The Christian life is not a formula. You cannot simply maintain a daily to-do list with the assumption that, if you have crossed each item off the list by day’s end, you will experience the desired results and feelings. A regimented devotional life, a perfect parenting strategy executed to perfection, and a list of rules for members of the church will always leave people deeply disappointed when life does not go as expected.
At the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul gives a long list of instructions for the Christian life that is a to-do list of sorts. Yet, it achieves something far richer than an earthly formula. He tells us to:
- Respect those who labor among you
- Esteem them very highly in love
- Be at peace among yourselves
- Admonish the idle
- Encourage the fainthearted
- Help the weak
- Be patient with them all
- See to it that no one repays evil for evil
- Seek to do good to one another and to everyone
- Rejoice always
- Pray without ceasing
- Give thanks in all circumstances
- Do not quench the Spirit
- Do not despise prophecies
- Test everything
- Hold fast to what is good
- Abstain from every form of evil
This list teaches us how to relate to those in authority and to those in the body of Christ and beyond. It instructs us how to communicate with God. It tells us how to respond to God’s revelation. It is a worthwhile exercise to copy this list for a day and check yourself against it.
Far from allowing us to think we have accomplished something great for God or merited his favor, these activities and attitudes reveal our total dependence on God for life as we exercise them. They guide us humbly to the Lord himself, in whom we have life.
They also prepare us for the days when nothing goes well, when it seems that all we receive is evil for the good that we do. Those who learn to trust Christ more deeply through these disciplines are the ones best equipped to walk with him more faithfully in adverse circumstances. Will we feel better by praying one day without ceasing? Maybe, or maybe not. But a person who spends a decade praying without ceasing will know the presence of God that will give grace to weather the greatest trials.
Last week, my Purdue Boilermakers played basketball at Iowa. The point guard dribbled the ball up the court and signaled a play. The play that was called - the formula, if you will - failed and did not initially produce the desired open shot. But, all five players kept screening, cutting, and passing. In the face of adversity, they just did the things they had practiced thousands of times. Each man was faithful, and eight passes later they scored on a layup. One commentator observed that this was not a great basketball play, it was just playing great basketball.
In the Christian life, we do not want to be people who are great at keeping a list of rules; we want to be a people who are ruled by Christ down to the smallest details. That involves keeping his commands, and working through our to-do list until it becomes second nature, but only as a means of expressing our trust in him. Then, when life doesn’t go as planned, we still know how to trust him.
The most encouraging words of 1 Thessalonians follow this list of instructions. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, Paul prayed:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (ESV)
Jesus has already finished the work of atonement at the cross. He is reigning and will come again. Because of of the work he has done for us, we are assured that God will do this work in us. So let's take up our to-do list daily, knowing that it is graciously given by our faithful God.