Lists. We all have them. Whether they are mental lists or written lists, we all use them. And when it comes to spirituality, internal growth and happiness, the list you live by will either kill you or liberate you.
I used to live my life by the lists of my faith culture. Read the scriptures. Pray. Attend church. Do the things the church asks, whether it was setting up chairs, cleaning the church building, or supporting this or that program of the church. Teach my children to do those things. That’s what was on my list. I did all those things and I wasn’t happy.
Worse yet, I evolved into a person, like the Levite and the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who believed that spirituality and closeness to God was walking by the traditions of religion and having one’s nose buried in the scriptures—so much so that, like the Levite or the priest, I’m sure I walked right on by (or right over) people in need of simple human kindness. I equated piousness with righteousness. I was a great theologian but a terrible Christian. I was doctrinaire but dead inside. Little did I know that living by this list wasn’t living at all. It was a type of slow and progressive spiritual death.
“I equated piousness with righteousness.”
I changed the list. I jettisoned my emphasis on those things—not completely, however, for hygienic spiritual practices are as necessary to your spiritual maintenance as brushing your teeth, showering and wearing deodorant are to your physical maintenance. Those things were necessary, in proper measure, but not sufficient. My new list was simple.
I took Matthew 25:32-46 and a doctrine from my own faith tradition, which teaches that mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort are part of the covenant made at baptism, and I made the following list–the people list:
People who are “hungry” that I could cook or bake for …
People that are “strangers” and feel lonely that I could invite over to my house …
People that could use some new clothes …
People that are “sick” or injured that I could visit …
People in “prison” (whether literally or figuratively) that I could go visit …
People that are mourning that I could mourn with …
People in need of comfort that I could try to comfort and encourage …
A lot of times those “people” were my spouse, children, siblings or parents. Often, they were neighbors or work associates. As I began living by this list—the people list instead of the “pious” list—I noticed a couple of things. First, my level of happiness increased exponentially. Second, I felt much closer to God.
A spiritual awakening occurred within me. I realized how spiritually immature I had been for all those years. By focusing on the pious list, I was like a little child that received a wonderful present but, instead of enjoying the gift, played with the box or the wrapping paper it came in.
“We play with the boxes and the paper that the gifts of the gospel are delivered in rather than actually embracing the gospel itself. It’s spiritually immature.”
We do the same thing, in a spiritual sense, whenever we spend our lives thinking that scripture study; church, synagogue or temple attendance; saying the right prayers or incantations; or believing the right theology will bring us happiness and communion with God. We confuse the means with the end. We play with the boxes and the paper that the gifts of the gospel are delivered in rather than actually embracing the gospel itself. It’s spiritually immature. At a certain point, you need to discard the box, put the wrapping paper in its proper place, and get on with enjoying the gift. If all you ever really do is play with the “boxes”—the externalities, the outward ordinances, the rights, rituals and programs of your religion—you will die spiritually.
You will become like the Pharisees of old. You will be ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 3:7.) You will have a form of godliness but no real power. (2 Timothy 3:5.) You will draw near to God with your lips while your heart is far from him. (Matthew 15:8.) You will believe that those who sit in the most important seats at your church or synagogue are the most important people. (Matthew 23:6.) You will listen to and honor those with titles more than you honor and listen to the lonely, hungry, outcast and sick. (Matthew 23:7.) You will think that you can convert people with your doctrine rather than your kindness. (Matthew 23:15.) You will think that tithing your income so the church can do good (a means of paying for the boxes) makes you a good person and, subconsciously, you will believe that it excuses you somewhat from the mandate to genuinely be good and do good. (Matthew 23:23.)
You will spend your life focused on the externalities of your religion—the things that can be measured and checked off, like how much money you have donated, how many “visits” you made each month, how many minutes or hours per day you read from the scriptures, how many trips to the temple/synagogue, what rituals or ordinances you’ve received, etc. All of this is nothing more than playing with the box or the wrapping paper. It’s immature. It’s where you start. It’s not where you should end up. It leads to spiritual death, according to Jesus. (Matthew 23:25-28.) You will become a pious Pharisee and not even know it’s happening.
Wake up! Repent. Put the pious list in its proper place. Make a “people” list. Then live by it. That is what Jesus called you to do. Don’t be a goat! (See Matthew 25:32-33)
I realize that this is scary stuff. When God calls you to a higher level of consciousness he always does so in a manner that makes it seem like you’re breaking all of the rules. Look at Jesus. The Pharisees accused him of breaking all the rules and offending the tradition and authority of the church.
Jesus said he wasn’t trying to break the rules. He was just trying to live them! (Matthew 5:17.) He was trying to put the box in its proper place and actually help awaken people to the wonderful gift that was inside. He was calling his people to live at a higher level of consciousness. He was calling his people to prioritize.
When God called Abram to live at a higher level of consciousness and become Abraham, the father of the covenant, it must have seemed like madness to Abram. Build an altar. Sacrifice your son. All of that was exactly the opposite of what Abram had been taught about God and his “rules.” Break the rules to live a higher law. That’s what he was told. There’s a typology and pattern in this. It repeats itself all throughout the scriptures.
“Growing and evolving to a higher level of consciousness is painful. The birth of new things always requires the experience of death to the old ….”
So don’t be surprised at how difficult it will be for you to put down the pious list and focus on the people list first. You will question your faith and your “faithfulness.” You will question your sanity, perhaps. You will fear that you are letting God down, that you will no longer earn his favor. Growing and evolving to a higher level of consciousness is painful. The birth of new things always requires the experience of death to the old and all the concomitant pains and griefs. But I can assure you that when you put down the box and actually start playing with the gift inside—and stay with it—you will experience an awakening and a communion with God that will bring you great peace and happiness. It will bring you new life.
Let me use another analogy to make my point. Up until now, you may have been like the man who wanted to build a shed but thought that buying a shed kit, reading the instructions over and over again, faithfully attending all of the shed-building seminars at the local home improvement store, watching YouTube videos on shed-building, listening to all the shed-building authorities, and paying money for all of the best tools, would somehow make the shed magically erect itself. That’s the level of foolishness, immaturity and ridiculousness the pious list promotes. At some point, if the man really wants a shed, he’ll need to put the instructions down, grab the tools, seize the materials and start building.
Likewise, to truly build the spiritual life, you must put the scriptures down, leave some Church meetings behind, and actually go and do good, without assignment, without recognition, without reporting back to anyone, and without being asked to do so.
Unfortunately, much of organized religion unknowingly nurtures a false consciousness—that I’ll never be good enough to be a Christian (build the shed) unless I buy all those materials, go to all those meetings, study all those instructions, faithfully listen to all those experts, and spend an inordinate amount of time at the “home improvement store” we call organized religion, etc. Much of organized religion—in an effort to keep us from straying too far from the instruction manual and the metaphorical home improvement store that organized religion offers—actually discourages us from thinking that we can do it on our own. The message that is sent is that DIY spirituality and DIY spiritual work and ministry is dangerous. You’ll get lost. You’ll mess up. Worse yet, you won’t even know it! Stick to the instructions! Listen to the leaders! Stay in the store!
“My discipleship forced me to make hard choices. It forced me to prioritize.”
Yes. All of that is good. But at a certain point, you’ll have to turn all of that off (or turn it down) and just let it play in the background so that you can actually try living the discipled, Christian life, which is a life devoted to building, listening, loving and lifting. You may face opposition and criticism. Jesus did. You must prioritize when there are conflicts. Do I go to this meeting or stay at home and nurture my relationship with my struggling teenage daughter? Do I send my son to the youth group meeting so I look good and “faithful” or do I give him what he really needs and craves … time with me? Do I read my scriptures for an hour or go visit the lonely elderly man down the street for an hour? Do I do something to check off the pious list or do I focus on the people list?
Perhaps you are one of those rare persons who can do it all. I couldn’t. My discipleship forced me to make hard choices. It forced me to prioritize. At times, it was very difficult. As I ignored certain meetings or church activities, rituals and traditions, I felt like Abraham with Isaac on the altar. I worried about what other people would think. Would they think I’m unfaithful or inactive? Would they think I’m an apostate? All of that made me realize how ego-driven and externally-motivated my “spirituality” had been. I can tell you that I am much happier and feel much closer to God now that I have (hopefully) put the pious list in the background and picked up the people list.
What I found is that the pious list remains there in the background for me to consult and refer to when I get lost and need to remap or when I need advice or counsel with a particularly vexing or difficult problem on my people list. Now, instead of consuming me, the church and all it offers supports me. It’s there as a resource, not an all-consuming lifestyle.
I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said to focus on “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other (pious list) undone.” (Matthew 23:23.)
So I invite you to wake up. Arise to a new level of consciousness. Put the box and wrapping paper away and enjoy the gift it delivered to you. Put the instruction manual down and go build spiritual sheds. Put the map down and start hiking. Leave the car dealership and put down the owner’s manual so you can actually drive the car, knowing that the dealer will be there if and when the car breaks down or needs servicing. I hope you get my metaphors.
Put the pious list down. Make your people list today. Then live by it. Do a little each day. You will find that the people list keeps you busy enough. You will find your ministry and calling. You will find peace. You will find great joy. You will find God. You will mediate his presence for others. They will experience Him through you. And you will finally find yourself. (Matthew 10:39.)