Hungry For Holiness Men's Fellowship

Thoughts on Traditions - Part 1


The Effects of Tradition on Our Motivations

We often cling to traditions that we have been taught or handed down by family, or even formed in our own lives as we find ourselves repeating activities or commemorating special events. Traditions have benefits that we’ll look at in a later entry, but there is also reason to individually examine our traditions from time to time. If you perform a word search of the New Testament for the word “tradition”, and look for those passages where Jesus discussed the topic, you will find that He had some concerns related to religious traditions in particular.

One reason to examine our individual traditions is the effect they can have on our motivation to do “the right thing”. Over time, traditions can be carried out almost mechanically. We will likely still recognize the reason we have adopted the activity, but the spirit of it is lost in the repetition. The following scenarios describe the repeated carrying out duties that aren’t actually traditions, but they should clearly illustrate a difference in motivation.

For the first situation, imagine that you are a prisoner in solitary confinement.  At the appointed times every day, a prison guard brings food to your door and without a word completes his assigned duty. It’s probably safe to say that the guard is providing this service not out of love, but because it’s his obligation to carry out this routine. As a prisoner, as much as you might not want to spend “quality time” with fellow inmates in the prison cafeteria, it’s likely that most would eventually prefer that activity over being fed through a slot in the door without a word being spoken. The need is met; the transaction has been completed; the guard has done what was expected, and you once again have sustenance. There is no illusion that the guard might have provided the food out of love for you, the prisoner.

Now imagine that you are a seriously ill patient in a hospital. Let’s further suppose that the hospital food isn’t much better than the prison food in the previous scenario. Because of this, the nursing staff takes pity on you and looks the other way every day when a caring spouse or child smuggles in a bit of “real food” for you. The hospital staff and you are both aware that this act of kindness isn’t done out of a sense of obligation. Your family member is concerned about you and wants to do something, anything, to provide relief to you and demonstrate his or her love.

In both scenarios a need is met – both giver and receiver have performed their respective roles. However, there is a difference that can have an eternal significance. In the hospital example, the visits to the captive audience (the patient) are not merely a repeated act or duty. After enough iterations the drive to and from the hospital might become routine, but the visit itself is motivated by something more than obligation.

These imagined situations should illustrate one potential hazard presented by the performing of activities or “duties” out of tradition or simply because “that’s what we were taught to do”. It is too easy for the motivation to slide from love and devotion into a sense of obligation. Even worse, a tradition can lead to a sense of self-righteousness. It’s possible to believe that because of faithfulness to a routine or duty that we have somehow “earned” our eternal reward. We’ll look at some biblical examples of this in a future post. The primary message to convey here is that we should examine our individual motives for carrying out various habits or traditions and pray that the love and devotion that we started with hasn’t subtly fallen by the wayside without our even recognizing it. Every act we do for God or family or neighbor should be driven by love, and we should never feel that mere consistency in carrying out a tradition in any way earns righteousness in God’s system of accounting. On a final note, 1st Corinthians chapter 13 clearly cautions that we should do the right things for the right reasons:

1Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

2And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

3And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.