I work on a heavy schedule, and as someone who is self-employed, with two distinct lines of business, I very rarely see a blank to-do list. In fact, now that I think about it, it has been several years since I finished a day and could say I was done.
I identify a couple of goals here. First, I’d like to be done at some point. “Now I can go on vacation,” I would say, “because everything is done.” Second, I want to get as much done as possible, not to mention a few impossible things. In reality, I’m not going to be satisfied on either of those points.
Quoth Paul, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?”
You may think I’m being irreverent to use that quote, in which Paul is referring to his own inability to do what he knows is right and wants to do, but I think it’s closer to the mark than most suspect. So let me first illustrate what I’m talking about with my work, and then get back to the spiritual lesson.
No, that’s not quite right. Getting done with my work is physical, mental, and spiritual process. One of our problems is that we spiritualize spirituality until it has nothing to do with daily life. Ideally (another interesting word), we’ll see the physical and the spiritual working together. Everything from doing the dishes to writing a book to running a marathon (as my friend Dave Black is about to do) is both physical and spiritual; above all, real.
Thus I start with the illustration of how I can attack my day. There are two extremes I can take. The first is my natural inclination. That is, I get up in the morning, come to this computer (most of my work resides in its chips), and start attacking my list. I’m not really a list person, but reality has forced lists on me. If I find myself failing to accomplish the list, I add hours at the end of the work day, all the while wishing I could add hours to the physical day. This process is direct, measurable in effort and results, and easy to understand. More work = more accomplishment.
Before I go to the next option, let me tell you about the problem I have with leaving the first. Mary Heaton Vorse (I believe she originated the saying) said that writing was the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. She was absolutely right. The arts of editing, designing, and marketing are much the same. So if chair meets backside for more hours, more will get written. Authors (and editors, designers, marketers, and perhaps all humans) have many excuses for not having seat meet seat, one of the most common being that you can’t force creativity. Editors, who like to disembowel the excuses of authors, like to point out that you’re not being all that creative outside of the chair either. Writing great novels in your imagination is perhaps not all that likely to bring either fame or fortune!
So having written one or two books myself, and having published around 170 by other authors, I have a strong tendency to stick with Mary Heaton Vorse.
Not so fast!
I also know that creativity will demand its pound of my flesh. One of my techniques for planning out a cover or the chapter headers for the interior of a book is to put them on a computer screen I’m not using and walk by them every so often. This is a way of forcing me to become so disillusioned with the current state of the object that I will come up with a new look just to preserve my sanity. Put less bluntly, I look at it, think about it, and suddenly come up with an idea. Then I apply back side to chair and implement, generally followed by more looking.
Now we turn to the second approach to my day. In this approach I ask what makes me productive. I could list a number of things, such as getting enough sleep. Staying up late to finish a project can get it out the door on schedule, while actually making me further behind overall. I am less efficient on insufficient sleep. Failing to spend time in daily devotions makes me less efficient. It’s easy—almost irresistibly easy—to decide that I’m too busy for that devotional time and simply jump into work. In fact, as I write, I must confess that this morning other than prayer time before I got out of bed, I am writing without devotional time. But this blog post struck me as I prayed (no, I’m not telling you this is God’s word; it’s just my musings), and here I am, drawn to the keyboard and the chair.
Walking is also important for my efficiency. If I don’t get active, I’ll find myself accomplishing little. Walking can be done at any time of the day, and therein lies another problem. Can I stop working and take a walk? Can I stop working inside and go out and clean up branches in the yard? The second is easier than the first. Why? Because it feels like I’m working toward a goal. What is walking but time when the seat of my pants does not connect with the seat of my chair and thus is wasted? At least cleaning the yard produces stacks of broken branches and piles of leaves!
But, and this is a serious “but,” thus gaining the initial point in this paragraph. But, I say, this impression is an illusion. Yes, I need to work. I need to accomplish things, but I also need to do things that keep me functional. There is a balance here that is not helped by my tendency to think in extremes. If I could just work 16 hours straight, the book would be done, I think. But that doesn’t work. There is a balance, a place where things work best.
But, another serious “but,” I want to be able to say how hard I work. If I rest, in order to be more efficient, I can’t say I worked 16 hours, thus impressing other people with my diligence and dedication. Saying that I ordered my day to preserve mental, physical, and spiritual health, and thus actually accomplished more work than I would have if I had gone with Plan A just doesn’t have the same ring. Deep inside me is this little voice telling me that approach sounds lazy. Somewhere in there is another voice that tells me it is lazy. The voice that tells me it’s lazy lies like a rug. The one that tells me others will think it’s lazy is just irrelevant.
I’m so programmed for work that I tend to listen to those voices anyhow. “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?”
Can you perhaps see some of our problems with spiritual things? In our minds there is a God out there demanding this ultimate perfection, incredibly wonderful holiness, and the attainment of unreasonable standards. We’ve even made a theology of it. We’re so desperately wicked and God is so holy that we are without hope. Jesus comes in and makes up the difference. That’s fine, except that we don’t really buy it. So we come up with new ways to try to attain “rightness” with God.
Way, way back in the ancient days, it was by offering enough of the right sacrifices. Then we weren’t sure, so we offered more, all the while letting actual righteousness get lost in the scramble to offer the right sacrifices. Then we got hold of Jesus, so to speak, but since we couldn’t really believe that things were taken care of, we had lists of works. We’d try to make sure we got the lists done, and we were afraid that if we didn’t quite manage that, we’d be lost. (This isn’t a critique of Catholic theology, but of human existence. I don’t think the change of theology does nearly as much as people hope.)
Come the reformation, we renewed the idea that God had taken care of it. We ended all the sacrifices with Jesus and now the reformation wanted to end all that checklist work being righteous enough to get to heaven. But we really didn’t want to believe that either, so we came up with righteousness by correct theology.
I personally think the demands of theological correctness are much greater and much more sinister than the demands of correct living. The farmer in the field or the construction worker laying bricks could hope to live with integrity and carry out acts of charity. But now we have details of theology that must be learned but that many people don’t really get. There are those who demand, however, that they be understood. I was told once that if I didn’t realize that Christ had died for my sins and that I was thus “once saved, always saved” irrespective of any future event, I was not in fact saved at all. In this man’s view, my understanding of the theology was critical to my salvation. I might be incapable of doing one righteous thing (he made sure to quote scripture on that), but I must be capable of righteously (and rightly) understanding his view of the atonement, else Christ died in vain.
We replaced the vanity of gaining righteousness by performing the right ritual with the vanity of performing the right set of deeds. Then we replaced the vanity of the deeds with the vanity of our understanding. All the while our lives continued to do very little to reflect righteousness by any standard.
“Oh wretched people that we are! Who will deliver us?”
Jesus, I think, if we’ll listen. Matthew 5:48 says to be perfect, but Matthew 7:1 says not to judge. Interesting that we try to apply that to others (while missing “by their fruit” a few verses forward), but not necessarily to ourselves. Earning the favor of God by doing things that are, really, the best things for ourselves and doing them perfectly is, of course, impossible. We can’t attain this. We might as well hope to reach the pole star by walking north!
But here comes grace, ready to take that burden from you. To quote Paul again, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” It’s the realization that you don’t have to reach the pole star, but you can walk north. You can go ahead and have times of rest in your spiritual life. Why? Because you live in grace. You can work on your own sanctification. Why? Because God has given you the space.
If you spent your time trying to attain the pole star, you would have serious problems getting over the next hill. In an article titled North Star Closer to Earth than Thought, I found the estimate that it’s only 323 light years to Polaris, the current pole star. I also found an estimate that it would take 225 million years to walk one light year at 20 miles per hour. (I think the writer has a problem with the concept “walk.”) But even at that clip, Google tells me that 225 million times 323 light years is seventy-two billion six hundred seventy-five million. Of course that is shortened from ninety-seven billion six hundred fifty million by the new measurements (323 light years to Polaris rather than 434)!
That shortening is sort of like saying, “No, you don’t have to accomplish all these deeds, just make sure you get the right set of beliefs. Then it will take only a bit under 73 billion years longer than you’ll live instead of 97 billion. Rejoice! Sing Hallelujah!”
We need to let grace free us from the need for judgment, and then we can seek God without the constant worry that our experience and understanding are inadequate. Of course they’re inadequate! But God …
You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:1-10, emphasis mine)
Perhaps we should give up the works and the judgment, especially self-judgment, and live.