The Dreaded Christian To-Do List


Pile, inbox, list, to-doMy son and I are reading through the New Testament together this summer. Though I’ve read through the NT many times previously, the word of God is rich, my life circumstances change, and people grow and see with more spiritual vision over time.

One truth is hitting me hard this time around.

If you are a parent of a child who has gone through public or private school, you received notes from teachers about your child. Some addressed issues in your child’s life that required fixing. Others were updates on the school or its activities.

In reading the NT again, I was struck by how Paul’s letters to the churches often resemble those notes from a schoolteacher. They contain correctives, do’s and don’t’s, progress info, and so on.

But here’s the thing: If I were try to recreate an image of my child, would those letters he brought home from teachers be sufficient to tell me who he is?

I see this tendency in churches to take the Scriptures and make lists of do’s and don’t’s, form an image from those do’s and don’t’s, and then call them The Gospel™.

Problem is, compiling lists and performing what’s on them is not the real Gospel and never has been. Ironically, there exists a list of 10 To-Do items meant for “religious” people and those religious people found it a bear to do them. Even more ironic, the Giver of those 10 items concurred with the people: Yes, those 10 were impossible to keep perfectly.

And yet for most people attending a Christian Church in America, what comes out of the pulpit on Sunday is almost always a list of more “spiritual” things for them to do. It’s three, five, 10, or 12 bullet points (depending on how long-winded the preacher is) that we must now perform to have perfect





prayer lives,

Bible-study skills,

and on and on.

We have exchanged 10 items impossible to do for innumerable items impossible to do.

Preachers love to mine the Old Covenant for these items, despite the fact that covenant has been replaced by a much better one. Then they look at the better one, read all the “Notes from Teacher” letters of Paul, and use those corrective letters as additional fodder for more lists. (If anything, those corrective letters are intended more for Church leaders themselves to wrestle with. Sort of a “Teacher, teach thyself” sort of thing. But then how many preacher/leaders look at them that way?)

Funny thing  is, though the post-apostolic Church has loved its lists, the early Church knew better. When the issue of lists of Christian things to do came before the apostles and early Church leaders with regard to the gentiles, an astute James said there was no reason to frustrate those believers with a massive spiritual To-Do list. In the end, the leaders kept that list sane and super-short.

Even wilder? Those same apostles and leaders called the spiritual To-Do lists they’d had to contend with their entire lives “trouble” and a “burden.” You can read about this in Acts 15.

Jesus didn’t like lists either. When someone tried to force a list of approved behavior out of Him, He said all you needed to do was to love God and love your neighbor.

You know what? I think I can remember a list of two items. (Still, even those two are tough to keep!)

And yet today, the lists multiply and lengthen.

In Ecclesiastes, the narrator complains of the endless making of books and the weariness that comes from studying them. In our self-help, active, To-Do-centered culture today, books now equals lists. Because, hey, we’re too busy with our lists to focus on anything as lengthy as a book.

As someone 50 years old who has been a Christian for 35+ years, I’ve had enough Christian lists spoken to me over the years to gag a T. Rex. Actually, more like a herd of T. Rex. How many of those lists do I remember? None.

But if I really think about it, that statement may not be true. I do remember those lists—in a way. They bubble and churn under the surface of my spiritual life like so much hidden acid reflux and manifest as a case of spiritual heartburn. Not spiritual conviction, just a feeling like I swallowed something that’s stuck in my throat. Something akin to a millstone.

You know what? I don’t need more lists. You don’t either.

What we need more of is Jesus. And He never was and never will be a To-Do list.

8 thoughts on “The Dreaded Christian To-Do List

  1. rory

    I almost feel as though this post could be retitled ‘the problem with the old testament,’ or, ‘the problem with preaching advanced lessons to those who haven’t mastered the basic stuff.’ To the latter point, as a teacher of ACT-test prep, it doesn’t make sense to throw trig at a child until they have thier order-of-operations and geometry down pat, and I’ve never understood so many different topics are preached when we should simply review the things Jesus said -for example the sermon on the Mount – find areas where we are falling short, then go out and do something about it.

    Off the top of my head, love god, love your neighbors (seriously, love them), don’t judge, forgive as you want to be forgiven, give freely as you were given freely, pray for those who persecute you (never heard this preached, or even more practiced in a church), and top it all off with a creamy layer of additional love.

    To the former point, there is so much in the OT that is interpreted to form whatever opinion we currently hold, when running those opinions past the above ‘Jesus-filters’ will quickly render them mute. Are we judging? Loving? Forgiving? If not, let’s work on that in Jesus’ name!

      • rory

        I had skipped that post, but as always you are able to make the point in a very clear way. I have to admit that I haven’t had much in the way of persecution because of my faith, referencing the famous ‘blessed are you when peope reject you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil things about you because of me.’

        I often wonder what type of Christian I would be if I was in a land known to persecute – lets say China right off the top of my head. My guess is that I would fail the test, as I am failing to avoid covetousness here in America despite all my blessings.

        Still, I need not venture outside the sermon on the mount to find 5 or 6 things Jesus tells me very plainly to do, which I’m not doing. I’ve decided that, ‘as for me and my house,’ we will do these things before worrying about the rest of it.

  2. linda

    Hi Dan,
    I went to church on Sunday. We were given a list containing 3 bullets with the sermon. Without writing them down I can remember the first bullet clearly, I sort of have an idea what the second bullet was about, the third bullet I haven’t got a clue about.

    The first bullet was ‘attitude’. This word seems to be replacing ‘our relationship with Jesus’ in our teaching today. Is a correct ‘attitude’ what we need in order to follow Jesus? I don’t think so. Attitude is from the mind. What is spiritual comes from our innermost being. Our mind is affected by what is happening to us spiritually. Not the other way around.

    To do lists remind me of trying to perform that which is spiritual, carnally. Meaning spiritual things performed by the flesh. We need knowledge, for sure. We need to be taught. This is what Paul did after people were converted to Christ under his preaching. He taught them. In his letters he reminded them of the teaching they had received from him.

    False teaching was infiltrating the church shortly after it was established. Also, some believers were slipping away from Christ because of their lust for worldly things. Some believers were living with persecution and they needed to be encouraged to stand in Christ, etc. This is different from ‘tips to improve your marriage’ or ‘have a good attitude’.

    I think I heard preaching on Sunday that said “Christians are no different from unbelievers. We all have struggles and bad things happen to us all. The difference with Christians is that we can look forward to a life in ‘heaven’. We can’t judge other believers because of what we see happening to them. Not even long standing solid Christians. We have to maintain a good attitude in these matters. God may be dealing with us because we are his kids”.

    The Bible teaches that there are major differences between believers and unbelievers. Believers can understand spiritual things, unbelievers can not. Believers have a new life in Christ, unbelievers do not. Believers have the promises of God in Christ, unbelievers do not. Believers have the Holy Spirit residing in us, unbelievers do not. Believers are in covenant with God, unbelievers are not. These are significant differences.

    We can expect as believers to experience God in this life. We can expect God to be watching over us in this life. We experience God intervening in our lives, in our circumstances, in our problems, and in our trials. This does not mean that we do not experience any trials or problems. It means that we have an expectation of help and hope to either be delivered from our trials, or to be empowered by God for endurance and capablility in our trials.

    This is not for every little thing that comes our way, but as an example of God perhaps being in the little things, we had a storm where I live two days ago that brought down many tree brances in my town. I had one fall down in my yard. It was heavy, I don’t have a chain saw, I’m 59 years old. My neighbor two doors down called me up yesterday saying that if I wanted, he would come over and cut the branch up into smaller pieces for me. Did God provide? Maybe, maybe not. But I was provided for. I can suspect (joyfully and thankfully), that God had a hand in getting me help with that branch.

    Do we live like the unbeliever in this world? No!! This ‘truth’ was not brought out in the sermon I heard on Sunday. What was ‘taught’ in this particular sermon on Sunday was that we can expect nothing more from God than the unconverted and wicked around us. The same good and evil applies to all mankind. There is no ‘refuge’ or ‘deliverer’ in essence for the believer.

    This is being preached (in my mind) to make excuses for why ‘believers’ are not experiencing God in their lives. This is being preached to try and maintain the status quo of “all is well, Christian. Don’t expect anything from God in this life, your hope is for heaven. You will live on eternally with Christ”. Really? I propose that if a believer is not experiencing Christ in this life, they will not be experiencing him in the next life either. This just makes sense. We’re not going to be suddenly ‘spiritual’ when we die.

    Where does this leave the church today? Largely carnal, teaching carnal ways in hopes of something spiritual resulting. The ‘to do Lists’. We need relationship with Christ. We need to be taught how to look to God in all things.

  3. Came to your site from Rick’s Saturday list and glad I did. I love list for it feels good to be able to check each thing done. It is sad when we are given a list of to do’s that really is not the heart of spiritual growth. If I remember right that is why the religious hated Jesus, He did not follow the list. Good post.

  4. Randa

    interestingly enough, this post reminded me of a verse that I just came across three days ago, but it hasn’t stood out to me before. I didn’t give much thought to it. Here it is. JESUS’s own words:
    ” 46I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

    47“If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day”

    -John 12:46-48 NIV

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