One day in clinic I was seeing a patient in follow up. At her previous visit I had given her a prescription to help with her migraine headaches. “Have you been taking the medication?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “I take it religiously.”
The literal meaning of her reply struck me, and I suddenly imagined her on her knees, swallowing a pill with devotion and fervor.
“Do you take it at church?” I asked.
She looked at me quizzically. “You just said that you take it religiously,” I explained.
She laughed. “No, I don’t take it at church, but maybe I should.”
Ever since that day I have pondered on the question of what it really means to take something religiously. I have had patients from all walks of life use this phrase, including deeply spiritual people and very secular people. They all mean the same thing when they are talking about their medicine, and it has nothing to do with religion. What they mean is that they are regular, reliable, and fully compliant with taking it.
Medicine is not the only non-religious thing that people take religiously. Think about that neighbor of yours who can give sports commentary, complete with volumes of statistics to support his assertions, for 30 or more minutes at a time without hardly pausing to breathe. Or how about that guy who can list every track on every album from his favorite band, including singles and B-sides, in chronological order? Or the one who can quote chapter and verse from their favorite escapist fiction series? And we all probably know someone who only wants to read or talk or think about politics all of the time, and nothing else.
Is it okay to get so geeky about a subject? Or is there something wrong, some sin, in doing the things I have described? All of the examples I just gave could have been me at various points in my life, and something like that is probably true for most people.
The first two of the Ten Commandments are relevant to this question:
“2 I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:2-5)
God has sensitive and deep feelings, which is the meaning of the Hebrew word translated as “jealous” in the King James Bible. He is offended when we give our worship to something less worthy of it.
But this commandment isn’t really about him; it is about us. We are God’s children, not just his servants, minions, or creations. We have the potential, through the grace of Christ, to become like he is. That was the whole purpose of God’s plan — to give us the experience and education we need to make progress towards this ultimate goal. The commandment to love God and to worship only him keeps us focused on that destiny. Whatever halts our progress through distraction or deflection of our worship away from God breaks the commandment. To love God is to love what we can become.
I don’t mean to get into a legalistic argument about what constitutes a false god, or worship of one. Is there a threshold value for time, energy, interest, or money, beyond which mere interest or enjoyment becomes worship? We could probably spend half a million words on that subject without saying anything concretely useful.
But here is the real question: how many of us actually take religion religiously? Does our belief in God influence what we do or say outside the walls of a church building or beyond the hours of a Sunday worship service?
“As Latter-day Saints,” President Russell M. Nelson recently explained, “we have become accustomed to thinking of ‘church’ as something that happens in our meetinghouses, supported by what happens at home. We need an adjustment to this pattern. It is time for a home-centered Church, supported by what takes place inside our branch, ward, and stake buildings.” He is hoping that Church members will take their religion more religiously, encouraging us to take personal responsibility for our own learning. An occasional prayer or a rare attendance at church meetings will not be enough. To have the Lord’s power in our lives we need to “feast upon the words of Christ,” “pray without ceasing,” and “hunger and thirst after righteousness.”
Doing something religiously implies an exceptionally high degree of faithful devotion, derived from a core conviction about spiritual beliefs. It is more than simply being reliable; doing something religiously means that there is worship involved. Very few people take their medications with that kind of zeal. Medicine can do remarkable things, it is true, but it doesn’t hold a candle to God’s power.