How is it that I can wake up at four in the morning and still fail to accomplish even a quarter of the tasks on my list?” I commiserated to a friend at church. Both of us were depressed about how we can cram so much activity into a day and still come up short by bedtime.
The problem, I said, waving my arms, is the new law of self-care, the mountain that “healthy” people feel the need to climb. The law includes activities like daily exercise, prayer, Bible study, weekly small group attendance, and proper sleep hygiene. It mandates keeping on top of the dishes and laundry, maintaining intentional in-person and online relationships, praying for the persecuted church, and asking my neighbor if she’s ever heard of Jesus. How can mere mortals manage all this in their nonworking hours?
All I do, I complained, is apologize for being a colossal failure. My friend patted my hand and recited her own litany—the same in spiritual substance, though differing in particulars. Then I went home and found relief by cracking open Kevin DeYoung’s Impossible Christianity: Why Following Jesus Does Not Mean You Have to Change the World, Be an Expert in Everything, Accept Spiritual Failure, and Feel Miserable Pretty Much All the Time.
This short, personable, practical book is intended for people like me who are not overly confused about the parameters of the Christian life. If you know that salvation is wrought by the justifying work of Christ on the cross rather than by your own works, if you know that you won’t be able to reach perfection in this life, and if you know that repentance leads to ever-increasing trust in Jesus, then this book will be just the thing you’re looking for. Because, if those characteristics apply, you might also be carrying around an intolerable burden of mental and emotional expectations that aren’t properly yours. It really is possible, DeYoung affirms, to be a good Christian.
“Salvation is all grace from start to finish,” DeYoung writes, “But reveling in God’s grace does not mean we should revel in being spiritual failures. … He does not mean for us to be constantly overwhelmed. He does not mean for us to feel guilty all the time.” In other words, “God does not mean for Christianity to be impossible.”
This, I confess, took me a little by surprise. I spent some time working backward through my life, trying to find the moment when words like failure and overwhelm became such ubiquitous features. DeYoung points to several factors behind a shift in how Christians think about their faith. In the battle against complacency, for example, “Christianity became impossible, in large part, because of our good intentions to emphasize a host of truths that, taken together, make it seem like devout piety requires an impossible Christianity.”
Like the person in a job interview who identifies her greatest weakness as “caring too much,” we are caught in a legalistic labyrinth, viewing ourselves as servants who really believe they are serving an impossible master. But is the obedience God demands really impossible? Does he call his servants to himself only to point out all the works they ought to have done and then send them off without the relief of forgiveness for sin and the joy of satisfaction in good labor?
DeYoung points to something called “the infinite extensibility of guilt,” the phenomenon arising from a “massively connected world—where we can fly anywhere, phone anywhere, get the news from anywhere, and see pictures from anywhere.” The result is crushing: “The circle of obligation feels limitless. Life feels like ten thousand victims on the side of the road, and we are told we must be the good Samaritan in every instance.”
Overlaid against the pressing cacophony of worldwide need is an ever-increasing number of ideological and social pressures. What about the unjust and corrupt systems in which we live and participate? What about the sins of the past? But DeYoung reminds us that God doesn’t want his disciples crushed under such burdens. “Living life in the present is hard enough,” he writes, and “we are not meant to live with a sense of corporate guilt for an ethnic, racial, or biological identity we did not choose and from which we cannot be free. Self-flagellation is not a requirement for spiritual maturity. It is one thing for us to love God and love our neighbors; it is quite another if the call of Christian discipleship means we must, on account of the failures of others, hate ourselves.”
In fact, the call to love can’t be built upon anything other than the fact that God, though our master and Lord, calls each believer into a relationship with himself. The Christian life shouldn’t be like enduring the painful dysfunction of a bad relationship. “One of the saddest things in a marriage,” DeYoung explains, “is when one or both spouses are impossible to please, when good-faith efforts are never enough, when past hurts are never forgotten, when imperfections are always put front and center. Happy marriages are different. They require work. They don’t happen by accident. But they are possible. That’s what our relationship with God is like as well.”
DeYoung offers practical instruction on the place of the conscience for believers. He points to the pleasure it is possible to experience, even now, in serving a kindly and merciful God. Indeed, this pleasure “is one of the main motivations of the Christian life.” Finishing off a to-do list is not the call. Rather, the sort of person you become as you try to obey God is what brings you joy and makes him happy.
This is a welcome corrective to the “change the world” Christianity so often preached by pastors and influencers to already beleaguered believers. Quiet, ordinary obedience was left lying by the road as we corporately piled up one spiritual concern after another. In so doing, many have forgotten that we are finite and weak and that God is the one ordering the universe and the events on our Facebook feeds.
Now that I’ve read Impossible Christianity, I’m going back to the drawing board of my life, hoping to resubmit myself to the gentle yoke of a Savior who only calls me to walk in the way he has already gone.
Anne Kennedy is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry or Worn-Out People. Her Substack is Demotivations With Anne.
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