It’s not about personal piety.

Some mornings, I plow through the Daily Office (a relatively new discipline for me) more so I can check it off my list than to let the words speak into and through me. Sometimes, I’m more interested in returning to my coffee before it gets cold.

Sometimes I approach the Daily Office with an overactive left brain, trying to analyze each reading, as if the mark of a successful morning prayer ritual is whether I “get something out of it” or how many “ah ha” moments I have.

And then some mornings, a reading or prayer stops me in my tracks. I find myself turning it over in my head throughout the day. This morning’s New Testament reading, for example, caused me to question our definition of piety.

Piety is not one of those sexy religious terms (like “infralapsarianism”). It gets a bad rap, thanks in no small part to the association with Puritans and…well, yeah, pretty much the Puritans. Morgan Guyton defines piety as “zeal for doing and saying the right things according to your value system.” For evangelicals, piety is often characterized as having a regular “quiet time” (or doing the Daily Office, if you’re more liturgically minded), reading your Bible, etc. For the truly hardcore, piety might even include fasting. In other words, mostly inward-focused activity.

We individualize just about everything in the American religious experience, and piety is no exception. We’ve come think of it primarily in terms of personal sanctification or holiness — essentially a spiritualized form of self-improvement. Tony Robbins and Jesus rolled into one.

Which is great (apart from the Tony Robbins bit). Deepening your personal devotion to Christ is important. But in today’s reading, the apostle Peter reminds us that personal piety is not an end unto itself:

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.

Real piety (not the sanitized, Christian bookstore version) is outwardly focused. Piety — what Peter calls the “purifi[cation] of your souls by your obedience to the truth” — leads somewhere. It leads to “genuine mutual love.”

A few lines earlier, Peter admonishes readers to “be holy,” which we tend to either write off as some idealized, impossible standard (not least because it involves becoming more like God somehow) or reduce to inwardly-focused activities like praying and reading our Bibles. For Peter, the whole point of becoming holy is so that we can love each other. The measure of our holiness is how well we love.

Peter was not the first to draw this connection, and we are not the first to lose sight of it. The book of Isaiah depicts the Israelites trying to vindicate themselves before God, primarily on the basis of their personal piety:

“Why have we fasted,” they say,
“and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?”

The problem, according to Isaiah 58, was their personal piety had not led to mutual love. It had not demonstrated itself in compassion for their neighbors and justice for the oppressed.

On the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers…
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast that I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

(You can almost hear the exasperation in the prophet’s voice.)

Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

If your piety — your zeal, your religious devotion — does not cause you to become more loving, more compassionate, more outwardly focused, then it is not piety. If it does not lead you to welcome the stranger, to open your doors to the marginalized, and to speak out for the oppressed and excluded, then your piety has not drawn you any closer to God than you were before.

Which brings me back to the Daily Office. Like I said, it’s a fairly new discipline for me. I find its rhythm meaningful in a way that “personal devotions” never were. Even when I do the readings on my own, I’m joining my voice with countless others — meditating on the same scriptures, reciting the same prayers. I find something quietly powerful in that.

But if I’m not doing this so I can become more loving, more welcoming, more openhanded and compassionate toward my neighbor, then what is the point?

One thought on “It’s not about personal piety.

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