Ease Up Already

In my previous series of essays I examined the Ten Commandments.  I finished with a plea to Christians (myself included) to attempt becoming more disciplined in all areas of their faith.  That doesn’t mean we’re to cultivate a joy-killing “pressure-to-perform” mindset in the process.  God doesn’t want His children to be anxious, frustrated people.  On the contrary, Jesus said, I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly (John 10:10).  The life Christ offers is characterized by abundant peace and contentment.  So the question is, are you the kind of believer described in the Casting Crowns song, “Between the Altar and the Door,” who sings “Jesus, I’m trying so hard/to stop trying so hard/just let you be who you are/Lord, who you are in me”?  I fear too many of us are trying too hard to make our life work the way we want it to instead of letting our Heavenly Father’s will be done.  We need to realize there are two basic approaches to life.  The Old Way that traps us in a steam-cooker and the New Way (almost 2,000 years old) that’s the path to total freedom.  Straining to figure life out, getting all our ducks in a row so it proceeds smoothly, is what the Bible identifies as the old way of the written code.  The old way won’t augment your spirituality one iota.  It inevitably leads to despair and suffocating pressure.  The Scriptures reveal another, better way to live that some refer to as the new way of the Spirit.  This route through life draws us ever closer to God as the Holy Spirit continually opens our eyes wider to view the magnificence of Christ.  Now, the new way doesn’t mean we won’t encounter troubles and hardships down the line.  It does mean we’ll be firmly anchored in the worst of storms and that we’ll be able to endure crushing disappointments when our dreams don’t come true because we know an eternity of bliss lies directly ahead.

 

Let’s delve into the old way.  Its focus is finding a method for making your life work.  The problem is whichever method you adopt becomes your master as you seek to attain your goal – the “Good Life.” It’s the thing the world’s taught you is the apex of existence.  Tragically, that goal becomes your idol.  You waste precious time chasing after what’s effective instead of what’s holy.  The world insists that what it deems a Good Life and a Holy Life are incompatible and, in a sense, the world’s correct.  Following the principles of the material world, your life can sometimes become comfortable.  For sure.  But nothing in this world can fill the God-shaped hole smack dab in the middle of who you truly are.  The saddest aspect of the old way is that eventually you’ll discover you’re the ruler of nothing; that you’re not in control and there aren’t any guarantees.  Any semblance of control over what matters most is an illusion.  Dr. Larry Crabb said of control, “Be grateful you have none.  The illusion of control brings requirement, requirement creates pressure, and pressure leads to slavery, the slavery of having to figure out life to make it work.  Those who hold on to the illusion of control lose the enjoyment of freedom.”

 

God reigns supreme.  Period.  The entire universe is subject to His sovereignty.  Our faith in Him mustn’t be founded on promises He didn’t make.  When we do that we commit the error of thinking that by toeing the line of “The Law” God’s obligated to bless us abundantly according to what we’ve determined is the Good Life.  We end up maneuvering instead of trusting and negotiating instead of worshiping.  We depend on our own understanding instead of God’s omniscience.  As King Solomon (a bit of a control freak himself) wrote, ’Futile!  Futile!’ laments the Teacher, ‘Absolutely futile!  Everything is futile!’  What benefit do people get from all the effort which they expend on earth? (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).  That’s the old way.  It’s an uphill battle.  The new way is easier.  It involves concluding that what you thought you wanted most is unattainable in the flesh and that you need to trust God to supply the satisfaction you crave.  He becomes what you want most and you won’t settle for less.

 

The old and new ways can be labeled the Law of Linearity and the Law of Liberty.  The former insists there’s an A that leads to B.  Logic says there has to be.  If a person can decipher what A is and do it right then they’ll get B (i.e. the Good Life).  As time goes by and A isn’t found, angst steadily builds.  Conversely, the latter is stress-free.  A person doesn’t have to “clean up their act” prior to approaching God.  God accepts them as they are and loves them as they’ve never been loved before.  This realization steers their desire away from making their life work as they want it to and towards knowing God better.  Bad things will likely still happen in their life but now they’ll have an eternal perspective that provides them with the most precious commodities of all – peace and hope.  J. I. Packer wrote, “There’s no peace like the peace of those whose minds are possessed with full assurance that they have known God, and God has known them, and that this relationship guarantees God’s favor to them in life, through death and on forever.”

 

I’m a leader in my church’s Celebrate Recovery ministry.  It’s helped me immensely in my long struggle with sexual lust and it’s been a wonderful, ongoing blessing in my life.  I can’t say enough great things about it and I don’t hesitate to recommend it to all.  But the raw truth is that, in almost a quarter of a century since its inception, CR has yet to heal a single soul.  Not one.  That’s because there’s only one healer, Jesus Christ.  Our job is to point those burdened with debilitating hurts, hang-ups or habits toward Him.  Matter of fact, if there’s a danger in working the 12 steps and 8 principles of the program it’s that folks start thinking, by diligently staying within the prescribed lines, all their problems will be solved.  They put their faith in a plan they can follow instead of a person they can trust.  Those of us in leadership roles caution newcomers against believing in Celebrate Recovery more than they believe in our Lord and Savior.  The ministry does rely on a linear method of starting with A, moving on to B, then to C, etc. to get a depressed, discouraged man or woman moving in a forward-looking, positive direction but at no time do we promise them a quick fix.  We can give them the assurance God will never give up on them or leave them behind and that they won’t have to walk the road of recovery alone.  Their brothers and sisters in Christ will be right beside them all the way.

 

There’s a big misconception concerning the Bible and the Ten Commandments in particular.  A whole lotta people think they teach us how to depend on the Law of Linearity in order to achieve the Good Life.  They read the Scriptures cover to cover, do their level best to do everything it says and then wait for the miracle to happen.  Sometimes it does but more often than not they feel let down.  Crabb wrote, “When we live to make this life work, whether we follow natural wisdom or biblical principles, we become either proud or discouraged, self-congratulating or self-hating.”  Take the difficult challenge of raising children, for example.  If a mom and/or dad are consistent in practicing a godly approach to parenting and their kids turn out to be well-adjusted, conscientious adults they’re liable to be more prideful than grateful.  They’ll conclude, “I did everything I was supposed to do.  Thus God rewarded my diligence and dedication.  I must be a super fine person.”  But the couple next door may have brought up their offspring exactly the same way yet got their hearts broken when their children became junkies.  They might become more defeated than trusting and may conclude, “I must’ve done something wrong.  I suppose I failed to please God.”  The only failure in both cases is they’ve yet to understand the old way is no longer in effect.  If finding and knowing God isn’t our first priority we’ll never find or know fulfillment.  Jesus preached, But above all pursue his kingdom and righteousness…” (Matthew 6:33).  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 29:13).  God’s not hiding from us.  Yet an individual will never discover what they’re not even looking for.

 

I’m as guilty as any when it comes to expecting the Law of Linearity to work.  In the early 80s I got married for the first time.  I was sure I’d learned during my wild 20s (the hard way) all about what not to do in a relationship.  I stayed gainfully employed and provided for my wife, daughter and son.  I did everything right.  Yet by the decade’s close I was divorced.  I’d spend time every day wondering where I went off track but I was baffled.  As far as I could tell, I’d been a decent, loyal husband who’d upheld his vows.  Some of my buddies were shameless womanizers yet they stayed married, some of them happily.  Therefore I placed all the blame on my ex.  She’d been the liar, the conniver, the adulterer.  It was her fault, not mine.  All these years later I see I was looking for an explanation via linear thinking, re: “I stayed true to A so why wasn’t B the result?”  That question not only haunted me but caused me to quarantine myself from relationships for a long time.  I put pressure on myself to find a definitive answer so I’d never have to suffer through that again.  I finally remarried but only in the last 7+ years, by reading my Bible, have I come to realize that, since Christ’s resurrection, the linear rules of the old way have been replaced by the freedom that comes from living life the new way.  I’ve learned to “ease up already.”

 

So when did the old way of thinking start for me?  Ironically, it began with my “conversion” at age nine.  Being raised in the church I’d heard repeatedly that if I didn’t give my heart to Jesus I’d burn in hell.  Thus “going down front” and getting “fire insurance” was a no-brainer.  I got baptized the following Sunday.  Avoiding hellfire was the main objective so I did A in order to secure B.  That act installed a flawed pattern in my brain that said God would provide whatever I wanted if I stayed on the straight and narrow.  My task was to figure out what A was and do it perfectly; the Lord would then undoubtedly come through with B.  What I didn’t savvy was the fact that I hadn’t done anything to merit having my name written in the book of life, that I was saved solely by grace, that God owed me zip but He’d given me everything.  What God blessed me with was the opportunity to live a pressure-free life.  You’d think Christians would be aware of the pitfalls of living a linear life by following Jesus’ example.  He lived day to day by faith alone.  But the vast majority of us don’t do that.  We want our life to work the way we want it to and we’re willing to do whatever to make sure it does.  Is it any wonder we’re frazzled human beings, easily deflated by hardships?  Crabb confessed, “When things work well, I publicly say, ‘Praise God,’ and privately whisper, ‘Of course, I did what I was told.  I got it right.’  When things go poorly, I publicly declare, ‘God’s working for my good.  I’ll trust Him’; privately I wonder, ‘What did I do wrong?’”  Raise your hand if you’ve done the same.  (Mine’s up.)

 

We acquire our linear way of thinking not only from our secular educational systems but from our Christian culture.  We’re told too often if we do the fundamental things properly we’ll be put in control of our destiny.  Want proof?  Check out an average Christian TV broadcast and you’ll hear sermons that reinforce the Law of Linearity.  “Raise your kiddos according to God’s plan and they’ll turn out to be model citizens who’ll never leave the church.”  “A destitute man started tithing faithfully a year ago and now he’s doubled his salary.”  “Do you have a loved one who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer?  Accept Christ and begin to pray for healing.  The cancer will disappear.”  But for every “happy ending” story there’s one or ten that didn’t work out nearly as well.  We all know this to be true so it’s wise we reevaluate and entertain the idea that perhaps we’ve got it all wrong!  That living as a follower of Jesus is not about “doing right” in order to “be blessed.”  Maybe striving to be disciplined disciples should be motivated more by our desire to love and worship God than our yearning to have our will be done.  I quote Crabb again, “The spiritual journey is rooted in liberty, the freedom of grace: Come as you are, trembling, and learn to rest.  Then go out into life doing what’s right because you’re privileged to do so, because you want to be holy, not because doing right is the way to a pleasant life.  Life may provide rich blessings.  Or it may not.  Either way you can know God.”

 

Some may say, “I get your point but it’s not backed by Scripture.”  I beg to differ.  There are three representative passages in the Bible that support it.  In the first one we see God establishing the Law of Linearity that says if His strict mandates are obeyed the Israelites will receive a multitude of divine blessings.  Deuteronomy 29:9 states, Therefore, keep the terms of this covenant and obey them so that you may be successful in everything you do.”  Centuries later, though, we find God has rendered the Law of Linearity null and void because of Christ’s sacrifice.  On the one hand a former command is set aside because it is weak and useless, for the law made nothing perfect.  On the other hand a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God (Hebrews 7:18-19).  The old way has been obsolete for ages.  Jesus introduced a new way.  The “pressure to perform” has been eradicated.  No more jumping through hoops.  All obstacles to having an authentic relationship with God melted away in the blood Christ shed on the cross.  The thick veil was torn asunder.  We were in slavery under the basic principles of the world…  But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles?  Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Galatians 4:3, 9).  In other words, Paul (speaking on God’s behalf), was befuddled and bewildered that Christians who’d been empowered by the Holy Spirit to draw intimately closer to their Heavenly Father would cling to living their lives in accordance with the pressurized old way that Jesus died to eliminate.

 

In his excellent book, Knowing God, Packer spends a chapter reminding Christians of the importance of the Holy Spirit.  He wrote, “Important?  Why, were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit there would be no gospel, no faith, no church, no Christianity in the world at all.”  Just because the 3rd person of the Trinity is mysterious doesn’t mean He’s mythical.  When the Holy Spirit takes up residence in your heart and mind He invites you to walk a very different highway on a radically different journey through this earth-bound phase of existence.  He urges sinners to come to God as they are, without fear or trepidation.  The fact that their lives were filled with noxious trash heaps of atrocious behavior doesn’t matter.  Our precious Lord paid the ultimate price for their salvation.  Believers are to drop all pretensions of being “in control” and get out of God’s way so He can use them and mold them into the people He intended them to be before time began.  Paul explained it eloquently in Romans 7:6; But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.  The pressure’s off.  Ease up already.

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