I am in the car about 8 hours a week, so I like to have my mind occupied with something other than the weather and traffic, and I like a good book, especially if it is read by the author. I just finished listening to a very good book and was looking for another. And who am I kidding- I have a pile of books on my nightstand but I fall asleep reading them and listening to a book makes me feel accomplished—doing two things at once, effortlessly. You know that feeling when you have just finished a good book—or binge watched a good show—and you just want to keep going? I have heard addiction defined as a pattern you don’t want to break—and this is one of mine. So, I scanned the most popular books on Audible, because if everyone is doing it, it must be good.
I was looking for non-fiction—somehow I feel like you don’t get any credit for fiction—and I fell into the self-help category. (Actually, I think they have logarithms that pull up titles based on my browsing history—hmm, what have I been listening to?) Here are the Top books Audible suggested: (an are on the NYT list)
- Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered
- Girl, Wash Your Face
- Girl, Stop Apologizing
- Make Your Bed
- Take Control of Your Life
- Celery Juice: The Most Powerful Medicine of Our Time
(There were a few titles that started or contained F* but I didn’t list them because that’s a little awkward from the pulpitJ)
The gist of what these books say, in 20 seconds or less, is:
If you could just get honest with yourself, you could rise to the challenge of living, and although you may be winning in many areas (like celery consumption?), you are losing the mental game and that’s why “you can drink all the kale smoothies you like, read all the mainline self-help books, create the best morning routines and journal in your gratitude journal, but you will still feel stuck until you beat back the fear” (insert here whatever the author says you should do to be your best self and stop all this stuff).
In my book, if you are choking down kale smoothies and celery juice, you deserve a boatload of lifetime credits, if we believed in those.
The truth is, I was hooked. Hope springs eternal. Lists of ways to beat back the fear, tame the anxiety, and be my best self are right up my law-abiding alley. What I heard in these books were promises—if I did X, I could be the best self I was meant to be—the Y—which translated through my insecurities means, I could be like how you look. Successful like you look, cool like you look, in control like you look. I compare my insides to your outsides and set goals accordingly. If I only read/listen to the right book, I can be live up to my potential and be cool, like you.
Truth be told, these authors clearly point to the mundane reality of our lives, the back story of our game. They say we are our own worst enemies and we need to get out of our heads. They unmask us for the frauds we are, because we don’t want to change or surrender; what we really fear is losing control. They point to the self-destructive nature of our minds as Chief Lie Believers and Lie Creators to protect ourselves from being found out. Yes- you can, our Egos say, if you only know how. Knowledge and know-how are all you need—and a big mountain of self-discipline. We are hope-seeking creatures and we hear hope in these claims of complete self-rule.
Robert Capon reminds us, however,
“The world’s deepest problem is not badness as opposed to goodness; it is sin, the incurable human tendency to put self first, to trust number one and no one else. And that means that there is nothing – no right deed, however good, noble, lawful, thrifty, brave, clean, or reverent – that cannot be done for the wrong reason, that cannot be tainted and totally corrupted by sin… Life, therefore, for all its goodness – the act of living, for all its lawfulness and even occasional success – cannot save. I am sorry to disappoint you, but we are back at death – faith in Jesus’ death – as the only reliable guide, the only effective opposite to sin, which otherwise can play havoc with goodness and badness alike.
Do you see what that means? It means that we are saved not by our successes but in and through our failures – not by our lives but in our deaths. For our so-called lives and our vaunted successes cannot be saved. They are nothing but suits of obsolete armor, ineffective moral and spiritual contraptions we have climbed into to avoid facing the one thing that can save us: our vulnerability.”
We are vulnerable creatures and ‘goodness’ does not give us immunity from life on planet earth, with its cancers, hurricanes, infections, broken relationships, uncertainties, unending ladders of success and deep self-centeredness. Life is not a test of your faith. Jesus took that test for you—faked your ID so you could get out of the test because he loves you.
The point is, you cannot overcome the self with the self, it must come from outside of you with transformative love. Jesus Christ is the only power that can overcome your fears and relieve the heartache of being out of control. Theologian Mary Hinkle-Shore reminds us, “Suffering is not a sign of God’s lack of favor toward us chiefly because God has no lack of favor toward us. Rather God has shown outrageous generosity towards us.”
This is why St. Paul’s words in Romans 5 are such a relief to our hope-seeking souls. This passage, in five short verses, addresses faith, peace, grace, love, hope and suffering. “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” That is present tense stand—not past or future tense. You are standing in grace right now. And what does it mean to be justified by faith? This was at the core of the Reformation. We are made ‘right’ by faith—but it is not our faith. We can’t have enough faith to do that. It is Christ’s faithfulness, not ours that saves us. We are justified by Christ’s faith. Tim Keller says, “Faith is a “trust transfer.” It is the removing of one’s hopes and trust from other things to place them on God as Savior.” We trust in Christ’s faith.
We can make our bed, drink our smoothies and crack the self-discipline whip, but at the end of the day, we really have no other recourse but to trust God when we are faced with death—not just the end of our life but the deep-sixing of our conception of ourselves as limitless, powerful, knowledgeable and in control. When Paul says, “We boast in our sufferings,” he is absolutely not saying that we should be cheerful in our suffering, but that there is more than the suffering; with God there is always hope. Hope for our life during and beyond suffering, a life suffused by love and meaning. Where is God when we are suffering? God has given us each other as the means of grace and hope.
“And hope does not disappoint.” We receive grace through the friend who calls, the doctor who cares, the relative who encourages us, the loved one who cries with us, the parent who shows up, the child who grows up, the spouse who listens, the neighbor who waves, the school mate who waits to eat with us, the workmate who prays for us. These point to a hope both here and beyond here—seen and unseen. Luke 17 tells us, “The kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen.”
David Lose writes, “Hope is at the heart of the Christian faith, the possibility that this man Jesus can do something, that God is doing something you can’t see. That there is more than this.” This is not optimism or putting a positive spin on it. This is the promise that the God who self-sacrificed in Jesus Christ has been with us all along and will be with us forever.
One last story. In the movie, The Hunger Games, the despotic ruler President Snow asks the chief Games maker, Seneca, why they must have a winner for the life and death Hunger Games. The answer? Hope. Snow wants the oppressed people of Panem to have hope that maybe, just maybe, ‘the odds may be in their favor.’ He says something very important to us today, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.”
In the face of fear, Jesus gives you his faith and hope in things unseen and on the way. You don’t have to do anything but trust Him. Today is Father’s Day with your heavenly Father who loves you—especially if you haven’t washed your face or made your bed or gotten control of your life. Amen