Why do you believe and think the way you do? Years ago I was confronted by this question when it came to religion. What I discovered led me to another momentous question: Would I change the spiritual course of my life or continue following the crowd?
In my youth it seemed like my father was always instructing my brothers and sisters and me on matters of character and decision-making. Especially as we entered our teenage years, he frequently told us to not just "follow the crowd."
He would often voice this when we fretted about what "all our friends" got to do and we couldn't. Maybe they could stay out until 1:00 a.m., go to unchaperoned parties or have fun at other "popular" activities. Dad always told us, "Just because others do something doesn't mean you should too!"
As a self-employed businessman, my father often challenged conventional wisdom. He taught us to analyze what we read, heard and thought about doing. We didn't always appreciate his advice, but as we grew older its value became clear. In fact it helped me to examine my thinking about religion.
Comparing beliefs with the Bible
Like many people, I grew up attending a mainstream church. As a boy I simply assumed that what I was being taught was right. I never questioned that church's teachings. However, in my early 20s I was challenged to compare my beliefs with what the Bible actually taught.
I began studying such subjects as the seventh-day Sabbath, the immortal soul, heaven and hell, the Trinity, and traditional Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter. While examining what the Bible says about these and many other topics, I discovered glaring conflicts with my church's long-established doctrines and traditions.
In addition, I learned that God holds each individual accountable for his or her spiritual decisions and actions. In other words, a person can't justify bad or unwise choices and behavior with the excuse that his religious organization believes or acts a certain way. God doesn't look on people as members of groups, but as unique individuals who are responsible for our own choices.
In fact I learned that God, as the One who created us, knows intimately and unquestionably what's best for each of His children (Isaiah 29:16). He wants us to live joyful, abundant lives (John 10:10).
Our first parents, Adam and Eve, refused to follow their Father's instructions. They wanted to decide for themselves what was good and evil. The tragic result of their choice was suffering and their ultimate deaths (Genesis 2:16-17).
Life and death, blessing and cursing
Later, God gave each person in ancient Israel the same choice (Deuteronomy 30:19). He told them to "choose life" by obeying His laws. They rejected His counsel. The result was enormous suffering and heartache. They preferred to "follow the crowd" of the surrounding nations that lived by their own rules (see 2 Kings 17:15).
God repeatedly warned His people to not make that fateful mistake (Deuteronomy 18:9). Through Moses He said: "Don't do something just because everyone else is doing it. If you see a group of people doing wrong, don't join them. You must not let them persuade you to do wrong things—you must do what is right and fair" (Exodus 23:2, Easy-to-Read Version).
Besides learning this, I came to see that little has changed since the days of ancient Israel. Nearly all people have made this same decision to decide for themselves what is good and evil. Humanity's tragic, painful history demonstrates that this approach just doesn't work. I discovered that lying in wait to take advantage of our disastrous choices is Satan the devil. He's the original defiant sinner and hater of God (1 John 3:8). By choosing to ignore God's perfect way of life, people have set themselves up to be deceived and manipulated by this great "dragon" (2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9).
The whole world enticed by the devil
I learned just how pervasive the devil's influence is. It's so overwhelming that the Bible says that " the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:19, emphasis added throughout).
And what's the world like as a result? In the battle between good and evil throughout the centuries, it's not hard to see that evil has been winning (Isaiah 59:4, Isaiah 59:7-8).
To make matters worse, the Bible plainly reveals that since the whole world has been deceived by the devil, this also includes Christian churches and those who profess Christianity.
Many deceived by lawless pretenders
When Jesus' disciples asked Him about the signs of His second coming, the very first thing He cautioned them about was to "take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying [that] I am Christ; and shall deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5, King James Version).
Jesus warned His disciples about bogus ministers who would present themselves as Christian. He said they would be figuratively dressed "in sheep's clothing." These treacherous individuals would covertly be as "ravenous wolves," who would exploit people for their own purposes (Matthew 7:15).
The apostle Paul said that even though these crafty people would appear caring and virtuous, they would actually be lawless pretenders. He wrote: "For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness , whose end will be according to their works" (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
Can all the churches be right?
It's stunning to realize just how deep the deception is. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations around the globe. Each teaches its own version of the truth. It's just not logical to think that all of them could be correct!
Should there be any question that the many biblical warnings and prophecies about counterfeit Christianity have come to pass?
Not only was I astounded by this concept, but God opened my eyes to another vitally important truth. Jesus referred to people who would pretend to have the truth: "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness' (Matthew 7:22-23).
Worshipping in vain
Jesus said of religious practitioners in His day, "In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:9). Worshipping God apart from doing what He says to do is a vain exercise. Most who profess Christianity today don't realize that in large part they're out-of-sync with biblical teachings. In fact, they are really conforming to humanly devised religious ideas, beliefs and practices.
The apostle John explained that unless a person obeys God he can't understand genuine truth: "He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4).
So how can someone really know Jesus Christ? It's through His words that are carefully revealed in the pages of the Bible (Hebrews 4:12). In referring to Himself as the One who saves us, Jesus said, "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63).
Jesus was the impeccable example of one who zealously "chose life" by diligently carrying out His Father's will in everything (Matthew 26:39). Christ said that He is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
And what was this "way" He talked about? His mission was to encourage people to repent of sin while announcing the government or Kingdom of God. He said He will establish the Kingdom on earth at His second coming (Mark 1:14-15). He carried out His duty not only in what He said but in what He did. He lived "the way" of the Kingdom Himself. Specifically, He lived in complete obedience to the very laws He'll enforce in His coming global administration (John 15:10).
Living by every word of God
Unlike today's world of lawlessness and selfishness, the Kingdom of God will be a shining example of true righteousness. The Bible defines righteousness as keeping God's commandments (Psalms 119:172). Jesus Christ's way of life guarantees abundant peace and prosperity for everyone.
Most excitingly, you and I don't have to wait until Christ's return to live the way of the Kingdom. We can do it now by repenting of our sins, accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior and striving to live by every word of God (1 John 3:4; Luke 4:4). If we do, we'll be just as innovative and unconventional as Jesus was when He walked the earth.
After I had been introduced to all of this amazing knowledge, I was challenged by another critical question: Would I be willing to act on what God showed me? The apostle James wrote that we must be "doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving" ourselves (James 1:22).
Real faith and courage needed
So there I stood at a spiritual crossroads. I could have decided to remain in my "comfort zone" and simply ignored what I learned. But if I had, I wouldn't have been true to myself. Most importantly, I wouldn't have been true to my Maker and Judge.
Recalling my father's advice, I decided that following the crowd wasn't an option. Instead, I chose to follow and obey Jesus Christ with all my heart, soul and mind (Luke 10:27). Doing so liberated me from false ways that have no biblical foundation (John 8:32). Jesus said that those who desire eternal life must "enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it" (Matthew 7:13).
So what about you? If you've been reading The Good News or watching the Beyond Today television program, you may recognize that what you read and hear comes from the Bible. These teachings are often very different from traditional Christian doctrines, customs and practices.
In the same way that I took up the challenge many years ago, are you willing to examine your thinking and beliefs in comparison to what the Bible actually says? Are you prepared to make changes in your life to reflect what it really teaches? It takes genuine faith and courage from God to not "follow the crowd." What choice will you make?