I’ve been on the buses a fair bit over the last six months. The first time in a long time. We live close to Canning Highway and every second Thursday I have a morning-long meeting with a client in Palmyra who is also located on the highway. It’s a twenty-five-minute car drive or a half-hour bus drive, and I’ve discovered I can be a whole lot more productive on the bus than in the car. There’s the added bonus of getting to de-brief the meetings on the way home and look as though I know what I’m doing with a SmartRider.
As fun as it is, I’ve realised there’s a big different between catching the bus because I choose to and catching the bus because I have no other option.
Right now, I’m on the bus to an appointment in Cottesloe via my regular meeting in Palmyra. I don’t find the six different stops a hassle, because right now, it’s an adventure. It may be adding twenty minutes to my journey, but it’s an adventure. Armed with my SmartRider, laptop and notebook, I feel as though I’m at the peak of my productive powers. Mind you, I could have ridden a scooter and, on another day taken the car, but I’ve chosen to catch the bus.
If I felt like I had to catch the bus I probably wouldn’t feel so fond of the idea. If I had no license, no vehicle and no other options, I’d feel forced into a corner and pretty soon I’d come to resent these bus trips. I’d equate them with a lack of liberty and freedom.
We’re not so different when it comes to responding to God. The difference between legalistic obligation and a grace-driven response couldn’t be starker — but only if you’re looking at the heart. The outward sign would look little different. Either way, you’re on the bus, right?
My response to God can be fuelled by obligation. While it’s not what he wants for me, there’s enough ammunition to frame it so. When I look to his grace and experience the joy and freedom that comes from being in His presence, though, I want more of it. And so I respond with grace and holiness. I hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not because it’s a legal obligation or a productive task (in the terms of productivity I alluded to earlier) but because as I hunger and thirst, I’m filled and blessed.
It’s only in responding to truth that I enjoy that blessing. Not a rigid, religious or formulaic response, but one that’s moved by God’s action towards me in Jesus.
A focus on the often-empty religious acts separated from His presence leaves me with little; perhaps a few trophies of self-righteousness, but mostly dry obligation that fools me into thinking that Jesus wants to rob my joy, not restore it.
The thing I’ve discovered with bus-riding, and with obedience and good works: frame it as ‘obligation’ and it becomes cumbersome, laborious and dutiful. Even if it’s good.
Our tendency in framing ‘works as bad’ will be to consider any response that can seen as a good work to also be bad. That’s shoddy thinking. Gracious responses to God’s goodness will produce the fruit of good works. That doesn’t make the fruit and good works bad, they’re the good produce of a healthy root.
If you’ve built a rigid theology of works = bad, though, you’re going to resist response and obedience just so you don’t fall into a (supposed) trap of self-righteousness. That’s a bit like me refusing to hug my wife in fear that she might think I have some ulterior motive. Ok, sometimes I do.
Paul encourages us to never weary in doing good. It’s not a slavish obligation; it’s a joyful response.
It’s our penchant for abstraction, not God’s desire for us to demonstrate our understanding of his unconditional, free-flowing grace that stops us in our tracks. Or a simple excuse for our lethargy. One of those.
We talk at The Big Table of Jesus birthing a church that is a fellowship of the willing not an institution of obligation, that’s us and works as well. If I want to reframe my bus-riding as ‘obligation’, I can choose to at any moment. I’ll be the loser in that exchange. Because bus-riding is a good thing.