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…
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.