In all my sojourning around YouTube looking for interesting stuff to alarm and delight me, I lost several hours listening to a person who I believe is very famous—she’s one of Oprah’s go-to people—sharing with the wide world an important discovery she made. In brief, her testimony goes something like this: She was very busy, over-busy, because she is a person who knows how to get things done. She is terrible at saying no because she’s super competent and also likes to make people happy. But then one day it was just too much and she couldn’t do it all anymore. A friend gave her permission to take back her life, which she did by realigning everything. She went through all the components of her identity and figured out which of them were essential for her. No one else could be a mother to her children, so that was obviously important, or a wife to her husband, or a best friend to her best friend. All the other things that she does are not crucial and so now she feels free to let them be secondary. You only have this one life, she concluded as so many do, and you don’t have that many times that you can reset it.
In all the snatches of interviews I watched, this person was always billed as a Christian. I was, therefore, interested to see what she had to say about the Christian life, so I watched half an hour of something that was called a “Bible Study” wherein she—sitting outside of some cozy woodsy cabin—explained that we all have a “besetting sin” or a “shadow side,” for her its pride and gluttony, that we have to battle against because whatever it is will keep us from being our best selves for all the important people in our lives, and for our own happiness.
So anyway, this is the old testament reading for this morning and I think it is pretty great:
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
At this point in the text, Israel has had a hard time with Moses, and with God for that matter. They had very much wanted to get out of slavery in Egypt. They were exhausted by their burdens, miserable about having to make bricks all the time without straw, unhappy about the slavedrivers pushing them along and threatening and then beating them. And of course, when they had to throw their babies in the river, that was the worst. So they cried out to God, and as you know, he said, ‘You can change your life and not be so busy all the time, it’s up to you. You have this one life and what are you going to do? Waste it on being unhappy? Don’t you want to be a great mom? Don’t you want to enjoy your children and your life?’ And so, of course, the people of Israel were delighted because they hadn’t thought of it like that, and so they went and told Pharaoh that they wouldn’t be making bricks anymore. They downloaded the Oprah app and learned how to meditate so that when the slavedrivers came along to beat them, they were able to remind themselves that all pain is a subjective experience that can be transcended by enlightenment—oh wait, maybe I am mashing several spiritual teachings together.
I’m kidding, of course. The people of Israel needed help to get out of Egypt, but they also needed help because they were slaves to sin, and that was chiefly why they were often so frustrated with God and Moses all those long years in the desert. Being enslaved by Pharaoh, it turned out, was just an icon of the bondage that each of us has to ourselves. We are sinners, we are enslaved by deep entrapping self-love. We can’t get out of it. It drives us along, straight into the eternal embrace of the devil and all his works.
Still, if you spend any amount of time listening to the spiritual teachers of today you will hear a kind of language of sin, a shadow version, one might call it. You will hear a mountain of problems heaped up by whoever it is that is going to peddle a solution—usually under the guise of you buying a book or a course or entrance into a conference to hear them talk. The problems are always things that are probably making you unhappy. You’re too busy. You’re putting the wrong things first. You feel exhausted. You’re not living the life you thought you would live. You don’t know how to say no. Your to-do list is your master. You aren’t connecting with your husband very well. You aren’t the best mom you could be.
The spiritual teacher will gaze at you through the lens of the camera and you’ll know she’s describing you. You don’t even have your life together! Look at you! Are you even living an amazing life? Or are you stuck (as I usually am) doing another sink full of dishes?
So anyway, in Jesus’ Name Amen, I am here to tell you that that’s not the problem. You being too busy is not a sin. You not being present to your family in an optimal way is not a sin. You being unhappy and dissatisfied with your life is not a sin. You are not going to go to hell because you couldn’t get out from under your to-do list. In fact, if you are doing a sink full of dishes and are not being “mindful” of the dishes as you wash them, remembering to feel the feel of the water running over hands, pondering each food-encrusted fork as you try to pry three-day-old egg of the tines, really living into the moment of the whole dishwashing experience and not letting your mind wander, you are not even sinning.
If you say in your heart, ‘how can I know that the Lord has even spoken?’—which, incidentally, is a super, super good question to ask when you’re about to plunk down your money for another New York Times Best Selling Paper Back—you can lean back on your heels, crack open your Bible app, and find the answer by asking a few other questions. One, did this person even deign to say the name of Jesus as if she had even ever heard of him (and not as a swear word)? Two, does this person articulate in some way, however pathetic, that the heart of the human is always wicked continually who can even understand it? Three, did this person intimate that life might go on after this one? That this life isn’t “all there is,” that you actually do have lots of chances for a reset, it’s called Repentance and you can literally do it every single day and more than once during a day? Four, does the person know that God took on human flesh and came to earth at a particular moment in history to die for our sins? Five, does this person know that Jesus rose again from the dead, trampling down death, so that, as it goes in this morning’s gospel, the people are astonished not only by his power to heal and to cast out demons, but by the authority with which he teaches, wondering where it comes from? In a word, does the spiritual teacher you’re listening to know that you can’t solve your most essential problem—yourself—by yourself and that you need help? If not, then you can confidently exclaim yourself that “The Lord has not spoken.”
I mean, the great thing about the scriptures is that The Lord Hath Spoken. And he Hath Said so many clear things. But they are hard things. The chief one is the horror that you are so deeply not ok, you are so wickedly inclined toward yourself, that if you are trying to be more present in your life, you are only rearranging the deck chairs on your own private titanic. You need help. You need to be saved. And Jesus came to do just that. All you have to do is ask him to help you. And he will. He always helps and saves those who cry out to him.
So anyway, now I’m going to church, and guess what, my mind is going to wander a lot while I’m there, because I’m a human being, and that’s what human beings do.