To what extent do people’s religious beliefs impact the way they live? That’s the question a new Pew Research Center study intended to answer. The research demonstrates that “people who are highly religious are more engaged with their extended families, more likely to volunteer, more involved in their communities, and generally happier with the way things are going in their lives.” While those conclusions probably shouldn’t shock us, it is interesting to see them validated by a scientific study.
It’s worth noting that they defined “highly religious” as those who pray every day and attend religious services weekly. The people this study had in mind were, in most cases, those whose actions demonstrated that their faith was an integral part of their daily lives rather than something they did when circumstances allowed for or demanded it. Essentially, it’s those who took their faith seriously.
This distinction matters because it shows that a marginal or circumstantial faith really doesn’t make much of a practical difference in our quality of life. God doesn’t like to be put second (Exodus 20:3), and we shouldn’t expect him to bless a life where he’s not that first priority in the same way as one in which he is.
However, another aspect of the study’s research is also worth examining. To better understand the results of their survey, the folks at Pew Center asked whether or not respondents considered a series of sixteen beliefs and behaviors to be “essential,” “important but not essential,” or “not important” to living out their religious or moral beliefs. The results showed a clear correlation between what people believe is essential and the way they live on a daily basis.
For example, those who believe always being honest is essential to being a Christian were considerably less likely to tell a lie, while those who didn’t see it as essential were about as likely to lie as not. Moreover, Christians who thought helping the poor was an essential aspect of their faith were roughly twenty percent more likely to have done so in the last week than those who thought differently. The same pattern is seen with issues like living a healthy lifestyle, protecting the environment, and dealing with companies that pay a fair wage.
If there’s a direct correlation between what we believe to be essential to the Christian faith and the way that we act, then perhaps our actions provide the best way to understand what we truly consider important. Put another way, it can be easy for us to say that something truly matters, but far more difficult to actually live it out.
As James warns, we deceive ourselves when our actions don’t exemplify the truth we claim to believe (James 1:22). There have been many occasions when I have fallen prey to such deception and I think the same is true for most Christians. That’s part of why it’s so vital to regularly ask God to help us see any disconnect between what our words and our actions say is important.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus had very little patience for those whose lives preached a different message than their words (Matthew 23:1–7). He doesn’t think much better of us when we make the same mistake today. While there will always be grace for those times we err, God has called us to a higher standard and a fundamental part of that is making sure that our obedience extends beyond words. Does yours?