Anything worth doing is worth doing right!

I cannot tell you how many times I heard my dad utter these words as I was growing up. They were words of wisdom. They were also words of instruction. (And sometimes correction. :/ ) For the most part, they were words I could live by and that seemed to served me well – on the farm, in school, in the workplace. To a point. Unfortunately, I think they also led to a performance-based approach to life, which didn’t serve me so well. I became focused on doing things right.

The adage proved to be a stumbling block to my faith journey, as well. As I have mentioned previously, I have struggled with a presupposition that faith is performance-based. A performance-based view of faith affected my role as a husband, father, Young Life leader, etc. Then, about 30 years ago, something began to change for me…

(Apparently Hunter S. Thompson gets credit for the saying, but I doubt he originated it!)

Young Life has a great training program. All new staff participate in the two-year, graduate level training. Each trainee is assigned an older staff person to walk with them through the training process – a trainer/mentor. Perry Hunter, my Regional Director, served as my trainer/mentor. We spent hours at the Pannekoeken Huis in Roseville, MN, talking theology and philosophy. During one of our sessions, we started talking about the tendency of 20th century Christians to focus on doing things right (of which I certainly was one). Perry then made a statement that has radically changed my thinking and life.

He said something to the effect that we might want to focus on doing right things rather than doing things right. The statement immediately resonated deep within my soul and I came back with “Oh, it’s law versus grace. Doing things right is law; doing right things is grace.” I had been trying to live a life of grace but from a legalistic perspective. I was working so hard at getting it right.

I immediately thought of the Pharisees that Jesus encountered 2000 years ago. They really wanted to figure out how to live for God, but their only approach was to do things right (and teach others the same). I discovered that I, too, was a Pharisee. I had no grace for me and I certainly didn’t do a good job of showing grace to others. I focused on what I and they should be doing right. (Brennan Manning would always remind his readers and listeners to “stop shoulding on thyself.”)

I know from experience, the suggestion that we do right things instead of doing things right often leads to some blank stares and wondering what’s the difference. Is it just semantics? Could be, but I don’t think so. It’s very similar to Why before What and How. Discovering one’s Why is a right thing. The focus on What and How is doing things right. We’ve already discussed C.S. Lewis’ First Things. Paying attention to first things is doing right things. Doing things right is a second thing. Jesus challenged the Pharisees to learn about doing right things when he reminded them that the God they faithfully tried to live for said, “I demand mercy, not sacrifice.” (See Matthew 9:13 and Hosea 6:6)

Do we want to do things right? Absolutely, but it has to be an organic outcome of doing right things. Doing things right is a second thing and we westerners struggle to put first things first. We will be revisiting this in upcoming posts. In the meantime, ponder the implications in your context.

Now Let’s Go!

If you have never watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk in which he talks about “Why” before “What” and “How,” you must. Sinek reminds us that knowing what we do and how to do it doesn’t serve us well in life, individually or when we lead others.

When I quit practicing the Christian disciplines close to 40 years ago, I sensed God saying, “Do you know how long I’ve waited for you to quit? Now let’s go.” What did “Now let’s go” mean? It meant going right back to practicing the disciplines in almost the same manner as before. So, what was different?

Everything! I knew how to practice disciplines. I knew what to do. And I thought I knew why I was practicing them. It was my version of “why” that was at issue. In the context of wanting to serve God well, I focused on reading and studying scripture (as well as praying) primarily “so that” my ministry might succeed (or, not fail). Plus, I wanted to be a better Christian. A noble quest. It was after our cross-county move and with no ministry left in the equation that I quit. I lost the motivation to continue.

I see “Why” and motivation as quite similar. The definition of motivation implies the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way. My motivation was to succeed and to be a good Christian. Two issues with that:

  1. God never asks us to be successful. He only asks us to be faithful. When orphans were starving in India at a greater rate than her little orphanage could serve, Mother Theresa was asked by a reporter how she could feel any sense of success. Her response? God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful. In western thought, we have equated success and faithfulness. The sooner we figure that out (change our minds, repent), the sooner we can get on with a full life.
  2. God never asks us to be good Christians. Read the scriptures. Read the Gospels. It’s not there! The Pharisees – a sect of religious leaders in Jesus’ day – fell into the false understanding that it was their job to read and study the scriptures so that they could be good Israelites. All God ever asked of the them was loyalty to Him and thus his creation (this is the essence of the two great commandments of which Jesus spoke and the words of Micah, the prophet).

The Pharisees’ motivation was clear, but wrong. They knew their reason for acting and behaving in a particular way. And they were sincere – very sincere. But wrong. Their “why” did not line up with God’s. They were disciplined in their search of scripture, looking for life yet missed life when it was revealed through Jesus.

Likewise, I was sincere and disciplined in searching the scriptures, but for wrong reasons. The Celebration of Discipline was initially an unhealthy read for me. I thought I was to try to conquer the disciplines (succeed). As I strove to succeed at practicing the disciplines, it felt like I was spinning plates. At some point, I listened to a cassette tape by the author, Richard Foster, talking about the disciplines, reminding us that the purpose of the disciplines is to place us in front of the Father so he can transform us. THAT was transformative and freeing! Once again, my “why” had shifted.

Oh that we could have eyes to see and ears to hear that much of what motivates us is cultural and not biblical. Father, show us where we might be missing the mark.