Why Religious Teaching Doesn’t Change You

By L. Alfred James

Have you ever wondered why toddlers never need to be taught to smack their siblings? Or why elementary school children never need to be taught to be selfish and refuse to share? In fact, why is sharing something that has to be learned at all, while selfishness comes automatically?

Other questions: Why is it that people never need to be taught to be lazy? A good work ethic is something that is learned, it certainly does not come automatically. Why?

Why do teenagers never need to be taught to lie to get out of trouble? Why do adults never need to be taught to avoid facing their problems through addictions to food, TV, alcohol, drugs, etc.?

Why do we need locks on our doors and police to protect us? Why is it that people are often shocked at their own behavior when they “lose control” and violently attack someone? Why did a young man (I personally know) so quickly get addicted to soft porn, then hard porn, then child porn, and then get arrested?

Why is human nature like water? It runs downhill very naturally. To move it uphill requires a lot of effort.

The Bible gives us an answer to these questions: Human beings are sinful by nature. Because of Adam’s disobedience, we are now afflicted with a nature that is bent on evil.

The apostle Paul, who seemed to be the paragon of virtue, once said, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18). Indeed, he even said that he is the “worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Wow. This is the apostle Paul, talking about his own experience as a human being. Paul is clearly a good guy. Many would rank him among the greatest of all people who have ever lived. However, he tells us that he has an evil streak within him and that he is the worst of sinners.

Paul’s confession should lead us to a very important question: If Paul is afflicted with a nature that is corrupt, is it likely that anyone else will have a nature that is better? Is it likely that any of us is purely good or, at least, neutral? Are we, perhaps, made of spiritually “stronger stuff” than Paul?

Not on your life. No one is exempt.

Human nature is enormously corrupt. None of us realizes the extraordinary potential for evil that lies in our hearts.

Double Trouble

This means that the human situation is worse than you probably thought. As we’ve seen before, all human beings are guilty. All of us have violated our own standards for moral behavior. And we have certainly violated God’s standards if we haven’t kept our own. Thus, we are guilty of breaking God’s law.

And it’s easy to assume that this is the only spiritual problem we have. It’s easy to think we just need forgiveness. We need God to pardon us.

But that isn’t our only problem. Our situation is far worse.

We are not merely guilty, we are corrupt. Our nature is sinful. We need more than forgiveness for our sins. We need transformation for our hearts.

This is why we Jesus says we are utterly dependent on him: “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We are helpless without him because “no good thing dwells” within us.

And this is why the world’s religions (apart from Christianity) are, at best, exercises in futility. Those religions, at best, only provide teaching, not salvation.

Is teaching all that we need? Will more information save us? Hardly. We already have trouble doing our spiritual duties, loving God, and loving others. How is more teaching going to change our hearts? Information can change our opinions, but it can’t change our character.

In his book, You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith is addressing people who have tried to change their lives through religious teaching. He asks,

Well, how’s that working out for you?… Has all of your new knowledge and information and thinking liberated you from those habits? As anyone who has ever attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous well knows, “Your best thinking got you here.”

What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire? What if the center and seat of the human person is found not in the heady regions of the intellect but in the gut-level regions of the heart?

…the center of gravity of the human person is located not in the intellect but in the heart. Why? Because the heart is the existential chamber of our love, and it is our loves that orient us toward some ultimate end or telos. It’s not just that I “know” some end or “believe” in some telos. More than that, I long for some end. I want something, and want it ultimately. It is my desires that define me. In short, you are what you love. (Smith, James K. A.. You Are What You Love, pp. 6-9)

Information doesn’t change the human heart. Teaching alone cannot save you. This is why you need more than a teacher. You need a savior. You need someone who can both rescue you from the penalty of God’s law and change what you love.

And that is exactly what Christianity brings: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Seeing God’s love for us, especially Christ’s sacrifice, moves us to love God and to love others. “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

In the wisdom of God, when we see how Christ suffered in our behalf, we are not just informed, we are transformed.

In short, we are all afflicted with a nature that is extremely self-centered. We are prone to make our own wants and needs the sole focus of our existence, to the detriment of others and the neglect of God. We are not merely guilty, we are prone to evil. The teachings of Buddha, Mohammad, Confucius, or the Bhagavad Gita can neither save us from our guilt are renovate our hearts.

You can’t teach a sinner to stop sinning, and start loving, any more than you can teach a caterpillar to fly. I challenge anyone to present me with an example of a caterpillar that learned to fly by someone teaching it. There is no such thing. But I can give you millions and millions of examples of caterpillars that learned to fly because they were transformed. They are called butterflies.

Why does the doctrine of the fall matter? Because this biblical doctrine tells us that our situation is very desperate, just like our human experience. It tells us why we find such a terrifying potential for evil within our hearts.

And this doctrine shows us why religious teaching is just a band-aid solution. It doesn’t change us from the inside out.

If you want to be changed, you need a changed heart, not just a changed head. You need Jesus.

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