Do I need to believe in God to be a good person?

Once upon a time, there was a farmer with two teenagers at home. He asked both of them to help out with the day’s farm work. One of them responded, Sure thing, Dad. I’ll get to it right after breakfast. The other told his father, I’m really busy. Find someone else. At the end of the day, the first teen never got around to doing his chores, but the other one changed his mind and kept the farm running. Which of these two teenagers did what their father asked?

In my experience, religious affiliation is no predictor of kindness or decency. There are many non-Christians who demonstrate the love of Jesus just as well – or better! – than many Christians. They care for their families, work hard, and contribute to the community. They give till it hurts. They may say no to Dad in the morning, but by the end of the day, they’ve done the work.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of religious folks who say all the right words but lead lives of selfishness. These are the teenagers who say, Yeah, sure thing, Dad, but never make it farther than the XBox.

As someone who identifies with the label Christian, this is confusing to me. Shouldn’t those of us who claim to follow Jesus be demonstrably holier than those who don’t? If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, shouldn’t we who believe in him look more like he does?

Does it even matter whether we are Christians or not? In a certain sense, maybe not. I see no evidence that claiming religious faith results in what Scripture calls the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Paul writes that against such things there is no law, and it seems clear that no religious rules or identity can produce these virtues.

Now, spiritual depth – that’s something else. When someone is filled with the living power of the Holy Spirit, we can sense it instinctively. When we’re in the presence of a person who’s life is saturated with the love of Christ, it’s contagious. Yet, I’ve seen no evidence that this spiritual depth and grounding is restricted to those who identify themselves as Christians – or even theists. The Holy Spirit moves as she pleases, even if it makes us Christians uncomfortable!

Related Post: I’m in Crisis. Will the Church Judge Me?

So what is the point of believing in God, or Jesus for that matter? For me, the simplest answer is that he’s the realest real I know. I profess belief in the Creator, and in his son Jesus, because I have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in my own life. To deny the reality and source of this power would simply be dishonest and inauthentic.

However, it’s easy to hold abstract beliefs about God and Jesus without allowing those beliefs to make a meaningful impact on my life. Christianity can become more about feeling good about myself than walking as Jesus did. The sad truth is, there are many Christians who look less like Jesus than the average atheist.

Still, it’s always nice to put a name with a face. It’s possible to experience Christ’s power without knowing his identity, but knowing who we’re in relationship with is so helpful. Religious faith – and the Christian tradition in particular – exists to provide us with a frame of reference as we allow ourselves to be re-made in God’s image. When I consciously commit myself to following Jesus, I find context and community for the work of transformation.

When I choose to say yes to Jesus as my lord and teacher, savior and friend, I am invited to participate in his ministry and take on his character. When I embrace the story of the crucified messiah, I stand before an open door. This doorway leads to a life of humble service to others. It opens me to extraordinary, self-giving love for those around me. It promises a radically different way of living that profoundly challenges the status quo.

Doors are built to be walked through, however, not merely admired. I could stand at the threshold my whole life, discussing how wonderful the door frame is. I could teach seminary classes on the mystery of doorknobs! But if I never walk through the door, all this knowledge and appreciation is worthless. What’s the point of knowing the way if I never walk in it?

I invite you to share in the comments below:

  • Can you remember a time when the Holy Spirit showed up in an unexpected way, through an unexpected person?
  • Which of the two teenagers is most like you? Do you say yes but then fail to follow through, or do you say no but do the work anyway?
  • What needs to change in your life so that you can walk through the door of faith?

See Related Posts:

I’m in Crisis. Will the Church Judge Me?

Is Jesus Too Exclusive?