5 Great Life Lessons From Christianity
The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 12
How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.
You may be thinking, “Wait, Nick, if you are an Atheist, what in the world are you doing propping up a religion like Christianity?” That would be a fair question, and the answer calls back to what the Free Thought Forum is all about. In our practical study of moral philosophy, we will be looking for good ideas from all over the world and throughout history. In this episode, we will be looking to see if there are great life lessons that can be found from some Christian teachings. Moral lessons that even an Atheist like me could find useful.
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Many religious leaders will encourage their followers to accept their holy texts and teachings in their entirety. Perhaps you have even been warned of so-called “Cafeteria Christians” who cherry-pick the parts of the Bible they like and ignore the rest. Today, however, that is exactly what we are doing.
In episodes such as these in which we explore religious teachings, I feel like I should stress that we are discussing ideas, not people. Christians, just like all kinds of people, deserve to be treated with common decency, with respect to their rights and inherent value as human beings. Christians, just like everyone else, are welcome to join us in our in-person discussions and groups, and we earnestly hope that they do.
Today’s discussion is not about people, it is about ideas, teachings, and beliefs. And we don’t have any obligation to be kind to any ideas, teachings, or beliefs. We are exploring what hopefully are universally applicable moral teachings from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. I will not attempt to cover the historical, philosophical, cultural, or theological impact of Christianity. Rather, I’ll look at modern Christian belief and extrapolate five secular moral themes that anyone can do well to follow.
This episode does not represent an endorsement or statement of belief in regard to Christianity itself. I personally don’t even think that there is enough evidence to support the idea that Jesus of Nazareth existed in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that the main religion based off of the stories of him is completely useless. You may recognize that I’m making an argument that there is indeed a baby in the bathwater.
I hope all that puts us on the same page. With that said, here are five Great Life Lessons from Christianity:
1. Be a Meek Hero, With Powerful Restraint
Consider the tremendous abilities the character of Jesus possesses in the New Testament stories. Jesus’ miracles serve as demonstrations of his divinity and power. He can raise people from the dead, curse trees to wither and die, and command the storms. So we can expect that he would become some tyrannical warlord, right? Don’t you remember stories of him flexing his powers like a Greek God or magician king? Isn’t that the direction this kind of character usually goes?
There are a surprising number of calls to non-violence, tolerance, and peace-keeping in the Christian New Testament. Jesus himself is often depicted as an advocate for this kind of peaceful worldview.
In Matthew 5:5,9 we read: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are the peacemakers...”
A translation that is favored by Dr. Jordan Peterson reads: "Those who have power but have sheathed their swords shall inherit the earth.”
“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Comes from Matthew 26:52
In the narrative of the gospels, Jesus is indeed shown to be powerful, but that isn’t the only lesson in his miracles. Just as often as we see him wield his divine gifts, we also see him demonstrate compassion, grace, and restraint.
It is that restraint that I believe holds the most valuable message. He teaches his empowered disciples to be “wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.” There is really something to that. How easy is it for us to abuse our own power? Think of how you drive your two-ton car. Do you speed, take up two parking lanes, or use your horn a little bit more than you should? What about your own cunning or cleverness? Have you ever used that to get a cheap laugh from the crowd at the expense of someone more vulnerable? Think of the influence you have over a loved one. Have you ever misused their trust and said something you knew would cut them to the core? True, we can’t turn water into wine, but we wield a great deal of influence through what we say and do. Our online accounts, wealth, speech, physical health, knowledge, and so many other things can be irresponsibly used by us to intimidate, dominate, and manipulate.
The more moral path is to consider our own power and to exercise tremendous restraint. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” as President Teddy Roosevelt would say. This moral teaching makes me think of the Nuclear Program of the United States. Could this country completely destroy its enemies, turning hostile countries into creators? Yes, we absolutely can. But we obviously shouldn’t. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. You shouldn’t steal even if you can get away with it. You should never take advantage of your friends and family, even if they would capitulate. Because a hero isn’t someone who misuses their abilities. A hero is someone who can cause great harm, yet, they chose not to. Rather, they apply their gifts toward the wellbeing of others. Almost every time Jesus performed a miracle, it was because he was directly helping someone other than himself. Be a meek hero with powerful restraint.
2. The Greatest Person Suffered the Most
It is in our instinctual nature to seek comfort and reduce our personal suffering. I suspect that this is why we so often feel compelled to complain. A great deal of the time, the suffering we complain about is just in our heads, a perceived injustice born of the gap between what we have and what we want. Our close ape relatives have demonstrated that they have a sophisticated sense of fairness. If an ape sees another get something small, like a grape, they will cry foul, complain, and become violent until their sense of justice is served.
If we wanted to, we could spend the rest of our lives making a list of all of the unfair things we have had to suffer. Who is to blame for all of our problems? There is another potentially endless list. What comforts do we feel we deserve? There is another potentially endless list. As children, and even as adults, we may slip into the defeatist thinking that we are the greatest victims of this cruel and indifferent universe.
But you know, there was this one guy... And he had it worse than you. At least, that is a powerful message that I believe can be pulled out of from the Christian narrative. Jesus is depicted as a holy paragon, the ideal human being. He did no wrong, did everything he should, and had no hatred or malice toward any person. And what was his reward for making all the right choices? He was betrayed by his friends, brutally tortured, harassed, abandoned by his father, and publicly executed.
Now that is something to think about! There is a moral in the story.
Did Jesus look at the difficult task ahead and shrink back? When confronted with his duty and destiny, did he wince? No, he accepted his responsibility and faced his terrible fate. The cruelty he faced didn’t corrupt him, it refined him. He didn’t become resentful or bitter. Rather, his last words depict him as even more merciful and long-suffering. This is the right answer. This is how a hero should complete their journey. A hero faces the challenge ahead, suffers through it, and emerges better for it. That is a mindset that can get us through the hard times.
This is why we can so easily call emergency responders, soldiers, police officers, and firefighters “heroes.” They charge into the fire. They do their job. They accept their responsibility and do it, whatever the cost. They embrace suffering and climb over it. This is how any person can be heroic. Adopt your responsibility, face the suffering of life, and get the job done, whatever the cost.
If we complain about the injustices of life all day, or if we wait for others to save us from our woes, we will have become nothing nobler than a prey animal, hiding in the bushes. But if we accept the suffering of life and stand up to it, then we would have done something right. Then we would have become something noble.
For all that you have suffered, someone else has had it worse. However great you think you are, there is always someone greater. Sometimes terrible things happen to good people - and we should endure it, not give up or complain. Our hardships should not make us bitter, but more merciful and kind. Remember that the greatest person suffered the most.
3. You Reap What You Sow
2 Corinthians 9:6 "But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully."
Galatians 6:7 "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."
A deeply immoral idea, in my opinion, is the idea that you deserve this car, that shampoo, or that luxury vacation. I see this in commercials and ads all the time. Let’s have a quick reality check: You don’t deserve anything. It just isn’t in the cards. I’m reminded of that part in the movie Thor: The Dark World when Loki asserts that he deserves to be a ruler. Odin rejects his claim, saying, “Your birthright was to die!” There is a lot of truth in that statement. No one really deserves to be happy or healthy. The universe is indifferent to our wants and suffering. Our future holds no guarantees. Put another way, if you want something, and you want to make sure that you’ll get it, you need to be the one to get it. If you want anything in the future, you must be the one to prepare for it.
The common phrase “You Reap What You Sow” is a farming allegory. Basically, if you didn’t plant the seeds, how can you expect your crop to be ready at the time of harvest? We should always be mindful of the future and prepare for it. We should never expect anything better for ourselves than that which we have personally set in motion ahead of time.
If you want to take an extravagant vacation, become a lawyer, compete in the Olympics, or have a comfortable retirement, you must pay the prerequisite price of preparation. You will only reap what you sow.
4. Include Women and Children in Important Discussions
My fellow Atheists who have made it this far are probably now rolling their eyes. True, if we go by today’s standards of women’s or children’s rights, or even men’s rights for that matter, ancient texts seem less than helpful. The further back in time we go, the less relevant a text can be to the current conversation, except perhaps as a counterexample.
Think of the highly stratified society that serves as the setting for the biblical stories. Think of the male-dominated spiritual discussions, religious hierarchies, priesthoods, rabbinic elites, and so forth. Presentations, scriptural readings, or discussions on moral philosophy or religion, like this recording, was an exclusively male event. This even carried over in a few of Paul’s letters for the first Christians. For example, women were commanded to remain silent in church.
But now look at the abnormal behavior of Jesus. Consider the story of Mary and Martha found in Luke 10:38-42. While one woman was busy fulfilling a traditional female role, the other listened to the theological teaching that was going on, and she was praised for it. In the gospels, women were taught face-to-face, and played key roles in the nativity, ministry, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not view women as unworthy of participation in spiritual matters. Likewise, we would do well to ensure that our day-to-day conversations, discussions, and debates are inclusive, rather than exclusive. We should never see another person as ill-suited for meaningful contribution or as someone unfit to participate in philosophical forums.
Mark 10:14 "But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."
Our inclusivity should not end with adult men and women. Children and teenagers also have a lot to say about big issues. Involve your children often when discussing important matters with your spouse. As a family, if you openly talk about important things such as politics, philosophy, societal issues, finances, critical thinking, problem solving, and scheduling, you are teaching by example. Such inclusion goes a long way in teaching kids how to think, especially if you solicit their input in the process.
Recall the last time you went shopping for a new pair of shoes. While many of us can select a box of new shoes on the shelf and buy them right away, most of us need to try them on and walk around in them a bit before making up our minds. The same is true when it comes to the adoption of many important ideas and beliefs. Talking with your spouse and kids allows them to try the ideas out by talking about them. That verbal engagement and interaction, in my experience, provides a far better education than merely asking a child to sit back and listen. Include Women and Children in Important Discussions.
5. Know What You Believe, and Live it!
Matthew 5:14-16 “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works…”
1 Peter 3:15 "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear"
James 1:22 "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only..."
Have you taken a moment to really study and decide what it is that you believe? I really like that call to action in 1st Peter. Basically, he is saying that if someone asks you about what you believe, you should be ready to explain it. I would argue that we should even go a step further. Not only should we understand well our own moral philosophy, but we should be able to explain the main influences that have informed our own moral philosophy.
If you can’t tell me the rules you are following in order to live a moral life, then you have some homework to do! What a great message! Know thyself, know the rules you follow. Know your own beliefs well enough to explain them.
In a way, we aren’t really able to pick and choose what we believe. If we are convinced of something, belief naturally follows. If you can be honest with yourself about what you believe, then that ought to inform your behavior, especially on matters of moral philosophy.
Many of us have, at one time or another, caught ourselves in a compromising position when it comes to this issue. If your beliefs do not match your actions, or how you live, then what does that tell you? Perhaps your beliefs have been refined, and no longer resemble their outdated versions that you still profess to follow. Maybe you lack the courage or conviction to follow-through with what your beliefs require you to do. It may be the case that you are unsure about how your worldview can be translated into meaningful action.
Whatever the case, (given that your beliefs satisfy a high ethical standard) the gap between what you think you should do, and what you are doing, should be reduced, and soon. I think it goes without saying that your own personal mental and emotional health would be benefited by you doing exactly what you think you should do, to the best of your ability. Doing the opposite sounds like a recipe for anxiety, stress, disappointment, and the constant nagging feeling you feel when you are being disingenuous.
Imagine how our society would change if everyone made a concerted effort to do what they already think they should do. But, I admit, because of our nature, this can be complicated. Most people are poor masters of their own actions. For example, they say they will work out every day, and fail to make it to the gym on the second day. But just because something is hard, that doesn’t give us reason to quit.
If you are performing at a level lower than what you sincerely think you can and should be, now is the time to step up. The sooner you can mesh your ideal self with your current self, the better. Know what you believe, and live it!
That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I mistaken about some detail? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!
Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative