My friend saw a guy running in Regent’s Park the other day, red-faced and gasping painfully for air, pounding the pavement in a ‘never give up’ tshirt.
Her first thought was: “This guy might need a lesson in grace.”
My thought on hearing that story was: “That’s me.”
All my life, my dearest-held belief is that my performance will earn acceptance. My teens and 20s saw me joining every club and fraternity I could buy the uniform for, and crying miserably into my pillow when I got a less than satisfactory grade. I volunteered for everything, wanting to help out everywhere, and then had to bail on my commitments when I inevitably found out I couldn’t do it all.
I’ve written before about how, when layered over with the kind of guilt we Christians specialise in, we end up getting all tied up in a knot about things like our ‘calling’, spending long hours splitting hairs over the difference between ‘vocations’ and ‘jobs’, and wondering whether it’s God’s will that we picked salt and vinegar over smokin’ hot BBQ.
I’ve taken online tests that only just stop short of telling me God’s will for my life – turns out even algorithms currently can’t work this out – and have taken all the personality tests, spiritual gifts tests, and determine-your-ideal-career-by-your-blood-type quizzes that a woman can take.
Partly this is a drive towards purpose and meaning, partly it’s a little OCD, and also possibly a little bit about some sense that I know God probably has things He’d like me to do, and I really want to do them. I want to see works of God in my life, you know? At least one wheelchair healing, please God!
So when I was reading recently in John 6, a verse jumped right off the page at me. Verse 29 of the passage reads: “Then they said to him: ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’” This is directly after the feeding of the 5,000.
Jesus replies: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent [emphasis mine].”
So, hang on: Jesus is saying that more important than anything I do, any work of God that I can conjure up in my head, any healing or miracle which I might see take place in my lifetime, is the simple invitation: “Believe in me.”
This doesn’t compute.
There’s this old phrase that I really love, which Wiki tells me was written by Robert Browning: “God’s in His Heaven – all’s right with the world!”
Even though Browning meant this ironically, I sometimes repeat it to myself when I’m tempted to view the latest minor inconvenience or mishap in my life too seriously. Like this morning, where I spilled my entire cup of coffee over my beloved collection of expensive, beautiful indie magazines – actually no, still raging about that. Serenity, now!
The thing is, this verse in John places everything exactly where it should be. Belief in Jesus, and all that it implies, puts the world back to order; things are in their natural state. Obviously, terrorism still exists, relationships still break down, and coffee – or milk, natch – still gets spilt; but actually, there’s this natural state of affairs that exists, whether we’re aware of it or not, just outside the busyness and fear and doubt of today. We just need to stop and become aware of what already exists.
It’s taken me quite a while to start to get comfortable with the idea that this faith I have is about being rather than doing. That it’s about rest, not restlessness.
After years of striving for acceptance from God through my hand-wringing, navel-gazing and over-volunteering ways, I’ve finally started to believe that Jesus is someone who says: “The first thing you need to do, if you want to do anything for me, is to STOP. Just believe. We can take the rest from there.”