The Crushing Obligation to Keep Doing More and MoreDecember 21, 2022
Doing More for God
I understand there are lazy people out there who need to get radical for Jesus. I understand that many people are stingy with their resources and fritter their time away on inane television shows. I understand there are lots of Christians in our churches sitting around doing nothing who need to be challenged not to waste their life. I am deeply thankful for preachers and writers who challenge us to risk everything and make our lives count. I know a lot of sleepy Christians in need of a wake-up call.
But I also know people like me, people who easily feel a sense of responsibility, people who easily feel bad for not doing more. I was the kid in grade school who was ready to answer every question the teacher asked. I signed up for things just because they were offered. I took on extra credit just to be safe. I never skipped a class in college and would have felt bad for missing any chapel service. I took the practice ACT the year before I really took the practice ACT, which was a year before I took the real ACT. For all sorts of reasons—pride, diligence, personality—opportunities have often felt like obligations to me.
And surely I’m not the only one. Surely there are many Christians who are terribly busy because they sincerely want to be obedient to God. We hear sermons that convict us for not praying more. We read books that convince us to do more for global hunger. We talk to friends who inspire us to give more and read more and witness more. The needs seem so urgent. The workers seem so few. If we don’t do something, who will? We want to be involved. We want to make a difference. We want to do what’s expected of us. But there just doesn’t seem to be the time.
Calming the Crazy Man Inside
I think most Christians hear these urgent calls to do more (or feel them internally already) and learn to live with a low-level guilt that comes from not doing enough. We know we can always pray more and give more and evangelize more, so we get used to living in a state of mild disappointment with ourselves. That’s not how the apostle Paul lived (1 Cor. 4:4), and it’s not how God wants us to live, either (Rom. 12:1–2).1 Either we are guilty of sin—like greed, selfishness, idolatry—and we need to repent, be forgiven, and change. Or something else is going on. It’s taken me several years, a lot of reflection, and a bunch of unnecessary busyness to understand that when it comes to good causes and good deeds, “do more or disobey” is not the best thing we can say.
Here are some of thoughts that have helped me get out from under the terror of total obligation.
I am not the Christ. The senior sermon for my graduating class at seminary was given by Gordon Hugenberger of Park Street Church in Boston. The sermon was based on John the Baptist’s words, “I freely confess I am not the Christ.” Hugenberger’s point to a group of soon-to-be pastors was simple: “You may be part of the bridal party, but you are not the groom. You are not the Messiah, so don’t try to be. Along with the Apostles’ Creed and the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession, make sure you confess John the Baptist’s creed: I am not the Christ.” I still have a copy of the sermon and listen to it whenever I can find a tape deck. Our Messianic sense of obligation would be greatly relieved if we confessed more regularly what we are not.
There is good news. I was also helped with my busyness issues in seminary by reading a little book by Tim Dearborn called Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission.2 Dearborn, the director of faith and development for World Vision, argues that for too long the church has motivated people to mission by news of natural catastrophes, complex humanitarian disasters, unreached people groups, and oppressed and exploited minorities. We’ve been given statistics and stories about the all-too-sad conditions of the world. The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, Dearborn maintains, has been turned into bad news about all the problems in the world and how much more we have to do to make things right. The take-home then becomes: serve more, give more, care more, do more. Dearborn reminds us that the gospel is good news of great joy, and that God is the only hope for the world.
Care is not the same as do. At the Lausanne missions gathering in 2010, John Piper made the statement that “we should care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.” He chose the word “care” quite carefully. He didn’t want to say we should do something about all suffering, because we can’t do something about everything. But we can care. This means when we hear about grinding poverty or legal abortion or biblical illiteracy, we are not indifferent. We think and feel that these things ought not to be so. We won’t all care about every issue in the same way, but there are some issues we should all care about, some issues that should at least prick our hearts and prompt us to pray. Not giving a rip about sex slaves is not an option for the Christian. Not doing something directly to combat this particular evil *is an option.
We have different gifts and different callings. Every Christian must be prepared to give an answer for the reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet. 3:15), but not everyone will do beach evangelism. Every Christian should be involved in the Great Commission, but not everyone will move overseas. Every Christian should oppose abortion, but not everyone will adopt or volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center. We need Christians who spend their lives improving inner-city schools and Christians whose dream is to get great theological books translated into Polish. And we need Christians who don’t make others feel guilty (and don’t feel guilty themselves) when one of us follows a different passion than another. I read and write a lot. That’s what I do well. But that doesn’t mean anyone should feel guilty for not reading and writing as much as I do. You have your own gifts and calling. We have to be okay with other Christians doing certain good things better and more often than we do.
Remember the church. The only work that absolutely must be done in the world is Christ’s work. And Christ’s work is accomplished through Christ’s body. The church—gathered in worship on Sunday and scattered through its members throughout the week—is able to do exponentially more than any of us alone. I can respond to Christ’s call in one or two ways, but I am a part of an organism and organization that can respond and serve in a million ways.
I can always pray right now. Prayer can feel like the biggest burden of all. We can always pray more, and we can’t possibly pray for every need in the world. Even if we are extremely organized and disciplined, we won’t be able to consistently pray for more than a handful of people and problems. But that doesn’t mean our prayers are limited to the items we can write on a 3 × 5 card. If your aunt’s cousin has upcoming heart surgery, pray immediately after you hear about it. When a missionary shares her requests, pray right on the spot for them. Don’t let the moment pass you by. Pray a short prayer. Trust God for the results and, in many cases, move on.
Jesus didn’t do it all. Jesus didn’t meet every need. He left people waiting in line to be healed. He left one town to preach to another. He hid away to pray. He got tired. He never interacted with the vast majority of people on the planet. He spent thirty years in training and only three years in ministry. He did not try to do it all. And yet, he did everything God asked him to do.
Take Time to Be Holy
I pray that nothing in this encourages you to embrace cheap grace or easy believism. We all have a cross to carry. But it’s a cross that kills our sins, smashes our idols, and teaches us the folly of self-reliance. It’s a cross that says I’ll do anything to follow Jesus, not a cross that says I have to do everything for Jesus.
No doubt some Christians need to be shaken out of their lethargy and to get busy for the kingdom. But many Christians are too busy already. I can take “redeem the time” (see Eph. 5:16, KJV) as a summons to better time management when in reality it’s a call to be holy more than a call to possess the seven habits of highly effective people. I can turn every “is” into an “ought.” I can overlook the role that necessity and proximity play in establishing divine obligations.3 I can forget that my circle of influence will inevitably be smaller than my circle of concern.
Above all, I can lose sight of the good news that the universe is not upheld by the word of my power (see Heb. 1:3). That’s Christ’s work, and no one else can do it. Hallelujah—he doesn’t even expect me to try.
- See my chapter “The Pleasure of God and the Possibility of Godliness,” in The Hole in Our Holiness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
- Tim Dearborn, Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission (Federal Way, WA: World Vision, 1997).
- Cf. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 183–186, 225. See also my article “Stewardship, Obligation, and the Poor,” at http://www.9marks.org /journal/obligation-stewardship-and-poor.
This content was originally published on Crossway