The word “simple” used to be applied to people as a label for “average” or “unintelligent” or “unsophisticated.” Now I think it’s refreshing to hear the word simple. Our lives in postmodern society have become anything but simple. I think there’s a deep thirst in our souls for simplicity, for life to slow down and for us to see and embrace what really matters. Instead, most people continue on chasing their dreams, trying to achieve success, and pretending that being busy makes them important. There is an identity crisis in our race today. Who am I? In a consumerist society, people buy into the marketing mindset that they can purchase their identity. I am what I wear or where I eat out. Others still labor under the impression in an achievement based culture that their salaries and job titles offer their source of identity. I am six figures or a successful doctor or a parent of kids who are getting good grades. The Christian worldview offers a different statement of identity. The gospel subverts our attempts to define ourselves by either image, possessions, or achievements. Let’s consider how Scripture denies us these options and what replaces them.
Before King David was king, he was little shepherd boy David. The youngest of eight sons, David has the task of tending the family sheep on the hillside. Then the prophet Samuel, directed by God, came to David’s father’s house looking for the next king of Israel. When Samuel saw Jesse’s oldest son Eliab, he was impressed by his appearance. Likely handsome and strong, Eliab seemed to be a good choice for the position of king. Then the Lord spoke subversive words to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Eventually after passing on all seven of Jesse’s sons that were there, Samuel asked Jesse if he had any more sons. Jesse was now the one surprised: “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” In other words, “What do you need him for? He’s just the runt of the family, out with the sheep. Look at all my other fine strapping boys here.” Samuel insists on seeing David, and then anoints him as the next king. The lesson is that image isn’t everything. External or self-crafted image is only valuable in jockeying for position in the ranks of other insecure or self-absorbed humans. More important that image, is substance. More important than the resume is the character. How many incredibly gifted athletes sign lucrative professional contracts and then fizzle out of their leagues a few years later after multiple legal problems and character issues? God says that our identity begins with the intangibles, what’s beneath the surface in our souls that belong to him.
In a materialistic culture, possessions become the measuring stick of a person. We often judge people and are judged not by the quality of the person, but by the square-footage of their house or manufacturer of their car. But that’s not the way of the gospel. When a guy came to Jesus for help getting the most out of his father’s inheritance, Jesus subverted the man’s desired way to construct his identity with a statement that also undercuts contemporary American society: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Then Jesus tells a story about a man who had a bumper crop—far more than he needed—and he built new storehouses so he could keep it all for himself. But then God says to the man in the parable: “Fool! This night our soul is required of you and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” That’s the problem inherent in attaching our identity to things that are transitory: when the things go, we do too. And so what about the identity of people who lose their homes—all they have—to a hurricane or tornado? If they defined themselves by their possessions, then their identity got destroyed along with their stuff. The gospel has a better way: we’re not defined by perishable possessions, but by an eternal home.
The other common way to define self is through achievement. That’s why so often when we introduce ourselves to someone we include our jobs. When you think of who you are, what comes to mind first? For many people their identity is their activity. Consequently, we find this disease of busyness rampantly taking the life out of good, beautiful people. They are beloved by God but they feel they only count for how much they get done. The story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home is a classic and relevant example of this. “Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).
In this story Mary and Martha offer us a contrast in our responses to Jesus. Martha tries to achieve; Mary decides to receive. Martha thinks God cares about her efforts; Mary believes Jesus cares about her attentiveness. Notice also that Martha actually gets upset with Mary, who isn’t doing anything to help. She appeals to Jesus in a way that maybe strikes to close to home for some: “Jesus, look at all that I’m doing for you. And Mary is just sitting there. Don’t you care that I’m so busy for you but she’s only sitting around?” Since when did we come to believe that Jesus needed us to do so many things for him? Since when did we come to think that we earn Jesus’ approval by being busy for him? American Christians often live like Martha, trying to stay busy for God, maybe so that we don’t have time to open our souls before him. That’s a harder and more painful thing, to listen to Jesus speak to our hurt and insecurities. Jesus tells Martha that she is “anxious and troubled about many things.” Does that describe you? Perhaps the reason is that you are trying to achieve too much when “one thing is necessary:” to receive the work of Christ in you—to sit at his feet and listen.
Those who embrace this confessional perspective—that the life of faith is first about receiving grace not in achieving image, wealth, or status—come to live with gratitude and joy. Each day is an experience of the life of Christ, in all his fullness, replacing our broken lives of striving and worrying. We know well the traditional wisdom, “To give is better than to receive.” But when it comes to faith, we cannot give unless we first receive and continue daily to receive anew.