When Religion Doesn’t Hold Water

“Do you think you know your destiny?” Those are the kind of questions you get when you hang around Buddhist monks on the top of a 1000 year-old temple that is part of the Angkor Wat temple complex, a sort of “lost city” in the middle of the Cambodian jungle.

It was just before sunset, and two young monks had struck up a conversation with us as we all waited for the sun to go down; they wanted to practice their English, which was, of course, nearly flawless. It turned out that the younger monk was actually a novice and would be faced with deciding whether to stay permanently as a monk soon.

At that point, he turned to face us. “Do you think you know your destiny?” he asked. Hard to imagine a more serious question, really; a little overwhelmed, we stammered out something about believing it was still unfolding. “Yes,” the young monk said, turning to look out at the horizon, “for me too. That is why I am not sure I can stay in the monastery. I cannot take the final vows until I know my destiny.” He smiled wistfully and murmured, “I hope I know it soon,” and turned back to watch the sunset.

“Do you think you know your destiny?” It’s really just another version of the most basic existential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? The Presbyterian Church actually has an answer to that question in the Westminster Catechism, a series of theological questions and answers that was widely used to educate young people and new Christians in the faith.

If you grew up in the church before the 1960s or so, you would have had to memorize the Catechism, and its first question was the most famous: “What is the chief end of man?” (or humanity, as we would say now). And the answer is: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This is what all human beings have in common; this is the main reason we were created. It’s not the only reason, but it is the chief reason: to glorify God, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Of course, there are other options we can choose to glorify. They’re not good options, as Jeremiah notes in our Old Testament lesson today, but they’re there. Jeremiah calls this “going after worthless things.” The point Jeremiah is making is that, aside from God, all other things are ultimately worthless, like empty puffs of air with no power, shape or substance, dissipating quickly into nothingness.[i]

Failing to recognize that, “going after worthless things,” means ascribing infinite meaning to finite things and then deriving one’s sense of identity and security from them. That is the classic definition of idolatry: seeking after, following, obeying, worshiping, and sacrificing to someone or something besides God. It means replacing the living God with things that neither have life nor are able to give it.

Why anyone would choose such options is truly puzzling, even to God, according to Jeremiah. “What wrong did your ancestors find in me,” God asks, “that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” It is beneath you; dedicating yourselves to worthless things means that you end up leading worthless lives. And I created you for so much more—I’m offering you so much more—and yet, not only won’t you take it, you run in the opposite direction. Why would you do that? As Jeremiah puts it, it’s like choosing to dig pits in the ground in which to store water that grows stagnant and ebbs away, when you could be drinking from the clean and cool waters of a constantly flowing spring. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Except that it does. People turn to idols because they can touch them, can see them, and most of all because they can use them. They turn to idols because they want that kind of reassurance, that kind of control during times of desperation, anxiety, or fear. And this is a desperate and fearful time in which Jeremiah is prophesying. Jerusalem has already been attacked by foreign powers and almost certainly will be attacked again. In such times, it is very tempting to turn to the idols that promise some sense of control, some sense of security, some sense of dealing in what’s practical, what’s measurable, what’s effective.

And the really insidious part is that pretty much anything can become an idol if we treat it like one: our family, work or home; cars, smartphones, social media; money, history, guns; our national or racial or even religious identities. Whatever form it might take, choosing to dig and rely upon leaky, dirty cisterns instead of drinking from the living water, flowing from a spring, only makes sense if you don’t trust the source or the reliability of the spring. When that happens, you want to do something to take control of your own destiny. Even the act of digging can be reassuring in and of itself; at least you’re doing something.

Interestingly enough, though, God doesn’t challenge the need to do something in situations such as this. God simply challenges what they do and, perhaps even more importantly, what they don’t do: “They did not say, ‘where is the Lord who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness?’” God complains to Jeremiah. After all, there is a whole history between God and this people, a whole relationship that was founded on God’s deliverance of them, in a time of extreme desperation and fear, when they were facing one of the earliest recorded genocides: when the Egyptian pharaoh decided to kill every first-born male child. In fact, the whole reason they have a land to be threatened in at all is because God promised it to them, led them to it, and gave it to them. This was, and is, their destiny and they should know that.

But now that their destiny seems threatened, they’re not trusting in that relationship. They’re not asking the obvious question: “where is the Lord who helped us out before?” It is a crucial, crucial question to ask in times of desperation and fear. It might sound like a question of doubt, but “Where is the Lord” is fundamentally a question of faith; it affirms that we expect God to be an active force of blessing in the world, especially in times of desperation and fear.

It affirms that we expect God to remain true to God’s character and God’s promises. And it helps us to look in new directions when we can’t seem to discern God’s presence and activity. Because, usually, when we sense God’s absence, it’s that we’re looking in the wrong direction: looking for God to go ahead of us and remove anything that might cause us suffering as a consequence of our faithfulness, or looking for God to follow after us and remove anything that might cause us suffering as a consequence of our mistakes.

Those are the promises that idols make, but cannot deliver. And neither of those is a destiny which God has promised us. We will not find God in either of those places, no matter how hard we look. Throughout his prophesies, Jeremiah is fundamentally concerned with the people turning away from God and embracing idols, then being surprised when those false wells run dry and they are unable to provide for themselves. Any religion that promises a life of blessing without calling, or security without responsibility, simply doesn’t hold water. It is a cracked receptacle of human desires and projections that cannot contain the resources for life, real life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, famously called this sort of religion “cheap grace,” the benefits of grace without the cost or consequence. And Bonhoeffer knew about costly grace. He was one of the few voices in the church, or in Germany, that spoke up for the Jews and against Hitler, and he eventually was imprisoned, tortured and executed. He is often held up as a modern-day martyr and saint, and for good reasons.

But that often obscures the fact that even a man of such powerful and living faith had his doubts. Yet, sometimes the most powerful statements of faith we can make are statements in the trappings of doubt. While in prison, in between sessions of interrogation and torture by the Gestapo, he wrote a simple poem: “Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house. Who am I? They also tell me I would bear the days of misfortune equably, smilingly, proudly, like one accustomed to win. Am I then really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage struggling for breath, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making? Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

Sometimes the most powerful moments of faith arise from moments of doubt. Bonhoeffer struggled with the severity of his circumstances, struggled with his inability to cope with them, no matter how brave a face he wore. He did not know or understand the details of his destiny, but he knew its source and its conclusion: the fountain of living water, the presence and purpose of the living God in Jesus Christ. And in knowing that, he knew all there was, and is, to know. And so may we all.


[i] This is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word hebel, which is translated as “worthless” in Jeremiah 2:5: “vapor, breath; unsubstantial, worthless, vanity.”

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