My 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
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Preachers love to mine the Old Covenant for these items, despite the fact that covenant has been replaced by a much better one.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.