!

  3. Great post, Marc. I wish I could remember where I heard, years ago, that the thing we need to do is to “Teach the love before the law” – that it is important to lay a foundation of the experience of God’s love for us before we ask people to follow rules. The obedience should not be out of fear, but a response to love, just as a child obeys best if he or she feels a parent’s love, not just the parent’s authority.

    Since Jesus reduced The Law to “love God and love your neighbor as yourself” it is clear he intended us to regard the 10 Commandments as a guide for how to love… in response to God’s love for us.

    I also think that is why, when we open up the Catechism to the section on Life in Christ, we begin with the Beatitudes rather than the 10 Commandments. The Beatitudes are about the love of God for human beings, equally, in their challenges, suffering and triumphs. I remember when the CCC first came out, being surprised by that order, but it makes sense.

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. The experience of God’s love should precede the emphasis on rules. I think that’s the way you see God operate in Scripture and the way Jesus worked too. He called and then formed.

      Good point about Jesus’ two fold commandment of love. It pretty much makes it clear where the priorities in the commandments lie huh?

      Thanks for these comments!

  4. In class we review the historical process of obeying God mostly out of fear, and trying to replace that with obedience out of love. We note that when children obey parents out of love, very few rules are needed.

    As Jeremiah prophesied, and Jesus later reiterated:

    Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      That sounds like a really good lesson. You have some really good stuff, Christian! Thanks for the comment.

  5. Marc Cardaronella says:

    A friend, Clayton Emmer, wrote this comment on Google+. I just wanted to share it because it’s good and so close to the idea I was trying to get across in this post.

    Clayton wrote:

    In a gloss on JPII’s Veritatis Splendor, I wrote:

    “Not only are the requirements of goodness woven into our very existence as human beings; additionally, Goodness Himself comes in pursuit of us and reveals Himself to us in the course of human history. Goodness wants to be in continuous relationship with us, and thus extends to us a covenant. In the history of Israel, this initiative appears in a particular way when God reveals the Decalogue (ten commandments) to Moses. These commandments are the terms of the relationship… the way in which we can remain in relationship with the good. They are not arbitrary conditions on the part of God, but simply a fleshing out into words of the law written on our hearts at creation. In the Decalogue, God says to us, in effect: Here is who I am; here is who you are, both personally and corporately; and here is how you and I can remain in communion with each other.”

    Check out his post at: http://doxaweb.wordpress.com/2011/09/14/if-you-wish-to-enter-into-life/

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