Brandon Gregory is a volunteer for the worship and missions teams at Church of the Resurrection. He helps lead worship at the Vibe, West, and Downtown services, and is involved with the Malawi missions team at home.
A 2009 study of insurance records revealed that, on average, people who drive hybrid cars drive more miles than non-hybrid drivers–specifically, they drove 25% more on trips that were not job-related than non-hybrid drivers. Call me crazy, but doesn’t driving more miles in your car kind of defeat the environmental purpose of getting a hybrid car in the first place?
But before you call me out for picking on hybrid car drivers, I’ve got another story. Two separate studies in Taiwan showed that people who take multivitamins are more likely to make poor health choices. The first study showed that, of the two test groups, the one taking the multivitamin was less likely to exercise and choose healthy foods than the control group. The second study looked at smokers exclusively. The control group remained more or less stable with their smoking habit. Want to guess what happened to the other group? That’s right: they actually started smoking more when they started taking the multivitamins. What gives?
The point isn’t that driving hybrid cars and taking multivitamins are bad things. They’re definitely good things–in fact, that right there is the problem. Our brains know they’re good things, which gives us more license to make poor life choices later on. Think of it like a transaction: you earn moral currency for doing a good deed, and feel free to spend that moral currency when a poor life choice comes along. How many times have you eaten an unhealthy meal because you went to the gym earlier that day, or supersized your fries because you got a diet soda?
The phenomenon is called self-licensing, and it’s very well-documented. It’s a temptation that any of us can fall into, and frequently do without realizing it. And self-licensing mixed with religion can have very harmful results.
I talk to a lot of atheists on a very candid level about religion. A story I hear far too often was that a person had some very honest questions about religion, but was driven away by overly-pious religious folks–either by their incongruent actions, or sometimes directly by their words. It’s a very sad story, and always one that I wish could have ended differently.
I wonder sometimes how those stories come about, how those overly-pious religious folks came to be. There are probably a lot of different factors, but one of them is undoubtedly self-licensing. The sad truth is that if we operate on the premise that the simple act of attending a weekly worship service makes us better people, it can actually make us worse people. Without realizing it, we can trade in the moral currency we got by learning how to improve our lives and use it to avoid improving our lives. Becoming more godly and good requires a lot of hard work and change, and going to church is just the beginning.
The trick to beating self-licensing is simply being aware of it. Don’t use good deeds that you’ve done to bargain with God and cheat on your spiritual diet. This isn’t much different than Pharaoh in the Moses story, bargaining and offering a little bit of good and expecting the full benefit–that’s not the way it works. Just like you won’t get much healthier by exercising and eating more junk food, you won’t get much more virtuous by going to church and compromising later on. Don’t let church be the multivitamin that enables you to make poor spiritual decisions–that kind of defeats the purpose of going to church in the first place.
Return to the GPS Guide to read today’s scripture and reflection questions.