I have a hard time being content. In everything I’m involved with, I’m always thinking that I should improve the way it’s currently operating. I do this in my marriage, as a father, in my faith, with my youth, in my church; the list goes on and on. Right now Corrine and I are driving two cars with 220k+ miles on them. Of course they’re Buicks with the 3800 motor in them which means that they’ll probably run until Jesus returns. At which point Jesus will climb off his white horse and hop in the Buick because it’ll last longer than some silly Mr. Ed. But even though we have two reliable cars I’m still thinking that we need to get something better. Now there are a lot of cars out there that are better than 21 and 13 year old cars with close to a quarter million miles each. And if Corrine and I really buckled down, we could probably replace one of the cars within a matter of months. But I still can’t help but look at all the nice cars that pass me on the highway. I’m still looking, thinking, “Hey, it wouldn’t be bad to drive one of those,” or, “I wouldn’t get one of those, I hear they break down pretty easily.” So being content is tough for me.
I used to tell myself that there’s never a time that I should be content in my faith. Because there’s always something that I could be working on. I could be praying more, reading my Bible more, and serving others more. I can remember times where I’ve had a pretty good devotional time, spending time praying on my way to work, AND in the midst of a large service project with the youth and I’m STILL not content. Isn’t the reason Christ came was to bring peace? If I’m doing all these things and still not feeling peace is my heart in the right place? And if not, how do I get it to the right place?
Last night our lesson in youth group was about Spiritual Practices and Legalism. We were discussing various spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible study, and fasting. Then the question came up, “How do we differentiate between practicing spiritual disciplines to enter into deeper relationship with God and legalism?” The youth were having a difficult time explaining it, some were clueless. And then it hit me, I don’t know. I stumbled over my words and came up with some sort of answer like, “When we go through the day marking them off a list, then it’s more likely it’s legalism.” After thinking through my explanation later that night I came to the conclusion that even though I despise legalism, my faith and lack of contentment is largely due to legalism. I have grabbed onto the verse in James that talks about showing our faith by what we do. But instead of doing those things because of my faith, I’ve been doing those things to show that I have faith, to prove to everyone else that I have a deeply seated faith. But the only problem is that I haven’t proven to myself that my faith is that deep. I look at everything that I’ve done and see that it’s only because of my selfish desires to prove myself “Uber-Christian” that I have done these things. So how do I turn things around? Do I drop everything and start from new? Or do I refocus and start seeking deep, intimate relationship with Christ amidst the practices?
I’ve never been good at being consistent in my Bible study. From time to time I’ve tried to read a chapter or two each day. But what eventually happens is that I get to the book of Numbers or Deuteronomy and I lose interest. It usually takes a week to figure out that I’m reading the words, but not reading the words. I’ll get through my reading for the day and find that I don’t remember anything of what I just read. So what do I do? I stop reading. My “Through the Bible in a Year” always stalls out before I’m even out of the Pentateuch. It’s pretty sad that I’m working in the church, helping to disciple the youth, and I can’t finish reading the book of Deuteronomy because it becomes too old-hat.
But what is the biggest crime of this legalism? Why is legalism so bad? The first response is always something to the effect of, “You’re trying to earn your way into heaven.” Well that’s true, but I think there’s something even worse that legalism and the lacking contentment keeps us from.
I once had a crush on a girl in high school. Her name was Lacey. She was a townie like me. My mom used to sell Mary Kay make-up and Lacey’s mom was my mom’s advisor. We used to go to each other’s birthday parties each year when we were young. Throughout school we were always close to the top of our class. We were pretty good friends, but she cared about grades way more than I did and so we didn’t hang out. The day I realized that Lacey and I would never work out was sometime in our sophomore or junior year. I was walking back from class to my locker. We had just gotten our grades back from the previous semester and I was pleased with my grades, nothing too serious that my parents would be upset with. I made it through another semester unscathed. To be perfectly honest, I was more concerned about what my parents thought of my grades than what my grades actually were.
So I was walking back to my locker. Lacey’s locker was only a couple down from mine and as I walked past I noticed Lacey had her head stuck in her locker. I thought it was somewhat weird to stick your head in the locker. Especially if you’ve had gym class the hour before and your stinky gym clothes were in there making your history book smell like a jock strap. As I walked by I said hi to her. She did some sort of acknowledging wave while continuing with her head in her locker. I thought this was a little weirder than normal, so I thought I’d see if everything was alright. So as any decent gentleman would do, I asked, “What’s up?” What turned to me was the face of a woman that seemed as though she’d been crying for days over the loss of a husband or family member. Her face was red like a stop sign and I’m sure there was a pool of tears in the bottom of her locker. And do you know why she was crying? Do you know what was causing this life-ending pain that brought her to the brink of depression? She said to me in a small, squeak of a voice as if her vocal chords were as swollen as her eyes, “I *sniff sniff* got a *sniff* B in History…*sniff sniff*.” I said something to the effect of, “That’s ok, I got three B’s this semester. It’s no big deal.” That didn’t help the matter. She replied, “It’s NOT ok. This ruins EVERYTHING!” and she stormed off down the hallway.
What was going on here? Well, a long time before this, Lacey had made a commitment to get a perfect 4.0 through high school. The thing about a 4.0 is that a B does generally throw that out the window. She had put this heavy load on her shoulders, and she dropped it. It wasn’t that she was a bad student. She’s the best student I’ve ever known. She got countless scholarships for college, earned many academic awards through high school and college and even with that one B she was still the Valedictorian. So what did that B do to her? It made all the work preceding it seem to be done in vain. It screamed at her telling her she was a failure. Every time that she thought of it, it would tell her that no matter how hard she tried she was not as good as what she should be. It told her that all of those late nights and hard work she had put into her education was worthless. It showed her that as tired as she was, no amount of work is enough. It proved to her that there would be no rest because she’d always have to work harder to live up to her own standards. And isn’t this what legalism does to us?
The greater crime that legalism commits is not that it tells us we can earn our way into heaven. But rather it steals our Sabbath rest from us. Legalism promotes and encourages us to never rest, always try harder, and never stop. There’s always something to be improved and you cannot rest until it is so. Some people will say, “I’ll rest when I’m dead.” Well, that’ll probably be sooner rather than later, because stress causes heart disease, and heart disease causes death. There’s no contention that legalism is the perverted replacement for relationship with Christ. Legalism robs any sort of relationship of the deep intimate connection with Christ. And how are we supposed to have true Sabbath rest when our relationship is a list on a legal pad? Do we run our other relationship in this way? Do we relate to our spouses by going through the list? Maybe some of us do, maybe that’s why the divorce rate is so high in the U.S. Do we relate to our best friends this way? Probably not. But if so, how deep is our relationship with our closest friends? Do you ever wonder why it’s so hard to actually talk with them about what’s going on in your head or heart?
So why is Sabbath rest so important? The ancient Hebrews practiced a pretty orthodox Sabbath and Jesus called them out on it. Jesus would go out alone to rest and his disciples would call him back to minister to the people. Is Sabbath rest as important as we make it out to be? Yes. In Psalm 46 the Psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” In Psalm 23, David writes, “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” And in 1 Kings the author talks about a meeting between Elijah and God:
The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:11-13)
Even in Genesis it says that God rested on the seventh day. What comes after this in Chapter 2? It’s the account of God creating Adam and Eve. But I think what’s more important is that once he’s done creating he walks in the garden with them. You see God was there during the creation, but he was walking with them, relating with them after he was done creating and when he was resting. This is the most important part of the Sabbath. Not that we get a breather from all of our work. Rather the Sabbath rest is where we can best relate to God. It almost seems like taking a family vacation to help reconnect with your spouse or kids. Sure they’re there during the work week, but you’re working and going through the day. You might talk a little bit here or there, but how much are we actually working on our relationships during the work week? It’s not the stories of how mom and dad worked through the week that I remember from my childhood. Rather it’s the times where we’d go on vacation, to the Black Hills, to Cass Lake, camping, whatever. It’s the times playing catch in the backyard with my dad. It’s the weekends we’d take the boat to the lake and go tubing and fishing for the day. It’s these times spent alone with my mom and dad that are the foundations of our relationship. Not just the fun things, but the intimate conversations and growth that comes with it. And if it’s this way with good friends and family, wouldn’t it be the same with God? Sure we can try and see God in the everyday. And some of us are moderately successful at it. But if we’re not taking a day for Sabbath rest each week or an extended Sabbath weekend once a month, or both, how are we supposed to grow deeper with God?
I absolutely love family get togethers. This past month I’ve been able to see my family every couple of weeks. I have a new niece that was born and baptized and my younger brother graduated from college. Since my parents live 10 hours away and my brothers each live three and four hours away from me, getting together can be fairly difficult for us. But when we are able to get together, there’s nothing short of rest for each of us. My mom and dad get to enjoy their grandchildren, my brothers and I get to goof off and everyone enjoys their choice of fine brew and fine cigars around the bonfire at night. But if we didn’t take the time to get together and relax and relate to one another, how would be keep our relationships close? Isn’t it the same with relating to God? If we’re not taking the time to rest with God, how are we supposed to keep close to him? How are we supposed to depend on him when we don’t know him? It’s through these times of resting with God, listening for the still small voice of God that we grow deeper with him.
Now I’ve stated before that I’m not good at my spiritual disciplines and that they are currently pretty legalistic. But over the course of writing this chapter I’ve found myself opening up to truths and emotions that I haven’t felt since I worked at camp and would take long walks in the woods and along the lakeshore alone. Of course I wasn’t alone, but rather walking with God. I do long for the time to take those walks again. But maybe it’s my job to seek out those times. Or maybe the best advice comes from the famed Red Green, “I'm a man, but I can change, if I have to, I guess”