These days, a lot of people substitute morality for religion. They say that being a good person and helping those in need are more important than praying and going to church on Sunday, and they want to focus on what really matters. Even if they believe in God or belong to a religion, they believe that God only cares about how we treat others. As long as we’re kind and loving, they claim, we’re doing everything he asks of us.
From a Christian point of view, this attitude is obviously inadequate. While morality is important to our faith, Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). According to him, loving our neighbor comes second (Matthew 22:39).
But why is loving God so important? People in need benefit from our help way more than God does from our prayers, so why would he want us to spend time praying when we could be out helping others?
Our Heavenly Father
In a nutshell, it’s because he’s our father, and like any good father, he wants to have a relationship with us. Now, when we say this, we’re not just using a metaphor taken from everyday human life; we’re not simply saying that God is like a father. Rather, human fathers are supposed to be like God. To see what I mean, consider this passage from one of St. Paul’s letters:
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. (Ephesians 3:14-15)
This is a short text, but take a look at the final clause: “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” It’s just a passing comment, but it contains a very profound truth, one that many of us today don’t always fully recognize: God’s fatherhood is the source and model of what human fatherhood is supposed to be. Simply put, human fathers take their cue from God, not the other way around.
The Earthly Image
That being said, we can use human fatherhood to shed light on God’s love for us, much like we can use a picture of someone to learn what they really look like. When we do that, we see that fathers are supposed to have a relationship with their children. What father would ever say that his children can ignore him as long as they love one another? What father would ever tell his kids that they can forego a relationship with him as long as they take care of one another?
Only a bad father would say those things. Any father worthy of the name wants to love his children and be loved back by them, and God is no different. He’s more than just our big protector in the sky or a divine insurance policy for when times get tough. He’s our father, and like any good father, he wants to have a relationship with us.
And that’s why religious things like praying and going to church are important. They constitute and nourish our relationship with God. You can’t have a relationship with someone if you never talk to them or spend time with them, and God is no exception. Prayer is essentially talking to God and spending quality time with him, so that’s how we foster our relationship with him. If we don’t pray, we’re like children who never talk to their fathers, and that’s not a good thing.
This may sound simplistic, but at the end of the day, it’s the basic reason why religion matters. Yes, we can nuance it, spice it up with some fancy theological language, and explain why certain specific practices are important, but the simple fact is that God is our father who loves us infinitely more than any earthly father ever could. As a result, he also wants us to love him back more than any earthly father could ever want, and that entails praying and engaging in religious practices like going to Mass and receiving the sacraments.