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How Religion Changes Lives

When people want to change, they often turn to religion. Though the specifics of what we should change and how vary by tradition, the promise that our lives will become more peaceful through spiritual practice runs through many traditions. In a society where anxiety seems higher than ever, this may be one of the most appealing aspects of religion.

Seeking Peace

The Qur'an promises relief from anxiety for all believers (including Christians and Jews), saying that those who believe in God "on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve" (Qur'an 2:62). The commands "Be not afraid" and "Fear not" run through the Bible, though in some parts it says that we should fear God, just nothing else. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus challenges his followers: "Do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' ... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you" (Matt 6:31-33).

Along with the call to trust God, these scriptures also include the instruction to care for other people, especially those Jesus calls "the least of my brothers." As the prophet Isaiah states:

If you give your bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, your light will rise in the darkness and your shadow become like noon. Yahweh will always guide you, giving you relief in desert places. He will give strength to your bones and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never run dry. (Isaiah 58:10-11)

In spiritual traditions that do not center on a supreme deity, we still find the instruction to serve and care for others rather than anxiously focusing on ourselves. As the Dalai Lama explains, "If the love within your mind is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue." On the other hand, he teaches, "If you contribute to other people's happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life."

How to Change

How do we change so radically that we are more concerned about other people's happiness than our own? How do we find true peace? The answer in many faiths is summed up on a bumper sticker: "Know God, know peace." Black Elk, a Sioux spiritual leader, once explained:

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this.

Spiritual practices -- whether fasting, study of scripture, prayer, or works of charity -- are meant to gradually transform us. Cistercian monk Thomas Keating writes, "The conscious resolution to change our values and behavior is not enough." An advocate of the centuries-old practice of silent contemplative prayer, Keating says we have deeply embedded patterns of selfish and unhealthy behavior, so we need help from what he calls "the Divine Therapist." Similarly, Quakers starting in the seventeenth century adopted a form of silent worship in which they felt the "Inner Light" reveal to them the parts of themselves that needed to be changed.

On the surface, centering prayer and Quaker worship don't look that different from Buddhist meditation, though in Buddhism there is no "Divine Therapist" guiding the process. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains, "Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it." The promise of practice, he teaches, is that we can "smile, breathe, walk, and eat our meals in a way that allows us to be in touch with the abundance of happiness that is available."

Our Role

One of the tensions between and within traditions is the question of how much our transformation is in our control. For some, God is the potter, and we are the clay, reshaped by something greater than ourselves. For others, we have the power to initiate change, or at the very least, we choose to yield to the potter's touch. In the recovery movement, they talk of willingness to change, rather than willfulness. Even in Buddhism, where more emphasis is put on a practitioner's dedicated practice, striving for enlightenment is not the way to achieve it. There is an aspect of change that is a mystery, though that does not mean we are powerless.

When thinking about trying to become a more peaceful and loving person myself, I think of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer and the hope and humility it offers:

God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can change,

And wisdom to know the difference.

There is much I can do to change myself, though I am unlikely to become perfectly peaceful in this lifetime. Both of these are things I have to accept.


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From The Urantia Book:

5:4.2 The great and immediate service of true religion is the establishment of an enduring unity in human experience, a lasting peace and a profound assurance.

100.3.1 Religion is not a technique for attaining a static and blissful peace of mind; it is an impulse for organizing the soul for dynamic service. It is the enlistment of the totality of selfhood in the loyal service of loving god and serving man.

100.6.6 One of the most amazing earmarks of religious living is that dynamic and sublime peace, that peace which passes all human understanding, that cosmic poise which betokens the absence of all doubt and turmoil.

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