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Photo of medical student studying at hospital where mother is a custodian goes viral

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Photo of medical student studying at hospital where mother is a custodian goes viral
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“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

Johana Peña was a medical student at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, California. Her parents came to the US when they were eighteen and worked hard to raise their family. Her father was badly injured in a work accident and could not work, so he stayed home to raise Johana and her three siblings. Her mother became the sole financial provider for the family, working several housekeeping jobs at a time to pay the bills.

One of these jobs was working as a custodian at the hospital where Johana was a medical student. A 2019 picture of them together recently went viral and became the subject of a Washington Post profile.

As we noted yesterday, courageous perseverance is invaluable in a broken world that is becoming more antagonistic to the gospel with each passing year. A glance at the day’s news is enough to reinforce this fact:

In days like these, perseverance is not enough. However, the resources we need most are available to every one of us today.

Is religion good for the world?

Christianity Today is profiling Christian pilots who are risking their lives to fly the gospel to the “ends of the earth.” And Religion News Service reports that Americans are more than seven times as likely to say local churches have been helpful during the pandemic than to say they’ve been harmful. This good news comes as social distancing, volunteers’ health status, and other factors made it harder for religious institutions to provide shelter, clothing, and food to those in need.

According to the World Economic Forum, religion contributes about $1.2 trillion dollars of socio-economic value to the US economy. This is more than the global annual revenues of the world’s top ten tech companies—including Apple, Amazon, and Google—and more than 50 percent larger than the global annual revenues of America’s six largest oil and gas companies.

It seems clear that, despite rising secular opposition and vitriol, religion is good for society. But is it good for religious people?

Is religion good for you?

David DeSteno is a psychology professor at Northeastern University in Boston. He discovered in an experiment that people who meditated were far more likely to give up their seat in a crowded room to a person on crutches. In another study, those who were asked to count their blessings cheated much less at a game than the control group.

Over time, he told himself, “It seems like everything I’ve been discovering people have been using in religious tradition for years.” As a result, he published How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion. He shows that the rituals and practices of religion are good for us. From Hindu chanting to Buddhist mindfulness to Jewish rites of passage and Christians saying grace before meals, he reports that these practices have measurable, empirical positive results.

However, he adds, “Most of the practices will work without belief because what they’re doing is they are leveraging parts of physiology, parts of our unconscious minds, to help us do things.” As a result, he encourages even irreligious people to adapt religious practices such as meditation and gratitude.

He wants to be clear that he is not arguing for cultural appropriation: “I’m not saying that if you’re not a Jew you should say these Jewish prayers. We have to respect the traditions from which these things come. But it doesn’t mean we can’t look at how they affect our minds and bodies and take these techniques and adapt them in different ways.”

I was wrong on both counts

I admit that I was more encouraged by the first part of the article than the second. Secular support for spiritual truth is welcome in a secular age, while evidence that religion “works” apart from the God of the Bible is less helpful to Christian evangelism and ministry.

However, upon reflection, I decided that my response was wrong on both counts.

The gospel is true because it is true, whether secular science can prove its claims or not. Such proof may be compelling for secular people; for example, Paul quoted Greek philosophers when reasoning with Greek philosophers (Acts 17:28). But if God’s word is truth (John 17:17), no secular experiments can make it less true.

Conversely, if God is love (1 John 4:8), then the practices his word commends such as meditation (Psalm 119:15) and gratitude (1 Thessalonians 5:18) will be good for anyone who practices them. Of course, what the professor misses is that these practices do not by themselves produce the highest good. Rather, they position us to experience what the one true God wants to give us out of his grace and love.

The “simple pleasure” God offers us today

Johana Peña’s story resonates with us because it models the gospel: love that transcends boundaries to transform those who embrace it. The good news is that we have a Father in heaven who is even more loving than the most loving mother on earth.

A. W. Tozer noted, “Nothing in or of this world measures up to the simple pleasure of experiencing the presence of God.”

What will you do to experience this “simple pleasure” today?

NOTE: Discern is my new daily show, available free on Igniter TV with a 7-day trial, where we will look at the news unfolding around us and engage the issues of the day from a biblical perspective.