If I have heard that phrase once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Over the past couple of decades, I have heard staff members from multiple facilities repeat this phrase as they admonish their charges. From tiny little seven-year-old girls who are spazzing out and bouncing off the walls to hulking eighteen year old young men, that phrase echoes across the years. You need to work your program. What does that mean? Context is everything. In the halls of drug rehab programs, specific coursework, classes, activities, are required for program completion. Our partner facilities all have therapists who set up an individualized treatment plan for each child that lays out their specific goals. To one student, ‘work your program’ may have something to do with anger management and aggressive behavior. For another, ‘work your program’ may have something to do with manipulation and deception of staff. Many years ago I worked with a little boy whose treatment plan (among other things) required him to abstain from collecting child pornography. His experience with severe and repetitive molestation had left him craving images of small children. ‘Working his program’ meant that he would not steal pictures of toddlers from magazines and hoard them under his bed. So many of the young people I speak with in facilities today gauge their progress based on this concept. How much time do I have left until I get to leave here? Am I working my program? What have I accomplished here? There’s a lot of value in simplifying the process, creating a framework that allows the child to see specific goals and action steps that they can take to move towards healthy alternatives. But the truth is, none of us are really interested in seeing these kids compile a list of completed tasks. What we are looking for is real change- the kind of change that the prophet Isaiah spoke of.
We want to see addicts freed from the chains of dependence. We want to see rage-o-holics transformed by deep and abiding peace. It is not enough that the suicidal attempts stop, or that the constant self-harm ceases. We want to see these little ones so filled up with a deep sense of self-worth and satisfaction that suicide becomes nonsensical. You see, real change is not found in a checklist of completing tasks. Real change is something deeper, something more elusive. These youth arrive in residential programs and they are given a checklist of specific goals- tasks that are supposed to collectively form a path towards change. These programs are not in and of themselves a bad thing. They are useful, especially if they help lead a child towards the soul change that they so desperately need. I can see that these little ones are not the only ones in need of deep change.
I am beginning to discover that my own spiritual life has been a sad story of task completion. Like some holy checklist, I have spent much of my life obsessing over whether I have ‘worked the program.’ And while the specific tasks of spiritual formation are not in themselves wrong, my own strange obsession with the checklist has left me in many ways missing the point. Have you been saved? Have you been baptized? Are you sanctified? Are you volunteering? Have you learned this teaching? Have you heard that speaker? Have you read this book? Like rungs on the ladder I have spent my life climbing so many steps of the spiritual life. I attack them methodically, seeking to hang them on the wall as trophies of a mature believer.
This focus on task completion bleeds into every aspect of my spiritual life. Have I read my Bible today? Did I have my devotional time? Was it sufficiently long enough? Was the volume of scripture that I read significant enough? How does my attendance at various spiritual activities look over the past quarter? Have I repented of this sin? What about that sin? What about that other sin? (Yes, It’s true. For those of you counting, I have sinned three times!) The problem with a culture of spiritual task achievement is that it seems that we keep going back. We need to repeat the same tasks over and over again. After a lifetime of repetitive spiritual activity, I’m beginning to wonder when I can finally check certain things off of the list.
The further into this journey I go, the more I stumble over words that seem to have nothing to do with task completion. Words like abide. Remain. Rest. Dwell. Jesus’ teaching to the disciples in John chapter fifteen is a perfect example of the multitude of passages in the scripture that point to something deeper than spiritual checklists and task completion. Jesus declared to his followers, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” The invitation repeated over and over again in those moments was an invitation- ‘Abide in Me. . . .Remain in Me.’ The life that Christ was offering to that small gathering of men is the same life He offers to each of us. Not a checklist of tasks to be completed, not a membership to the club, but something deeper– something truly revolutionary.
I don’t have the space to even begin here, but Incarnational Living is offered to all of us. Just as Jesus brought the Divine nature to a human form, we are invited to similarly live an incarnational reality; as Peter phrased it, ‘partaking in the Divine nature.’ Paul reflected this mystery in the phrase ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’
This is not to say that the many checklists of my spiritual life are a bad thing. In fact, it seems that these disciplines carry in them the potential to lead me to deeper life in Christ. But when I focus on these spiritual tasks as the be-all and end-all of my spiritual life, I am getting the cart ahead of the horse. The gospel is summoning us into deeper life, real life; not an invitation into doing differently, but being differently. A moment by moment shift in who I am rather than a regimented prescription for what I must now do. The doing flows out of the being, not the other way around.
But like so many kids who feel trapped in repetitive loops of residential treatment, I find myself attempting to accomplish change through a list of do’s and don’ts. My task-oriented self is a very busy guy, muddling through multiple overlapping checklists for God, family, work, church, friends, and stuff management. The lists never end! It is kind of funny. In the off chance that I ever do go on a vacation, I land somewhere out of state and immediately begin making a list of the things I need to do on my vacation. My task-oriented self is not remotely interested in ‘being’ over ‘doing.’ My task-oriented self has no use for quiet, solitude, or stillness. My task-oriented self is extremely self-satisfied when the checkmarks on the list multiply. My task-oriented self is occasionally willing to compromise and add ‘abide in Christ’ to the bottom of the checklist, but he has limited timeframes for ‘abiding.’
But there is a deeper part of me that yearns for connection. I feel a soul level desperation for moments of connection with my wife and kids, or with a friend. I thirst for those elusive flashes of deep connection with God. And these moments of ‘being’ are something altogether different from my checklist oriented life.
Jesus famously expressed his preference when visiting with His good friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Mary was stealing moments simply basking in Jesus presence. I can only imagine the laughter, the stories, and the profound gems that were flowing in that room. But Martha was missing out- dealing with all of the necessities of hosting an important guest. So many of us resonate all too well with Martha’s heart. Jesus, look! See all the stuff I have done for you! I have toiled for hours, do you like what I have made? Dear friend, can you hear Jesus’ response? Drop the dishrag, abandon your broom, and quit worrying about whether dinner will be served promptly at six! I have come for you, not your checklist.
My task-oriented self reduces communion with Christ to a moment in my schedule at a specific place. Communion becomes a rigorous, carefully observed production instead of a minute by minute revolution in the way I experience life. Jesus intentionally chose the eating of a meal as the iconic rite of remembrance for his own death. It is sad and ironic how we have transformed the Lord’s Supper into something flat and non-relational. We endure communion in silence and piety, then we all go out for a relaxing lunch and enjoy one another’s company. I wonder if Jesus longs to join us for that second lunch?
My task-oriented self reduces the fruit of the Spirit into a homework assignment that I never seem to be able to complete. In fact, I often experience most scripture as a demand, something to be added to the ever growing checklist of spiritual growth. But I fail to see that the Fruit of the Spirit is literally a product that emanates from God- it is not something that I produce apart from Him. My task-oriented self strives to achieve good fruit as its own end. Once again the cart is before the horse. Jesus made it clear that good fruit would flow out of our connection to Him, the source of life, as we navigate our days in Him. Simply discovering what Eugene Peterson calls the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ will naturally cause good things to cascade out of my life. Those who are in communion with Him live in an outflow of deep relational fruit. There I discover real love of God, others, and myself, true peace, and freedom.
These days Jesus is inviting me to stop working my program and simply embrace His presence.
And I am not putting that on my to-do list.