The Ones Who Don't Do Anything
While waiting to pick up our kids from school one day, I sat with a friend who is a devout Muslim recently immigrated from Pakistan. We happened to pick up a discussion on the particularities of our religious communities. We know each other as broadly representative of our respective religions for no other reason than proximity and school zoning, so a deeper conversation, however brief, was welcomed by both of us.
It’s harder to explain your religious tradition to someone completely unfamiliar with it than you might think. But I did my best anyway, explaining to my friend that as a Christian of the Reformation variety, I trace my heritage back through the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, that I tend to disavow overtly American pieties, and sometimes I worship in the fancy ways you might think of as “catholic.” These explanations were incomplete, as I was about to learn.
My friend explained the particular sect within Islam that she and her family followed. Beyond the Sunni/Shia divide, everything gets blurry for me. They were neither of those. And frankly, whatever she said, probably made as much sense as “Lutheran Christian” sounds to a native Urdu speaker from halfway around the world. So we found ourselves trying to explain identifiers of our communities, the church and mosque location, general practices, etc. Finally, when it came down to it, she explained, “we are the ones who don’t do anything.”
When recalling that story later, I could not remember on which of those particular words she placed emphasis. Was it to highlight the don’t of the “don’t do” aspect? As in, they are the ones who, like their Christian counterparts don’t drink, smoke, dance, etc. Are they the so-called Islamic fundamentalists?
I had taken the words initially to highlight the “do” in “don’t do,” as in, they were the ones who did not get particularly fanatic about things. It could be the expression of either a lapsed faith “well, we don’t really do anything anymore” or a faith without the strict code as in, “we are not required to do anything.” While I’m still not completely sure how my friend meant to use this phrase to describe her religion, the phrase itself has stuck with me, albeit for different reasons than hers. Further conversations will help us both to elaborate our faiths to each other, but in the meantime, I think I may have a new way of expressing my own faith. I am a Christian of the Reformation variety and one that tends to stress the fallen nature of the world and the Gospel that forgives and redeems all things as seen in the death and Resurrection of Jesus. I believe that everything has been done and prepared for us. On account of God’s graciousness in Jesus, we are the ones who don’t do anything.
Certainly, faith is an active and living thing, and with it, one cannot help but do good works. And I believe, even with scant evidence sometimes, that this faith is serving my neighbor. By being the ones who “don’t do anything,” I am suggesting that in regards to the big questions and problems, we remain passive. (As for a doctrine of ‘the Christian Life,” I recommend Luther’s On the Freedom of the Christian.)
In a world chock-full of religions, from super spiritual to secular (check out Dave Zahl’s new book), people bustle around, buying and worshipping, and forever doing things. Whether they are the written or unwritten rules, we all make lists for a righteousness of sorts and go about doing them or damning ourselves for failing to do them. But just as all humans build these “little-r” religions based on “little-l” laws, we all draw suffocating orthodoxies to protect and sanctify our own beliefs and works. To all of us, both the religious and non-religious “doers,” Jesus pulls the carpet out from under us.
Jesus said “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29). Jesus’ words didn’t create an easier version of religion for the weary. Instead, they were the destruction of everything His followers had thought about religion. No more doing. Jesus’ last words on the cross, “It is finished,” have settled the matter.
St. Paul frequently picked up the same theme. He emphasized God “doing” it all for us when he wrote, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:3). Perhaps most famously, Paul reminded the Galatians in regards to their “doing,” “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Some Christians can get hung up on this thing called “monergism” (the idea that God works alone in salvation) because it fits their theological and ideological grids. But monergism has been defended, historically, because it recognizes the great truth of Christianity: it’s not about what we do. We are the ones who don’t do anything. Be of good cheer; when it comes to the doing of salvation, all has been done for you.