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Who Is a Believer?

I write on diverse religious issues, often analysing perspectives from the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Bahá’í).

A Religious Question

This article tries to answer this simple question: Who is a believer? The question is prompted by several statements that have been made in my interfaith circle involving members of different religious groups—each of whom have claimed (sometimes in explicit language, other times by implication) that members of their respective religions are the only true believers on earth.

Hands of a worshipper uplifted in prayer

Hands of a worshipper uplifted in prayer

For the most part, we shall be turning to the Gospel for our references. This is because, apart from everything else, the Gospel message is quite universal in scope, appears applicable to everyone, and is presented in a manner that can be easily understood by all when placed in its proper context. So, to confirm, although references are mainly from the Christian Bible, what is being discussed applies to worshippers of every religious background—Hindu, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Bahá’í, or any other faith group, sect, or denomination. (And all the biblical references are from the Authorised King James Version).

Who is a Devotee?

To most people, a Christian is someone who has so identified, sometimes through baptism, confirmation, and by the occasional attendance at church service; a Muslim is someone who has identified himself as such by pronouncing the Shahada (the Declaration of Faith), participating every so often in Muslim worship, and so on.

With the other religions, different rites of membership will naturally apply.

Three Theravada Buddhist nuns in meditation:

Three Theravada Buddhist nuns in meditation:

Requirement of Discipleship

Yet, the Bible makes clear that one does not become a (true) believer merely through verbal claims, copious citations from scripture, participation in outward religious observances and rituals, or by identifying with any faith symbols.

“For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” (Romans 2:28-29)

In Matthew 7:21-23, we see the believers being admonished by Jesus in the following terms: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

To work “iniquity” is to be engaged in ungodly activities; and to do “many wonderful works” is not necessarily all about miracles but could involve many of the diverse religious undertakings we so pride ourselves in. The only requirement to true discipleship, as noted above, is to do the will of the Father, the will of God (as set out in the holy texts).

In prayer during a Christian youth convention

In prayer during a Christian youth convention

Different Types of Believers

We round up the discussion by reviewing two scenarios, both of which involve two sets of worshippers. Any devotee can decide for himself which set of worshippers he belongs to in each case. As earlier indicated, this applies to every believer irrespective of religious affiliation.

Faith symbols (in golden colour)

Faith symbols (in golden colour)

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The first scenario is based on the parable of Jesus in Luke 18:9-14. Jesus prefaces it as relating to people who trust in themselves that they are righteous and look down on others. Here is the summary:

A Pharisee and a publican (or tax collector, in modern parlance) went to the temple to pray. Pharisees, as students of the Bible would know, were regarded by the general Jewish population of the time as righteous believers who lived a life in strict obedience to the laws of their Jewish faith. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were not very much regarded by the Jews because of their role in collecting taxes from the Jewish population for the Roman colonisers. But beyond that, they were also known to overcharge the people to enrich themselves.

In one section of the temple stood the Pharisee, who began his prayer thus: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”

But the tax collector, in another section of the temple, could scarcely lift up his eyes. All he could do was beat upon his chest, supplicating, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

The parable ends with the information that the tax collector “went down to his house justified rather than the other”. In other words, he went home cleansed, forgiven, and blessed, but not the self-righteous Pharisee.

In concluding, Jesus affirms that “every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”

It is an affirmation that finds a parallel in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. In his Words of Paradise, Bahá’u’lláh avers: “Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power, whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation.” (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, #6)

Muslims in a mosque

Muslims in a mosque

Are You a Pharisee or a Tax Collector?

So, the question a believer (of any of the religions) might wish to answer for himself is: Which of these two worshippers best describes you? Are you one of those who never tire of telling others how saved you are because of this or that religious doctrine or scriptural promise and how lost others are because they choose to worship God differently? Do you have a sense of superiority over others because of your religious affiliation, creeds, and practices? Then, mind you, you might well belong to the camp of the Pharisee.

If, however, you are someone who brings himself regularly to account, acknowledges whatever shortcomings he has, repents of his sins at the threshold of the Creator, and supplicates in humility for His forgiveness and grace, then you are in the camp of the despised tax-collector. And if so, notwithstanding your religious affiliation—whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Bahá’í, or any other—the good Lord is bound to look favourably on you as a sincere wayfarer in the path of truth. After all, your spiritual attainments in this life and the next are dependent on the grace and bounty of God and on nothing else.

No surprise then, one might say, that Jesus should tell the sanctimonious Pharisees in Luke 16:15: “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”

Food for thought. So those are the first sets of worshippers. And by now, you, as a devotee, should know where you belong.

The Parable of the Sheep and Goats

We now move to the second scenario and its associated sets of worshippers. The description is in Matthew 25:31-46. It is a passage about the last day, these end times, and lucidly describes the qualifications of a believer in this day.

The passage explains that the return of the Son of man (i.e., the appearance of the Christ of the end times) is an occasion for all nations to be gathered before him— “all nations,” meaning the entire world. On being gathered before him, the world’s diverse populations are then divided into only two camps—the camp on his right hand being the sheep, and on his left the goats.

The Sheep

It is already well known from biblical terminology that sheep is symbol for the righteous faithful or true believer. Hence, it can logically be deduced from the context that goat is the symbol for unrighteous believer or even an unbeliever. Let’s see then the criteria Jesus uses to determine the sheep (believer) and goat (unbeliever) of the last day. From this, one can see for oneself to which camp one belongs, whether of believers or unbelievers.

To the sheep, this is what the Christ says: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

He then explains the reasoning behind the surprise commendation and offer: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Hence, it is about the diverse acts of love, kindness, compassion, generosity, charity, mercy, etc., that one has shown or extended towards others, towards ordinary humans like you and me. Only.

A sheep and a goat

A sheep and a goat

The Goats

To the goats, it is the exact opposite. He tells them: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.”

And the explanation he gives is that: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

Thus, the goats are the selfish ones who have shown no consideration to others. That’s all. There is no mention of religion, faith symbols, communion, fasting, pilgrimage, mantras, meditation exercises—nothing at all of that nature.

The true believers of the last day, the righteous ones of our time, will not be recognised by their religious affiliations but only by their virtuous deeds and spiritual accomplishments.

The True Believers

This shows that the true believers of the last day, the righteous ones of our time, will not be recognised by their religious affiliations but only by their virtuous deeds and spiritual accomplishments. If they carry out works of righteousness, they are true Christians, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, or Bahá’ís before God—in short, the true believers of the end times. If not, they are not true believers in God’s eyes. That is all.

The Essence of Religion

That, of course, is not to mean that religion is not important. No, religion is God’s school for imparting to men the elements of righteous living. And this goal is the same for all religions. The essential teaching of religion, the spiritual core of faith, is broadly the same.

What differentiates one religion from the other, what worshippers often argue about, are generally the nonessential aspects—such as the social teachings, sundry doctrines and dogmas, traditions, forms of worship, rituals, ceremonies, etc.

The only other difference to be borne in mind is that the latest religion invariably has more pertinent answers for the issues that baffle and confuse the followers of the earlier religions. It often comes with a message that is more relevant than before, one that can provide the antidote for the ills and challenges of the times.

Being Christian or a devotee of any other religious shade is essentially a spiritual condition.

God Is No Respecter of Persons

It is clear from the foregoing that, as far as the Gospel message goes, being Christian or a devotee of any other religious shade is essentially a spiritual condition. It is not a question of labels, religious symbols, rituals, ceremonies, or incantations. Each of the religions is meant to be a way of life, but a way of life that is actively expressed in pious pursuits and not in dogmatic claims and repetitious mantras.

We will give the Apostle Peter the last word. In Acts 10:34-35, he observes candidly: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”

© 2021 Kobina Amissah-Fynn

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