The rewards differ: Nirvana, 72 Virgins, Cosmic Consciousness, Heaven, etc.
As well, the system of behavior differs: prayer wheels, jihad, religious rituals, moral living, etc. But the rewards and the religious practices are really just details when compared to the foundational similarity. The foundational similarity they all share is the principle of “earned rewards.”
This is perfectly consistent with our human nature. We are essentially self – centered beings. We feel good about ourselves when we succeed and we feel bad about ourselves when we fail. Pride is our motivation most of the time. To succeed and be admired is a very high value for us. No one gets up in the morning and thinks, “I really hope I fail today because it will be good for my humility!”
Because of our pride, religion works very well for us, at least at the beginning. It gives us something to work for and it gives our pride the fix it craves when we succeed. Sounds good so far.
The problem comes when we don’t succeed. If a religion has very few rules and rituals we can feel successful much of the time and our faith works for us. But what if your faith has extremely high behavioral standards? What if your standard is “being just like Jesus”? How can you win at that? Fact is; you can’t!
What we have now is a religious treadmill. No matter how hard you try, you can always do better. If you pray for an hour a day, you could be praying for two, etc. Ultimately this leads to a sense of failure and hopelessness, which leads to a faith characterized by going through the motions without any real righteousness, peace or joy. This is life under religion.
There is a further problem for those of us living Christianity as a religion. Our reward is very different from all the other religions. Our reward is not a place [heaven] or a state of mind [Nirvana], or physical pleasure [72 Virgins]. Our reward is a relationship; “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3 Some people think that our reward is Eternal Life but think about this: Eternal life, without Jesus, is Hell.
A relationship with God is the reward but it is also how we “earn” the reward, except it cannot be earned. The fact is; we cannot earn a relationship with Him. It is a free gift. When we try to earn it, we impair it. When we try to repay a free gift we end up turning the relationship into a business deal. How would you feel if you had a friend you really loved and you gave him an extravagant gift and, from that point on, all he did was constantly try to repay you? How would that affect the relationship? For better or for worse?
What separates our faith from all of the other world religions is two things: 1. Our faith is personal and relational, not behavioral – God is interested in a relationship of love with each of us, and that relationship is the reward. 2. We do not earn the reward, we accept it. No other religion offers the reward for free. We call it “grace”.
All this is nothing but good news! The problem is that much of the time we do not live it as it was designed. Our default position is to live our relationship with God religiously. That is to say, we focus on our behavior rather than the relationship. After a while we realize that the relationship we are experiencing is not what was promised. It seems like more work than joy. Yet we soldier on.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It was not designed to be this way. We need to be freed from religious thinking. We need to see our faith for what God intended it to be. More than anything, we need to experience His love which will set us free from religion. We all believe that He loves us [in our minds] but when was the last time you experienced His love [as an experience]? God’s goal for us is a changed mind, a new way of understanding Him and His goals for us.