Thoughts on learning and practice in the way of Jesus.
A man stands trembling amidst a watching crowd. Torrents of fear, shame, and hope surge within while people mumble and murmur beneath their breath. He knows what they’re thinking. There was nothing civilized or polite about his breaking voice and desperate scream as it tore a path to Jesus’ feet that day; “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”. He stares deep into the thick dark of his blindness, while tears carve valleys down his unwashed face. The air hangs heavy and pregnant, and Jesus asks a question.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Really Jesus? Aren’t you a prophet? Aren’t you The Prophet? Can’t you read between the lines of the moment? Sight, Jesus. That’s what blind people need. Sight. I pause in the strangeness of it all, and then I hear His whisper.
“I didn’t ask him what he needed.”
Just like that moment in Bethesda. Jesus bends low beside a pool. People look on and, once again, a question clears the silence; “Do you want to be well?” To a man who’d been lame for thirty-eight years. Surely the answer is obvious Jesus? Surely lame men want to walk and blind men want to see?
But do they? Do we? Sight cost Bartimaeus his cloak – a license to beg and probably his only source of income. Healing cost the lame man his mat and the complicated familiarity of a place beside the pool. We all have complex relationships with our dysfunction, wounds, and addictions. We’re strangely attached to the cloaks draped over our shoulders and our place beside the stirring waters. And so, Jesus must ask; “What do you want me to do for you… really?”
Because, sometimes what we want is far less than He is willing to give.
C.S. Lewis explains this well.
“When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother—at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning.
I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want.
I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists: I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie, if you gave them an inch they took an ell.
Our Lord is like the dentists. That is why He warned people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians. ‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less”’
You may ask, and rightly so, what any of this has to do with learning and practice in the way of Jesus.
Simply this; what we really want matters.
Learning and practice in the way of Jesus is only compelling to those who really want Jesus. If that’s not our desire, if we’d prefer a ticket to heaven or a point of conversation in our Sunday social club, we’ll be happy to settle for a form of religion without the power thereof. Why?
Because sight will cost us our cloak.
We might not like that. We might want a kind of sight that lets us keep our licence to beg, a kind of healing that leaves our mat beside the pool for peace of mind, a kind of Jesus who blesses our idols and patiently waits to be summoned at death. Fortunately or unfortunately (Depending on your view) no such Jesus exists. Partial sight is simply not the miracle Jesus is offering. So before we answer the question too quickly, it’s wise to take time to consider it.
Do you really want to see?
The most honest answer to this question is probably; “Yes and no”. None of us have arrived. Maturity in Christ is a very real possibility on this side of eternity (a point we need to emphasise to counterbalance the passivity of our age), but perfection is the great hope of the life and age to come.
We’re all a little stuck in our sickness and some days are better than others.
But even on the days when you don’t want to see, not really, do you want to want to see? God can work with that. He’ll grow a mustard seed into a tree if only our hearts are inclined in the direction of His grace. This is the key issue of course. His Grace. Nothing happens without it. We cannot change ourselves, heal ourselves or save ourselves. It’s all by His Grace, so that no one can boast. But, what we can do, what we must do if we really want to see, is choose to co-operate with His Grace. This leads to an essential question.
How do we build a faith that leans deep into God’s Grace through all seasons of life?
Anyone can run on passion when things are going well and obedience comes easy as breathing. Few people keep running when that passion runs dry and temptation shouts louder than truth. If you’ve followed Jesus for any length of time, you know that the life of faith is a mixture of both. Sometimes we’re Peter preaching to the masses at Pentecost, other times we’re denying Jesus three times around a fire. If we really want to see, to be transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others, we need a structured way of being in the world that catapults us forward in seasons of strength, and carries us along in those of weakness. We need something that doesn’t rise and fall on our feelings, but is a pre-emptive, settled intent to live into God’s vision of reality.
This is where learning and practice comes in.
Jesus invites us to follow His way because He knows what we have forgotten. His way is a means to His grace. As we choose to walk the way of Jesus – unlearning the patterns of this world, relearning the patterns of His Kingdom and daily living those truths into reality – we slowly build a structure of being that increasingly immerses us in God’s grace. His way is where we change and the longer we walk it, the greater the effect.
Turns out, Christ is far greater than we could imagine, we are more broken than we could believe and God, in His grace, is more willing and able to walk that divide than we could possible understand.
We learn and practice the way of Jesus to join God on that journey. It’s where we be with Jesus, become like Jesus and learn to do what Jesus did. If you’re resistant to this, if the idea of effort and applying ourselves to practice seems counter to the gospel, consider the words of Dallas Willard.
Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude effort is an action.
Consider also the fact that, like it or not, you’re already learning and practicing a way. We all are. Our flickering screens and gleaming billboards are selling us a lifestyle. Ideas, priorities, and deep seated convictions seep into our minds scroll by scroll, and they don’t stay there. They bleed their way onto our dining room tables (if we ever sit at those), into our relationships, and out of our mouths in traffic. None of us are static, self-determining people. We’re highly malleable and painfully susceptible to the ideological currents swirling in the air that we breath. We’re all becoming something, for better or worse, and if we don’t choose who shapes us in that process the decision will be made for us.
So what’s shaping you, and how is that working out? Is doom scrolling making you more or less like the person you hope to be? Is living for image, status and possessions satisfying the deep ache of your soul? Are all the books, conferences and sermons really stemming the tide of the rising anxiety you’re trying to medicate with religious busyness? Or, in the words of Jesus, Are you tired, worn out, burned out on religion? If so, then hear His words today as invitation to join Him in learning and practicing His way, remembering that His Way is a means to His Grace and His Grace is the agent of change.
“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”