Those of us who are conservative Christians sometimes get it into our heads that the hard way is also the most godly one. We know that following God and leading a God-honouring life is difficult, so whenever we are faced with two decisions, the hard path is clearly the one we should pick. Right?

Wrong.

Just ask the Pharisees.

They made life very difficult for themselves. They always chose the most onerous path. If there was any doubt about something, they always chose the most cautious route. Anything that could remotely be conceived as work was banned.

For instance, the teachers of the law said that one could not spit on dirt on the Sabbath. This would break the law against planting and plowing, as one might be watering a seed in the ground with one’s spit. However, spitting on a rock was permissible. One also was not allowed to climb a tree. A branch might break, which would transgress the law against reaping (“removing all or part of a plant from its source of growth”). [1]

The Pharisees wanted to stay as far away from sin as possible, and in doing so, they created new sins for themselves—sins of pride and self-reliance. Sometimes they directly contradicted the rules that God had set in place! [2] Jesus had nothing but harsh criticisms for their mentality and method:

  • “You shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces” [3]
  • “You cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” [4]
  • “Blind guides!” [5]
  • “Blind fools!” [6]
  • A pastor’s wife I knew in my adolescence once said, “We don’t get brownie points for being more conservative than God.”

That line has always stuck with me—particularly because that was exactly the mentality I’d been trapped in at the time. If something could conceivably become sinful, I stayed far away from it—even if the sinful situations I’d envisioned were ludicrous and unlikely. I limited myself to the extreme and was full of fear. This “no brownie points” truth helped to free me from fear, and my life has never been quite the same since.

I love the way that the book Misreading the Scriptures with Western Eyes describes the way to godliness. It’s like a path with deep ditches on either side. In order to follow the path, we ideally want to stay in the centre and not fall into either ditch. This means that people who naturally tend to veer to the right (i.e., conservative Christians) should go a little to the left, to avoid falling into the right-hand ditch. People who naturally tend to veer to the left (i.e., liberal Christians) should go a little to the right, to avoid falling into the left-hand ditch. [7]

The idea that conservative Christians sometimes adopt—that if we go more to the right, we’ll be safer—is entirely false. When we adopt it, we risk the ditch.

Here’s the underlying principle:

Giving up more than God asks of us can be just as bad as giving up less than He asks.

I know an elderly man who was once a missionary. He tells wistful stories of how he brought his wife and children to the mission field, and then neglected them “for the sake of the gospel”.

“Did I do the right thing?” he now asks. “I wonder sometimes. I told myself that I was doing it for God’s kingdom, but now I’m divorced and one of my daughters detests Jesus.”

I’ve heard similar stories many times. Are missionaries doomed to have bad relationships? Is that the price of following Jesus?

Remember, in the second installment of this series, we talked about how we can be sincere and also be sincerely wrong. Jesus never asks us to sacrifice our families in this way. He arguably asks for the opposite—for us to be good and loving to the people around us, including our parents and spouses. [8]

What about the Bible verse that says "everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life"? [9]

When Jesus said this, he was responding to Peter’s assertion that he had given up everything to follow his Master. The interesting thing is that though Peter was following Jesus, he still went home to visit. [10] In this case, what if Jesus is talking about surrendering these people to God and His plans for them? What if, in clinging to Jesus, we must watch our families be martyred for the sake of the gospel? I’m not a theologian, so I have no solid answers for this question, but I do know that Jesus routinely requests us to follow the way of love—and it's not loving to neglect.

Peter and I have seen over and over how our loving, connected relationship is actually a witness of God’s love to the Japanese—one of the most powerful in our ministry. Without it, our effectiveness would be severely diminished.

What about pastors and missionaries who burn themselves out "for the sake of the gospel"?

Again, I can't help thinking that this is not what Jesus had in mind. After all, He says, "Come to Me and I will give you rest". [11]

When we do more than what He asks, we risk a different type of disobedience.

If a farmer asks me to plow a certain field, and I plow both that field and the one beside it too, am I being helpful—or did I just destroy a crop that wasn't ready to be harvested?

Doing more than what God asks is self-reliant—we are trying to somehow prove to God or ourselves or others that somehow we’re better. We’re trying to live up to a standard that we can never satisfy. Jesus is the only One who can. When we, in our own strength, try to surpass the obedience which God requests of us, this self-propelled mindset is arguably the opposite of faith. We are not trusting in God but in our own efforts. "Whatever is not of faith is sin." [12]

So rather than making assumptions about God and His plans, it's imperative that we nurture our own reliance on Him. Only then will we bear fruit—His fruit—that will last for eternity. This fruit will not shrivel and die the moment our own strength fails. And fail it will. Because none of us can live lives of quasi-faith (and no real substance) for long.



“Lord God, You know I want to follow and obey You. Please show me what true obedience looks like. Please help me not to be fearful of potential future sins, but submit each action and decision to You. I don’t need to be wise in knowing all of the potential pitfalls. I just need to be humble and obey. You are wise enough for both of us. Thank you that You have my future in Your hands and that I can trust You to catch me when I fall. Thank you that You order my steps and hold my hand [13] so that even when I stumble, I’m safe in Your embrace. Amen.”




NOTES

[1] See “plowing” and "reaping" under https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activities_prohibited_on_Shabbat

[2] Mark 7:9-13

[3] Matthew 23:13

[4] Matthew 23:15

[5] Matthew 23:16

[6] Matthew 23:17

[7] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 308-310 of 489 in ebook.

[8] See Mark 12:31, Mark 7:9-13, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Ephesians 5:25-33, 1 Timothy 5:8.

[9] Matthew 19:29

[10] Matthew 8:14-15

[11] Matthew 11:28-30

[12] Romans 14:23

[13] Psalm 37:23-24



(Picture source)