Lighten up and live longer

The writer is a regular columnist for The Journal and a church pastor.

By Melvin Rhodes

DEWITT, Mich.--A recent article by Iain Murray in the British conservative weekly The Spectator ("Faith Healing," Oct. 9) was based on American research into the benefits of religious beliefs on a person's overall health. Generally people with religious convictions live longer and healthier lives.

However, one exception to this rule was noted. People in sects apparently do not live as long as average, nor is their state of health all that good.

I think we would agree that we are a sect of Christianity. We are not a part of mainstream religion. Our beliefs are quite different from those of most professing Christians. Some would call us a cult.

One definition of cult in my dictionary (Clarke's) is "sect," so a thin line divides the two. A cult is a group of people "devoted to, (with) attachment to, or admiration for, a person, principle, etc."

A sect is better than a cult

Because the word cult carries more negative connotations than sect, I prefer to think of myself as belonging to a sect rather than a cult. Perhaps it's more a case of having graduated from cult status to the status of a sect by recent events.

Anyway, however you want to think of yourself, research shows our religious beliefs have not been good for our health, with the added caveat that longevity eludes most members of the Churches of God. Why is this? Why is it more healthy to practice mainstream Christianity than to swim upstream?

In trying to answer this question, I cast my mind back to my days in the Methodist Church, which I left 30 years ago when I came into a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures that led me to change my church affiliation.

Of course, back then I was healthier anyway. I was younger and much thinner and had more hair. But I would probably still be healthier than I am had I stayed in the Methodist Church--at least according to the research.

The fact is, though, that my mind-set was quite different in the Methodist Church. I was not as involved as I subsequently became when I joined our parent church.

If you will, I was not as intense about my religion.

Intensity, when it comes to our spiritual devotions, is not exactly a bad thing. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 correct the first and last churches for having lost their first love and their zeal for the faith and for being lukewarm, neither cold nor hot: the general state of most of this world's religions and those who adhere to them.

So a certain intensity is a good thing. Conversely, intensity can be bad.

Law vs. grace

The law was often overemphasized at the expense of grace. This is not to say that the law is not important or that we should not keep it. The apostle Paul showed that quite clearly in Romans 6:1-2. But membership in a strict conservative church with a heavy emphasis on the law and obedience meant many were continually wracked with feelings of guilt.

Such intense feelings of guilt are discouraging and ultimately debilitating, bad for one's health (Proverbs 12:25).

Many left the church over the years through discouragement, feelings of inadequacy and helplessness over sins not overcome after long and loud sermons that intensified feelings of guilt, shame and failure.

Other churches may not have the law, but they do have grace. A deeper understanding and appreciation of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for our sins removes those feelings of guilt and failure.

Joy is the fruit of the Spirit that is produced by this realization, the sheer joy that results from admitting our human failings and the recognition that only through Jesus Christ can we hope for salvation (Romans 7:25).

We still need to improve in this area. Among the people of God there remains too much of the sect of the Pharisees, an inner conviction that stricter observance of this or that law will somehow put us ahead spiritually.

Onward and upward

The pressure is on to make sure we deleaven our houses better than the nearest church-member neighbors do; that dinner is prepared before sunset; that no newspaper is delivered Saturday morning; that our children are better behaved than anybody else's children; that our marriage is the best; that my sermonette next week shows more spirituality than the one given last Sabbath.

This, in turn, leads to self-righteousness and a judgmental attitude, problems we have to admit have plagued us for decades. Rather than admit to failing in some area and asking others in the church for prayers and help (James 5:16: "Confess your faults one to another"), people try to hide their sins out of fear of condemnation.

This is not conducive to good health either. People often go to extraordinary lengths to cover up a sin. The stress can literally kill them.

Other areas, too, are detrimental to the health of members of a sect.

I don't remember anybody being upset in the Methodist Church when someone else had the opportunity to get up and give a sermon. Many lay preachers did this. Only one week in four or six did we have an ordained minister with us on a Sunday morning. I don't remember anybody being critical, accusatory or judgmental.

I had to wait to become a Sabbatarian to hear people say they were not being fed spiritually after listening to somebody speak. Only after I began keeping the Sabbath did I see people hurt, even bitter and resentful, because somebody else was on the speaking schedule. Only after I began attending Church of God services did I hear that someone was offended because another man was ordained to an office in the church (Proverbs 14:30).

Judging can be bad for your health

Why these feelings? As the Bible reminds us, jealousy is not good for us. Remember the effect it had on King Saul in 1 Samuel 18?

Nor is being critical good for our health. Nor is gossip. Nor is being judgmental: Ultimately it alone could cost us our eternal life (Matthew 7:1-2).

The health of ministers isn't good, either, especially after the events of the last few years (see my column "Now Is Not a Wonderful Time to Be a Church Pastor" in the July 30 issue of The Journal).

A critical spirit has invaded the Churches of God. For years my wife and I would return home Saturday night after serving two congregations and be filled with enthusiasm for the week ahead. Now I am more likely to wake up Sabbath morning with a headache in anticipation of the day ahead and look forward to getting it over with as soon as possible. As with many others, our health has suffered too.

Then there's the stress caused by doctrinal differences and church splits. It's amazing how people can get so worked up over a minor point of doctrine. This may be a legacy from our past. We were always right. We were the only church God was using. Everything we believed was correct, beyond question to most.

Does God call only Type A?

Many still think along these lines. When they learn "new truth" (invariably something that's been around for most of the last 2,000 years), they are absolutely 100 percent right and everybody else is wrong. Slam. Out the door. Let's start a new church. Is everybody God has called over the years a Type A?

The more I reflect on the differences between my Church of God experience in contrast to the years spent in the Methodist Church, the more I would have to say that it does come back to intensity. My Methodist life was confined to a few hours on a Sunday and maybe the occasional time during the week. My life in the Church of God has totally absorbed me, even before I was full time in the ministry. It's still my first love or I wouldn't be writing this column each month.

I hope I will never be lukewarm. But I am trying to improve my health, partly through being less intense. We all need to be a part of a church, to be with people of like mind, fellow believers. Our relationship with God should be the most important part of our lives.

But we do not have to be so intense about everything that we ruin our health.

If we can learn to back off from everything; not worry about what other people think or may say; not be tormented by our human frailty; take minor doctrinal differences in stride while keeping in mind the big picture of God's plan of salvation; not compare ourselves with others; realize that a person's position or attainments in this life do not equate with his spirituality or his closeness to God; then our health will improve--and being a part of a sect won't be so bad after all.

In other words, lighten up, people.

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