QUESTION “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Karl Marx is quoted as having once said. Isn’t Christianity just another way people try to feel better about themselves? Can Christianity be just a crutch for people who are too lazy or afraid to deal with reality?
RESPONSE: Great question, and one that many people voice who assume that in a modern world the only people who need religion are mentally weak, delusional or unintelligent.
First, let’s list a definition of ‘crutch’ that people have in mind when they make this objection to Christian faith. ‘Crutch’: artificial, needless prop, or expedient.
Used in this sense, I would agree that there are some Christians whose faith is a cop out, and they cover their confusion, insecurity, ignorance and failed relationships with platitudes and ‘churchspeak’. They treat their faith like a drug, to make themselves feel better without really considering its larger implications. Therefore, these people place in importance the beliefs and behaviors of Christianity far below the feelings they get in Christian worship services or concerts.
But surely this is a horrible distortion of Christianity itself. Jesus called his followers to radical acts of servanthood and sacrifice to God and mankind. He called for high ethical standards, justice, and for the intrinsic worth of human beings no matter their gender, social status or moral performance. Jesus also told his disciples to expect to be marginalized for their devotion to him, thus to expect suffering, insult and general disapproval.
To think this kind of uncompromising call to bold action and counter cultural living is a psychological prop is ridiculous. In fact, in Jesus own time, many who wanted just a “feel good” message abandoned Jesus because they found that Christianity is not for the faint of heart. (John 6:66)
Rather, if taken seriously, life in the Kingdom of God as Jesus envisioned it, would radically knock over all other crutches that people use to feel better about life, such as hedonism, narcissism, careerism, materialism, even intellectualism and moralism. Real Christian living forces a person out from behind such crutches that cover pain, or that encourage apathy or pride.
Contrary to a materialist view of religion, Christianity is not about the inducement of serotonin or endorphin levels in the brain. It is not first a psychological question at all. It is first an historical question about this man, Jesus of Nazareth. Strong evidence shows Jesus really existed in Palestine, lived a perfect life, claimed to be the Son of God, was executed by a Roman leader named Pontius Pilate, and rose from the dead, being seen alive by many eye witnesses. If I decide, based on this evidence, that Jesus was all he said he was, then I ought to commit myself to him and his leadership regardless of the psychological challenges or benefits his leadership brings (and my experience is that it brings BOTH!).
But now let’s now consider the simplistic idea that all crutches are bad. Obviously, if I break my leg, a crutch is not a sign of weakness! So, here’s another more nuanced definition of ‘crutch’: something used for support or reassurance, that enables a person to meet a real need.
By this definition, crutches are good things and everyone needs them. Every human has common inner needs for which they need support and reassurance: loneliness, sadness, depression, guilt or wonderment about their purpose, or the meaning of life. Does anyone really get over these things by wishing them away? Can mere mental acuity or knowledge make them go away?
No, they show no signs of going away even in our smartest scholars and best saints.
To condemn Christianity for being a solution to these universal needs is like condemning the use of food because it satisfies hunger. To reject a cure because it is a cure is silly. We should only condemn false cures, those crutches that work only for a short time, or those that make the condition worse over time.
But finally, what about those needs? Why do humans have such universal, pervasive existential needs in the first place? Maybe these inner needs were not meant to be ignored and muscled through, because maybe they are revelation. And what they are revealing is that something is wrong in us spiritually. In short, something in us needs “support,” to be set right, or healed.
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2:17)
So he was saying in effect, “I’m not embarrassed by those who need crutches. In fact, it’s only those who acknowledge their deepest guilt and need who find my healing touch. I can’t help people who don’t think they need rescue. I came to mend people who know their need and reach out for my grace.”
So in that sense, yes, Christianity is a crutch… or – if we understand our predicament properly – more like the whole hospital! This “crutch” is not for the lazy, weak minded and fearful, just as the walker used by physical therapists is not for the lazy or the weak – but rather for (and ONLY for) all those radically in touch with their own need and with a passionate desire to be made well. Such a “crutch” is only for the intellectually honest who face their brokenness squarely and for the faith-filled who will trust the “crutch” can and will lead to their healing.
Just like that, Jesus claimed he could only help people willing to see their own brokenness, fully face their own sense of guilt and come humbly to him for help and wholeness. I dislike saying ‘Jesus is my crutch,’ only because it grossly undersells how much I need him. “Crutch” can make it sound like I just need a little temporary leaning post, when in reality, I need a radical surgery for a mortal wound. You can call such people weak or lazy or duped if you want, but Jesus called them ransomed children of God! For that reason Christians have never been afraid to admit, “I’m am weak” for “when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)