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The Flesh is Willing but the Spirit is Weak

A good car will run a long time, if you take care of it. This is a comforting thought as I sit in a quiet corner of our local Honda dealership, so comforting that it almost makes me forget what this scheduled maintenance will cost us. Also comforting is the realization that, unless I want to watch TV in the waiting room (which I don’t), I have three quiet and largely useless hours to think whatever thoughts I want (provided I stay awake).

This feels like wasted time, except that it isn’t. I am enjoying three hours of being alone, with no one to talk to, and no one to listen to. My cell phone is quiet, and I don’t have access to the internet freak show and carnival. Whatever conversations are going on here at the Honda place are not my concern. In short, this is quality time. It’s quiet, I sense God’s presence, and there are no distractions.

This time is as much about my personal maintenance as it is about car maintenance. Unlike our Fit, I don’t need my oil replaced or my tires rotated or my fluids topped off. I do need, however, a time to call a time-out from my life, be still, and get perspective. In particular, I need to get God’s perspective.

It amazes me how many people—pastors included—wouldn’t think of ignoring their cars’ well-being, but don’t consider their own. If you don’t maintain your car, it gradually starts falling apart. The old, broken-down oil gunks-up the engine. The brakes start to depend more on luck than on the drums, and the engine starts to wheeze like an old emphysema patient. The car ends up scrap metal before it’s time.

Much the same can happen to pastors who fail to stop and pull over for maintenance. They get so caught up in the trip they forget they need rest-stops. Since it doesn’t feel like they’re going anywhere or doing anything worthwhile if they stop and creatively do “nothing,” they stay on the ministry interstate going 70 miles per hour, not realizing that all the postponed life-maintenance has rendered them unsafe at that speed. They end up crashing into recalcitrant deacon boards, antagonists, lethargic parishioners, and programs that looked good on paper but turned out to be soul-suckers.

Part of the problem is, life-maintenance doesn’t seem “spiritual.” Preaching is “spiritual.” Counseling is “spiritual.” So are worship leading, committee-leading, and visiting shut-ins. Days crammed with such activities (and others like them) make pastors feel good about themselves, whether they’ve accomplished anything significant or not. Yet, there’s that nagging, uncomfortable question we try to push aside, “Where was God in all of this activity?” Needing to feel like we’re accomplishing things, we fill our lives with ministry busy-ness, running from pillar to post, needing to feel needed, needing to justify our ministry through activity. In the fields ready for harvest, we labor as though God is an absentee landlord. The flesh is willing, but the Spirit is weak.

Maybe, what’s genuinely spiritual is to seek solitude and silence where God can look under the hood of our hearts. Is this self-absorption, a distraction from “ministry”? Is taking time for a spiritual tune-up a snare of the devil, a distraction from whatever it is we think God wants us to be doing at the moment?

The Bible tells us that spiritual maintenance work on our lives matters. In regard to this, I recently stumbled across one of the least noticed exhortations in the New Testament. Paul, saying farewell to the church leaders in Ephesus in Acts 20, charges them to “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers . . .” (Acts 20:28, ESV). For most pastors, perhaps, our eyes focus on the latter part of that verse, and don’t notice the first part. But doing so, we fail to notice the exhortation—the command—to “Pay careful attention to yourselves.” Vigilant for the health and spiritual well-being of the flock, we pastors are prone to checking everyone’s eyes for “specks” while ignoring the logs in our own eyes (Matthew 7:1-4).

This command to the Ephesian elders to “pay attention to yourselves” isn’t a one shot commandment either. Paul tells the Galatians not only to restore transgressors, but to “keep watch on yourself” too (Galatians 6:1, ESV). The odd little book of Jude tells us to “build yourselves up in your most holy faith” and to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 20,21, ESV). On the night of his betrayal, Jesus asks his disciples, “Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mark 14:37-38, ESV). Along the same lines, our Lord tells us not to indulge in end time speculation, but instead to live prepared for his coming by staying awake (Mark 13:32-37).

“Build yourselves up.” “Keep watch on yourself.” “Pay careful attention to yourselves.” “Stay awake.” If we need clear proof-texts to justify getting off the merry-go-round of compulsive ministry, here they are! But wait, as the infomercials say, there’s more, and that is the example of Jesus.

Jesus heard God tell him, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” and then headed into the desert alone to face the devil (Luke 3:22, 4:1ff, ESV). He left a successful ministry in Caperneum and secluded himself in a “desolate place” to pray (Luke 4:42, Mark 1:35, ESV). The night before he chose the twelve, “he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12, ESV). He left the crowds behind to pray (Luke 9:18, 28ff). It is while watching Jesus pray that the disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-13).

And, of course, he went away, to the Mount of Olives to pray the night he was betrayed (Luke 22:39ff). Repeatedly, Jesus withdrew from active ministry to spend time with his Father. He did not let himself be driven by people’s needs or by ministry opportunities. Jesus lived in an intimate relationship with his Father because he actively sought him out. In a sense, ministry took a back seat to spending time with his Father, who was the source of all he said and did (See John 4:31-34; 5:19-20, 30, 36; 6:38; 7:16-18, 28; 8:25-30, 38, 42; 9:4-5; 10:18, 25, 32, 37-38.) If anyone kept a watch on himself, Jesus certainly did. And, he made it clear to his disciples that they should do the same. After the twelve come back from a preaching ministry, and they are all so busy they don’t have a chance to eat, Jesus tells them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31, NIV).

It’s comforting to know that life maintenance is no more mysterious than an oil change. I once met an Episcopal priest who ran a retreat center in Connecticut. He told me that the first spiritual counsel he gave people when they arrived for a retreat was to take a nap. This doesn’t seem to be very spiritual, but think about it. A “Sabbath rest” is one of the Ten Commandments. Hebrews invites us to enter into “God’s rest.” (Hebrews 4:1-11). Our Lord offers rest to those who are “weary and burdened” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). The nice thing about rest is, anyone can do it! You don’t need a seminary education to rest; you don’t even need to be all that bright. All you need to do is recognize that the Kingdom of God can function quite well without you for a time.

Rest is more than cessation of activity. It’s a time to withdraw and get perspective, to discern where God is active, and where less so. Sports teams illustrate this clearly. A basketball team, for example, will call a time out when it’s down two points and there is five seconds left on the clock. They call a time out so they can rest and focus on what they need to do. Do they go for two points, and a tie, or for three points and the game? You certainly don’t want to keep the clock running and try to figure it out as the those last five seconds count down! Yet, people—pastors—fail to take time outs under pressure and, distracted and frazzled, attempt to make decisions about their lives and the lives of others.

From a place of rest, one’s problems look different than they do in the thick of things when we’re hurried, distracted, and worried. From the place of God’s rest, all mountain-sized problems reveal themselves to be considerably smaller, if not molehills. Life’s journey is a lot easier when you perceive the mountains you think you need to climb as God’s molehills.

How do we rest? One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is that we often need to work at resting. It takes effort to say “no” to compulsive activity and constant mulling over our lists of things to do. It takes effort to plan and schedule Sabbaths. Realizing that we need to work at resting, here are some practical suggestions:

  • Rest begins when we realize that God’s purposes are accomplished through God’s power and not our own, and that the only person who is not expendable in the Kingdom of God is God.

  • Rest is letting go: Letting go of our own sense of self-importance, our sense that no one can take our place, and our fear that things will fall apart without us.

  • Rest entails going away, geographically and (therefore) mentally: A friend once explained to me the difference between owning a lake house and renting one. To own a lake house is work; to rent one is vacation. In other words, rest happens when you are away from your place and are somewhere else in someone else’s place. To rest is to step out of one’s normal routine. (I find that it’s hard for me to rest when I’m at home or at my office. At home, quiet time quickly becomes a time for me to notice all the things that need to be done at the house. At the office, quiet time quickly degenerates into sermon-planning.)

  • Rest entails unplugging—smart phones, dumb phones, laptops and desktops: To stay connected is to stay in the rat-race. If you go off to rest and leave on your smart phone, you’re simply taking all the distractions, all the busy-ness and all the craziness with you. If there are people who can’t live without you, they’re in big trouble and so are you. (Read the previous bullet again.)

  • Rest is about spending time with God, not planning future activities or second-guessing previous decisions.

  • Rest needn’t always be a “spiritual” activity; shutting off your brain and sitting by a lake is worth doing for its own sake. (God often sneaks up on you in situations like this!)

  • Rest should be opportunistic: Time spent in the waiting room of a doctor or dentist, or spent waiting for your car to be fixed, can be Sabbath time. (Hints: If there’s a TV in the waiting area, and you’re alone, turn it off! Or, ask if there’s an empty cubicle where you can wait. The nice people at the Honda dealership have been very obliging in finding me quiet corners. Besides, there’s free popcorn in the sales area!)

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