From the time of Karl Marx, who famously said that religion "is the opium of the people," to our own days when modern secularists think that religion is a crutch for the weak, atheists and those who scoff at religion view it as some form of escape from the problems of daily life. Some of these views include the following:
1. Religion is a drug, not unlike opium, which those who "have religion" use to numb themselves to the hardships of life. It's something that lifts their spirits, maybe even makes them a little "high." They're happy all the time, and that's just not natural.
2. Religion is a crutch on which religious people lean because they are too weak to "stand on their own two feet," too insecure to practice the modern virtues of independence and self-reliance.
3. Religion is something that might help in times of suffering, but isn't really necessary when the suffering is over. It's okay if those religious people turn to it to ease their pain, but as soon as they've stopped hurting, they can--and indeed should--throw it away. After all, no one uses a crutch once his broken foot has healed.
These, however, are wrong views of religion.
Religion is not a drug that blinds us to the hardships of life. Rather, it strengthens us to face the hardships of life without staggering under their sometimes impossibly heavy burden. Even if we have faith--some might say, because we have faith--we are still going to experience hardship. And our faith might not make it hurt less. It can help. Sometimes it eases the pain, but sometimes it doesn't touch the pain, and we have to carry that pain.
There are a lot of people out there who have faith, who indeed are very strong in their faith, and they still hurt. Look at the saints. They suffered; some even died for their faith. Did they mess up somewhere along the line? Did their God abandon them? No. He was there through all of it. He gave them the strength they needed to bear the pain, to not fall under the burden.
In the second place, religion is not a crutch on which we lean in order to escape responsibility, or to comfort us when we are suffering. A crutch, by its very nature, is a temporary aid for walking. If we view religion as something we lean on "while it hurts," then discard, then our religion is not true religion.
True religion lasts throughout our life, in both our sufferings and our joys. It is also more laborious to walk with a crutch than to walk just with "our own two feet." Religion does not make our lives more laborious; it gives us strength to carry our difficulties.
If we throw the crutch away and try to "stand on our own two feet," we'll fall. As fallen human beings, we need grace; we need God. However, we cannot use religion as an excuse for avoiding our duties and shirking responsibility. In the words of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen:
The other day a husband who admitted he could not be faithful to his wife, upbraided her for turning to God, saying that she was using religion as a crutch. The assumption behind such a statement is that one ought to live on his moral fat and be dependent on nothing outside oneself. The rotten luxury of living on and for one's own ego is here exalted to a point where the eye is called a crutch because it leans on the birds and flowers for seeing; the ear is called a crutch because it leans on the song of the birds and the sigh of the waterfall for hearing; the stomach is labelled a crutch, but it craves food.Nothing in nature is complete within itself; everything looks to something outside and beyond self except the egotist. The glory of the clouds is to die in showers, spending themselves on others. But the egotist, living only for self must eventually fall into despair and unhappiness when he discovers his own bankruptcy. Once all the honeyed treasure of his body is spent, with no new life to show, then he discovers the lonesomeness of being alone.
Finally, "religion" that only lasts as long as suffering lasts is not real. It's like asking your mother for a Band-Aid because you cut your finger, then never talking to her again because she took care of that one need.
If religion is not a drug to numb our pain or a crutch to support our weakness or a temporary Band-Aid for our wounds, then what is it?
Fulton Sheen again reminds us that religion is not something the weak lean on; rather, it is something we carry:
Religion is actually not a crutch; it is a cross. It is not an escape, it is a burden; not a flight, but a response. We speak here of a religion with teeth in it, the wind that demands self-sacrifice and surrender. One leans on a crutch, but a cross rests on us. It takes a hero to embrace a cross. (Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Way to Happy Living.)
"Wait a minute," you're saying. "If religion isn't going to numb me to the hardships of life, and is instead going to burden me, weigh me down with a heavy cross...why do I need it?"
Religion is not going to weigh us down. It is something we carry--Sheen is right when he calls it a cross, a burden--but it is a "yoke [that] is sweet" and a "burden [that is] light" (cf. Mt. 11:30). As the Crux Fidelis sings so beautifully, "sweet the wood and sweet the nails, laden with so sweet a Load."
If we throw it away under the delusion that we're self-sufficient and can "stand on our own two feet," we will quickly realize that our burdens are ten times heavier without the support of that cross. That sweet Load is actually the weight of our Savior, Who helps us to "carry" the suffering as He invites us to carry our crosses in union with His.
This is something to ponder during Lent, as we focus on taking up our Cross and following our Crucified Savior. Are we using our Faith as an excuse, as medicine only when it hurts and then discarding it like we discard the crutch after our broken leg heals? Or are we shouldering that light Cross and carrying it after our Crucified Lord?
Do we accept the burden of our Faith?
Do we embrace the Cross, or do we lean on it as on a crutch?
"My yoke is sweet and my burden light" (Mt. 11:30).