Why (and why not) to do hard things at Jesus' encouragement - Vince Brackett
Fourth in series: Things that have changed my life
Why (and why not) to do hard things at Jesus’ encouragement
We are in the middle of a series of talks here at BLV called "Things that have changed my life" It's basically been an excuse for us to talk about things we've learned or experienced that lately have felt so influential to us personally that we can't help but go on and on about them. Here's the topic I have for us today:
Jesus pretty frequently encourages people to “subtract” things from their lives, in ways that can feel hard and countercultural, Like behaviors, possessions, or status I want to talk about why I think that is the case, AND I also want to talk about why I think that ISN’T the case (because I believe this is one of the least well-understood things about Jesus in popular culture) Here’s a fly-by of some of Jesus’ encouragements toward subtraction
“If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (Matthew 18 NLT)
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all." (Mark 10 NIV)
"Give to anyone who asks, and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.” (Luke 6 NLT)
"Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12 NIV)
“You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18 NIV)
So, yep, this is a serious theme for Jesus -- Encouragements to subtract in some way from the space we occupy (so to speak) From the things we do, from the things we own, from the importance we demand In some ways what we read here is attractive -- like caring for the poor is something I've never known any halfway decent person to be against But in every way what we read here is hard. When the rubber meets the road, these all require a subtraction of resources, money, status, energy (something) for a follower "Liking" a cause on Facebook is very different from volunteering actual time toward a cause or donating real money to a cause And in every way what we read here is countercultural Even though it may poll popularly, care for the poor is sadly NOT a cultural norm And the fact of the matter for us is: the status quo of American culture is addition to our lives, not subtraction from our lives.
So... why do hard or countercultural things (like subtract from your life) at Jesus' encouragement?
Is it because Jesus commands it, and he’s the boss, so shut up and stop asking questions? [“duty” on screen] That’s a response we might feel we’re getting implicitly in certain religious settings
Is it because Jesus was a radical, and therefore we should be radical? [“courage” on screen] That’s a response we might actually hear explicitly in certain religious settings
Well, nothing against the virtues of duty and courage… BUT I just don’t believe either of those are why we should do hard or culturally strange things at Jesus’ encouragement... I believe it's more foundational than that... I think it's because, simply, However hard, we will experience doing these things to be good and worth it. I know: so simple, and yet so elusive I think at the same time... maybe because it's so simple Jesus speaks directly to this: One of the key analogies he uses to describe himself is that he offers help to people like a doctor offers help to patients What encouragements do doctors give? They give instructions and prescriptions for our health While sometimes challenging to do so, following a doctor’s instructions and prescriptions is something we will experience to be good and worth it for us. Because it will keep us alive and healthy Maybe it doesn't seem like it, but I think this is actually a provocative approach from Jesus Historically it has very rarely been the approach put into practice by people trying to follow Jesus -- As I mentioned, customarily the approach is: you follow Jesus out of duty or courage But this is very different Let me show you what I mean
What happens if we answer the question "why do hard things at Jesus' encouragement?" with: Because Jesus is a good doctor Let's work the image of a good doctor for a minute
Say I go to see a new doctor because I haven't been feeling great lately and I hear he's the best in town And he sits me down at our first appointment, and he says: I see here on our intake form that under diet you wrote just one word: chocolate... we usually expect a bit more broad of an answer than that, can you elaborate? Yeah, I just love all of the chocolates - milk, dark - can't get enough. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner! I see... well those days are behind you now, Vince. We just got your test results and you are on a fast track to diabetes... We're starting you on daily medication immediately, and you're going to have to work into your routine remembering to take this. Ok, yeah. Got it. I want to show you something else (and he drops a massive book on the table) - this is called the "Healthy Living Cookbook", it includes things that we doctors call vegetables and protein. At first it will feel challenging to you preparing and eating this way instead of just chocolate, but eventually your palate will grow and you'll find yourself loving eating this way. That's been the experience of millions of people all over the world. But what about all of my chocolate? And more shows up at my door every month because of the monthly exotic chocolate delivery service I'm subscribed to You’re going to give your chocolate to those without any chocolate. You can help even the chocolate inequity in the world. And you should also cancel those chocolate subscriptions. That's gross.
Ok, now say six months later I've been at this doing my best and I'm starting to really notice a difference I actually feel healthier, I feel more energy, I can walk up the stairs without getting out of breath. And a friend comes to me concerned and says: Vince, you know I hate to say it but you've kind of been a downer lately. The other day, I offered you some snickers and you turned me down. And I can't remember the last time we went on one of our all-night chocolate binges. So here's what I did for you, for us, I got us two flights to Belgium - that's right! Chocolate Mecca -- you and me, 7 days, all you can eat, my treat! And I say: man, that is so generous. It's really hard to say no but I'm trying to do this healthy living thing now, and my doctor has got me on this plan that is really making all the difference for me And my friend says: Ugh, this doctor and his plan. It's all you can talk about lately! What about doing something for yourself?! If this doctor’s plan is so hard, why do all this?
So what should my response to my friend be? Why do all this? On these terms, my response is: Because my health depends on it! Because it is good for me and worth it! I AM doing something for myself! That's the only reason a good doctor gives instructions and prescriptions in the first place - It's not for the doctor’s sake; the doctor doesn’t need me to stop eating chocolate, The instructions are for my sake
Jesus says: think of the encouragements I give this way
Do you notice how different that approach is than the others we considered? [all on screen] Duty and courage can certainly be heroic reasons to follow Jesus... But I wonder if trying to be heroic is missing the point On the other hand, there’s following Jesus for the simple reason that I will be healthier for it and I will experience it to be worth it -- That definitely doesn't sound heroic (some might say it sounds a bit self-interested), So that's pretty humbling But I've learned that that may actually be exactly what Jesus wants For me to be humbled For me to feel and understand that, in the grand scheme of the universe, there is no such thing as doing heroic things for God God is the one who does heroic things for me And it is his delight to do so, like a good doctor delights in taking care of her patients
This is the provocative gift that the doctor approach to following Jesus offers And this is why I think duty and courage approaches to following Jesus fall short at getting all they can from a relationship with Jesus
So, taking this doctor approach to Jesus' encouragements toward subtraction that we just read, These aren’t about being ascetic or pious or even radical. These are about improving our health. Living more fully and deeply, as we say every week here.
How might we experience this to be true? I have some suggestions for us...
1) Ask Jesus for a “subtraction” goal for your life. In a minute, we’ll take some time to get started at this together. But consider today the beginning of a conversation you’ll continue with Jesus on your own. If Jesus encourages subtraction from time to time, then instead of avoiding that, my thought here is: let’s just ask him for it, straight out. Of course, no way around it, sometimes this subtraction might feel counter to what we’re used to, or counter to the culture we swim in. Our job then is my second suggestion:
2) Pray regularly to remind yourself that Jesus’ hard asks are prescriptions for your health. If I’m not tracking with the way an encouragement toward subtraction from my life is actually in fact a good thing for my health... My job is NOT to just buckle down and do it like a good religious boy or girl My job is to ask Jesus to show me what I’m missing Remember: Doctor approach! Not duty or courage approach! In my experience, Jesus is happy to do this Probably unsurprising to all, my wife is an objectively kinder and more compassionate human being than I am When we got married and began a single checking-account, I learned what that meant: If someone close to us reached out either in some extraordinary situation of need or with a passion to do something that required raising money, she would always say “Yes. Who can I make a check out to?" I, on the other hand, just defaulted to being conservative with our money in these situations… Of course I want to be nice to my college roommate and to your 2nd cousin once removed, I’d say, but where do we draw the line? And then one day, in prayer, I was talking to Jesus about this — probably saying something self-righteous like: doesn’t Keziah realize how much she’s opening herself to being taken advantage of!? But instead of validation for my self-righteousness, I sense something different from Jesus: like he’s saying, I’m actually trying to offer you something every time Keziah wants to give money away It’s not your job to determine who is worthy to give to and who isn’t, I felt Jesus say… that’s sin in your life that I want you to cut off What this is actually about, Vince, is you opening yourself up to a more free flow of love and connection with people in your life... OR you closing yourself off to that Because if you get to the point, Vince, where you are ready to give to anyone who asks, you’re going to like how that feels… you’re going to like that life better than the one you have now That sold me… now I understood where Keziah was coming from and what I had been missing! Now I understood Jesus’ encouragement “give to anyone who asks" He’s trying to be my doctor We now set aside a little money every month labeled for “spontaneous donations” so we can keep ourselves open to this free-flow feeling And what got me to this new normal? It wasn’t ginning up my resolve so I could be a truly-serious-and-radical follower of Jesus instead of the not-serious-enough poser I’d been up to that point It was a message from Jesus that changed my thinking — that helped me see why this was desirable, why it was a prescription for my health We need to pray regularly NOT because that’s what a person of faith should do, BUT... So that, when our thinking needs to be changed for the better, we are consistently putting ourselves in position to experience that change Especially if the subtraction goal you sense from Jesus is behavioral -- Like weeding out some habit or vice that’s not serving you -- “sin” to use the religious language You will experience so much more success this way than you will the duty or courage way
3) Take incremental steps toward your goals. A year or so ago, Keziah and I felt a specific subtraction goal from Jesus The goal was that we would no longer support inhumane labor when we purchase clothing We absolutely were tracking with why being more ethical consumers would be a good thing for us So seeing Jesus as a doctor wasn’t an issue for us here The issue was that ethical clothing costs so much more than cheap-labor clothing… Of course it does. Because people are not being taken advantage of to make it. To maintain our current clothing lifestyle, that extra cost would have to be subtracted from somewhere else in our budget As good as this goal sounded, there was just no way we could see ourselves subtracting enough from elsewhere in our budget to accomplish it (without negating the good of that goal by being irresponsible or unwise) And it’s not like our clothing budget was particularly large in the first place BUT what we could see happening was taking a step toward this goal We decided that we would split what we had been budgeting for clothes down the middle, and half of it could only be spent on clothing that we’d researched to insure it was made in ethical working conditions And great, that's a step in the direction of our goal All this to say: If you feel like Jesus has given you a subtraction goal, and you just can’t see it happening right away, don't wait until X, Y, and Z are in place to get started If that’s your approach, chances are, you’ll never actually get started Instead, try taking incremental steps toward your goal
4) Consider that one of Jesus’ subtraction goals for you might be about your time and energy. I’ve given us some examples about subtraction in terms of money and possessions The other side of subtraction is in terms of our time and energy For example, I've discovered that I very much reflect the American culture that has raised me with a tendency toward workaholism Early in the life of this church, I was regularly putting in multiple work hours on Saturdays, which essentially meant I was working at least a little bit every single day of the week, week after week At one point that year, in the span of a few days both my wife and Kyle (my co-pastor here) expressed concern about this and a desire for different for me Initially I was defensive and I explained how I'm taking hours off at other times and how I'm better at my job this way But later, in prayer, I felt like Jesus confirmed what Kyle and Keziah were saying: you need to subtract working on Saturday from your life… that is sin I want you to cut out... I know that seems hard and impossible but you will like your life better on the other side So I shifted things and it was one of the best decisions I made that year for my health Perhaps Jesus has a goal like that in mind for you
Alright I want to pray for us, and get us started conversing with Jesus about possible subtraction goals for us After I pray, Elizabeth is going to help us stay in a space of prayer by leading us in song Engage in whatever way feels best to you: Singing along or just sitting back letting the music hit you.
And then I want to invite you to be prayed for by someone on our prayer team, Especially if what I’m praying is hitting you in particular, or if you came in today feeling some kind of weight -- emotional, physical, circumstantial, whatever… Our prayer team are trained, safe folks, who are here to help you have an interaction with Jesus and receive help from him. They’ll be in the middle section of the theater with a lanyard that says prayer team. No one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice, and everything you share is confidential.
Stand with me and I’ll pray