Today’s post is by Paul Jenkins. Paul is a self-identified writing newbie, theology-lover, and in his better moments, an amateur evangelist. Paul and his wife, Susannah, attend Harvest Bible Chapel in London, Ontario. Paul co-authors the blog Laodecia Press and can be found on Twitter at @PJenkins70.
In Islam, Ramadan is a special month which is devoted to fasting, prayers, self-examination, scripture recital and reading, and deeds of charity. It is really interesting to read about this holiday which is certainly more religious for the average Muslim than Christmas is for the average professed ‘Christian’. The mandatory nature of this holiday is due to it being part of the fourth pillar of Islam.
What is even more interesting about Ramadan is that many of the main practices of this occasion are compliant with Christian beliefs and practices. The Bible specifically teaches on, and in some cases, commands Christians to do many of these things. Prayer, acts of charity and generosity, fasting, and reading/memorization/recital of Scripture are clearly laid out as acts that give glory to God. The Bible even references occasionally abstaining from marital relations for a time (1 Corinthians 7:5), which is part of Ramadan.
There are things that I admire about orthodox Muslims who practice Ramadan. They demonstrate a lot of discipline, self-control, devotion, and dedicate themselves to their scriptures. Conservative Muslims also demonstrate a lot of concern to follow orthodox, historical doctrines of their faith. Sadly, many Christians are devoid of these qualities.
On the surface, Ramadan seems like a holiday that even a Christian could practice. But the Bible says this:
“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
(1 Samuel 16:7b)
A Muslim would probably agree with this principle. But beyond the outward rituals, what is Ramadan really about?
In my reading, which did include more than just Twitter (searching #Ramadan is really interesting – try it), much of the spirit of Ramadan is to ‘earn your Paradise’,1 and to receive forgiveness for your sins by demonstrating your devotion to the Qur’an and cleansing yourself from your sin. Everything is on a scale – ensuring that your level of commitment and self-denial can outweigh the negative effects of your sins. In a sense, the obedience to Allah is done to show that you are a good Muslim, and want to do everything possible to ensure you reach Paradise.
Ramadan is a perfect example of the radical difference between biblical Christianity and Islam. Islam, along with many other religions, seeks to earn the favor and forgiveness of God by obeying his commands. The good deeds must outweigh the bad deeds on God’s cosmic scale. Whether this is 5 pillars, 10 commandments, attaining Nirvana, increasing Karma, or any of the countless rules and regulations found within each religion, the foundation is always that I must do for God to love and forgive me.
Whenever I ask someone if they know what happens when they die, the following response is fairly typical: ‘I’m a good person, and so I think God will forgive me and reward my good deeds’. Muslims obviously have a developed theology, and specific commands to follow in order to please God, but the same hope in our own works remains. If you have been a good enough Muslim – your good deeds outweigh the bad, and then perhaps you have earned Allah’s forgiveness.
Now contrast this with the Christian message:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
God is righteous, holy, loving, and merciful. He has created us in His image to worship and enjoy Him forever, yet we have willfully turned away and committed sin against him. We have lied, stolen, lusted, coveted, cursed, and more – all of which heap God’s just punishment upon us. Even though there are varying degrees of sin and subsequent consequences, all of our sins are against a good and holy God.
“Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4a)
As a result, even the good works that we all do are often tainted by poor underlying motivations – not the least of which is trying to please God with good works – rather than the biblical response which is repentance and faith.
As a result, even ‘..our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment’ (Isaiah 64:6).
By nature, we are completely incapable of pleasing this perfect and holy God in our own strength. We need intercession; a substitute. This substitute is Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for the sake of men. He accomplished what we couldn’t accomplish. By His sacrifice, unclean people (us) can have our guilt removed, and our sins atoned for (Romans 5:8). Even more than that, we could be adopted into God’s family (Romans 8:15). Taking hold of this gift can be likened to taking hold of and putting on a parachute. We must turn from our sins, and trust Christ for his forgiveness in a similar way.
The God of Islam offers no such promise of salvation. You must work, strain, and beg.
In my view, Allah’s justice and mercy are constantly conflicting. If he is truly good, how can he dismiss sin with no payment? In a court, can a judge let a justly condemned murderer or thief go free and still be just? Can the future good works of the convict remove the sentence for his crime?
The answer is no. But the God of the Bible extends his mercy to this criminal not arbitrarily, but because the judge Himself steps down from the platform and pays his fine in full with His life. So God is just, but he is also merciful and forgiving. This is the key difference.
Does Ramadan seem like a pious thing to observe? From the outside, yes. But God looks to the heart. Our souls need to be cleansed from the stain of sin, which no amount of good works can achieve.
When the object and source of our salvation is the Lord and not ourselves, we can experience the joy of grace not dependent upon human will or exertion.
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5)
Originally posted at Laodecia Press.