“I’m anxious that I don’t do enough for God.” This statement arrives every week in our inbox. We hear it all the time. In this case, it comes from a young man, a listener to the podcast. “Thank you, Pastor John, for APJ. I am a follower of Jesus, and I just had a question about anxiety, and becoming more like Jesus with that anxiety. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed because of what seems like a mounting list of things I must do to become like Jesus. I feel stressed out because I want to please God, but it feels like there are so many things to do: kill sin, grow in fruits of the Spirit, be the best worker I can be, live and pour myself out to my community (church), pursue people to disciple (mission), live a healthy lifestyle, Sabbath properly, and also endure suffering.
“I know Jesus said in this world we will have trouble and he has overcome the world (John 16:33), but it just seems like there are so many things I need to do. Do I focus on certain things over others? Or try to focus a little bit on everything? At the end of the day, all I want to hear is: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25:23).”
That’s a pretty impressive list of things to do that he gives:
- Kill sin.
- Grow in the fruits of the Spirit.
- Be the best worker I can be.
- Pour yourself out for your church.
- Pursue people to disciple.
- Live a healthy lifestyle.
- Sabbath properly.
- Endure suffering.
Oh my. But I think it will be helpful — even though at first it won’t seem helpful — to make sure that this young man sees that the situation is way more burdensome than he thinks it is, if he keeps approaching the Christian life a certain way.
New Testament To-Do List
For example, take this list from Ephesians 4:
- Put away falsehood.
- Speak the truth.
- Be angry.
- Do not sin.
- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
- Give no opportunity to the devil.
- Don’t steal.
- Do honest work.
- Share with everyone in need.
- Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth.
- Give grace to those who hear.
- Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit.
- Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor.
- Be kind to one another.
- Be tenderhearted.
- Be forgiving.
Or what about this list from Romans 12:
- Show genuine love.
- Abhor what is evil.
- Hold fast to what is good.
- Outdo one another in showing honor.
- Do not be slothful in zeal.
- Be fervent in spirit.
- Serve the Lord.
- Rejoice in hope.
- Be patient in tribulation.
- Be constant in prayer.
- Contribute to the needs of the saints.
- Show hospitality.
- Bless those who persecute you.
- Rejoice with those who rejoice.
- Weep with those who weep.
- Live in harmony with everyone.
- Do not be haughty.
- Associate with the lowly.
- Never be wise in your own sight.
- Repay no one evil for evil.
- Do what’s honorable in the sight of all.
- Live peaceably with all.
- Don’t avenge yourselves.
- Don’t be overcome with evil.
- Overcome evil with good.
That’s 41 things that we are commanded to do just in two short passages. Do you think that’s heavy? Let me make it really heavy. Do you know how many imperatives there are in Paul’s thirteen letters? 431. Do you know how many imperatives there are in the General Epistles? 128. Do you know how many imperatives there are in the Gospels? 1,022. So there you are. You want a list to be anxious about? How about 1,500 imperatives for your list? So you have to make things worse sometimes in order to see wisdom.
“Paul did not give us 431 imperatives in his letters for us to skip them and ignore them.”
What does that mean? It means that the Christian life, approached a certain way, is simply unlivable. To be specific: if you are trying to give focused, special attention to each of the individual commands of the New Testament, which would be about 1,800, you can’t do it — not because you’re lazy or worldly or sinful, but because you’re finite; your brain is finite. Nobody can remember, let alone focus all day long, on 1,800 duties. You can’t keep that many things in your head, let alone give attention and prayerful effort to each one.
So, what are we supposed to do? The answer is not — underline this — “Oh well, I guess obedience doesn’t matter. It’s clear: obedience doesn’t matter. God doesn’t care if we keep his commandments.” Our young friend who wrote this question (he didn’t tell us what his name is), he’s got that right: obedience matters. He’s right: seeking to please the Lord by doing what honors the Lord matters. It’s a confirmation of our right standing, our new birth, our authentic faith; it matters. You don’t blow obedience out the window because there are 1,800 commands that you can’t obey by focusing on them with direct, moment-by-moment attention; that’s not the answer.
Let me make three observations that I think point the way to how God wants us to fulfill his words, his commandments. And I’m assuming that justification by faith alone is behind us — settled. We have a right standing with God because we have put our faith in Jesus as our redemption and our wisdom and our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). The effort to bring our lives into conformity to God’s imperatives is not an effort to get right with God; our aim is to be conformed to Christ for his glory — from being right with God.
1. Be transformed from within by the Spirit.
Here’s observation number one. Each of those two lists that I gave, one from Ephesians 4 and one from Romans 12, interestingly and crucially began with the general call for us to be deeply transformed from within so that the fruit of our lives grows naturally on the tree of renewal, rather than each fruit being pushed out by some intentional effort. For example, Romans 12:2 says, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
We should give ourselves to being deeply renewed, deeply transformed from within, so that the discernment of the will of God in a hundred cases comes like fruit on a tree, not like calculated steps through a minefield. We see the same thing in Ephesians 4:22–24, but I won’t take the time to read that.
So, that’s my first observation: think first and foremost in terms of being transformed from within by the Spirit, by embracing with faith a new self that God has created and is working in us by the Spirit, which then overflows with proper responses in a hundred situations spontaneously.
2. Renew faith, hope, and love.
Realize that the New Testament portrays some responses of the soul as roots and hundreds of others as fruits of obedience. Some acts are root; some are fruit. So, we should focus on the deepening and the strengthening and the intensifying of roots like faith, hope, and love. Each one of those in the New Testament is pictured as producing life — the rest of life, the rest of obedience.
Faith produces the obedience of faith, Paul calls it (Romans 1:5; 16:26). A hundred good fruits come from having a right, restful grasp of the sufficiency of Christ and the promises he’s made. Hope — same thing — gives rise to behaviors of freedom and love. Love is described as the sum and source of all other commandment-keeping. Paul puts it like this:
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment [that’s amazing: any other commandment], are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9–10)
Implication: give yourself to the kind of inner spiritual renewal that deepens and intensifies these root virtues of faith and hope and love.
3. Use imperatives to your advantage.
Paul did not give us 431 imperatives in his letters for us to skip them and ignore them and say, “All we need to do is go deep with love, and we can just ignore the imperatives and not read the second half of his letter, because that’ll just turn us into legalists anyway.” Now, that’s a mistake that many people make, and it undermines biblical holiness. It tries to be wiser than God. Oh, how many mistakes are made in the church by Christians who think they can be wiser than God by drawing inferences from things that he does not draw. He gives us these imperatives.
“The Christian life, approached a certain way, is simply unlivable.”
Those imperatives, 431 of them, are not there by accident; they are there as signposts for our souls to see how we are doing in the deeper process of transformation. They help us; they don’t get in the way. And the Holy Spirit uses the specific commands — like “show hospitality,” “don’t use coarse language,” “flee fornication,” and 400 others — as litmus tests to see whether our efforts at transformation are, in fact, bearing good fruit.
So, my closing word to our young friend is this: Thank God for your concern with pleasing the Lord and wanting to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Thank God that you care about obedience and pleasing the Lord in your behavior. I don’t want you to ignore the specifics of the New Testament.
But I do want you to step back and realize that a focus on the specifics alone is hopeless; there are too many of them. Let the beauties of Christ, and the greatness of his work for you, and the spectacular preciousness of his promises, and the power of the Holy Spirit work a deep work of transformation in your life. And then let the focus be on the specifics as a way of gauging the temperature of your transformation.