Friday, November 6, 2009

Neither to the Right Hand Nor to the Left

And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of David his father, and declined neither to the right hand, nor to the left. (2 Chron. 34: 2)

There is an attitude common among believers that it is not possible to be "too" zealous for God. After all, God expects us to be perfect, and perfection is a mighty tall order, nothing that any of us are capable of achieving in this life time. So our striving for perfection can know no bounds, if we want to be worthy for God's kingdom, right? So all manner of zealousness is justified in the name of holiness.

I remember imbibing particularly deeply of that spirit when I was a missionary in the MTC. We were all expected to get up at 6 A.M. to begin our morning routines with showers, prayers, and scripture study. So I set my alarm clock for 5 A.M. If we were expected to pray and study for an hour before breakfast, I wanted to get in two hours. That kind of zeal was common. I remember one day, when we were at the gym, our gym instructor was leading us in a set of "squat thrusts," a particularly vigorous, heart-racing exercise. I could see across the gym from where I was working out, one elder going a bit too hard at it. He was starting to look pale and clammy and shaky. But the gym instructor was shouting to the entire class: "Harder, faster!" And he was obeying. The next thing I knew, this elder had collapsed to the floor, and they were literally carrying him out. I think he was ultimately OK, but it was a scary moment.

That tendency to want to "go the extra mile" is lauded, both in our religious and our secular culture. It is seen as a sign of true obedience and piety. But it is worth noting the context of Christ's admonition that "whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." Christ was offering a series of admonitions related to the manner in which his followers should respond to injustice. Someone strikes your cheek, turn the other. Someone unjustly takes your coat, offer your cloak. Some exegeses of the "extra mile" text remind us that under Roman rule, a legionnaire could compel subjects of the empire to carry a burden for them for one mile. It was a symbol of a dreaded and unjust authority making unreasonable demands upon us. Christ's teaching had the potential to liberate the oppressed by reminding them that love is stronger than hate. That is the purpose and context of that phrase.

God does not -- unlike the Romans in Jesus' time -- put unjust or unreasonable demands upon us. And zeal that goes beyond the law is uncalled for, actually rejected by God as impiety. The apostle Peter exhibited the all too human response to go beyond what is called for, when Christ washed the disciples' feet. (See John 13.) First Peter refused to allow his feet to be washed, feeling he couldn't allow the master to wash the feet of the servant. When Christ insisted "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me," Peter anxiously replied, "Lord, not my feet only, but my hands and my head." Christ felt obliged to correct him with the rebuke, "He that is washed needeth save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit" (vss. 8-10).

The principle is simple. What God expects of us is obedience to what he asks of us, neither more nor less than what is asked of us. This is the true meaning of the text found at the very end of the Book of Revelation: "If any man shall add to these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life." There is always the temptation -- on the left hand, to do less than required, on the right hand, to do more. True obedience, true piety, does neither, declining neither to the right hand, nor to the left.

This requires focus, patience, and discipline. It requires listening to the Spirit, asking and opening ourselves to know what God would have us do right here, right now. This requires us to stop worrying. Our minds are so often racing far ahead of where we need to be and what we need to be doing in the now. Our worry, our fear, causes us to lose track of ourselves, to stray, to add, to decline, to steady the ark of God we should simply be carrying.

This is the true righteousness: listening.


Bravone said...

Very timely for me. Thanks John.

Sean said...

Beautifully said, Thanks. I remember those days of the MTC gym, not very fondly I might add.