My sister was born 19 months after me, yet somehow managed to snag a few firstborn tendencies. She took the punctual, straight A’s, high achieving perfectionism. I’m not sad. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to carry all of that anyway. For years I thought that being more laid back meant I had dodged the traditional firstborn traits.
Now I realize even if I didn’t get straight A’s, I can’t escape my own firstborn tendencies. I often feel overly responsible for the people I love (they may call it controlling?). I’m reliable, typically play it safe, and I lean toward being a bit of a moralist; I care a lot about doing the right thing.
The desire to make the right decisions can lead to mustering up effort. Historically, I’ve exhausted myself trying to do what is right; “I should want to save money and make wise financial decisions.” “I should go to college.” “I should get to bed at a decent time. I should eat more vegetables.”
Sadly, this mustering up in faith can lead to moralism that reduces the Bible to a code of behavior. For example, years ago I got hung up on what God says about divorce. “Under what circumstances can someone divorce? What about abuse? Is a person off the hook if they manipulate their spouse into divorcing them? Where’s the line between sin and justifiable? Just tell me all the rules already!”
I read all the verses about divorce. Then I began asking the questions differently, "What do I know about God’s character? What do I know about His plans for His people? What does Scripture tell me about why He designed marriage and what marriage points to?" I went back to the first marriage. I heard God’s purpose and design as I read about His relationship with the Church. Instead of finding the rules and exceptions I was seeking, I discovered more about who God is and His desire for marriage. It didn’t stop there; I landed back on His desire for reconciliation not just in marriage, but in my relationship with Him.
I’ve noticed in other Christians this similar line of thinking. “I should love other people. I should have enough faith. I should stop worrying. I should want to have quiet time. I should go to church.” Muster. Muster. Muster. By the time we read, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36) we think, “I need to feel free too!?!? I’m too tired mustering up obedience to be free.”
I read the first chapter of Joshua recently and God’s conversation with Joshua captured my attention. The book of Joshua picks up right after Moses dies. Joshua has been given the monstrous task of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Hundreds of years of expectations were riding on this. All eyes were on their new leader.
The Lord comes to Joshua and tells him (again) that He is giving them the land. He reminds Joshua of His promise to Israel. This victory wasn’t going to be because Joshua was a competent leader who had his act together. This victory would be because God had promised it. God had set the boundaries of the land. God made a promise He would keep.
Then He gives another promise to Joshua, “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” (verse 5)
Joshua had grown up watching miracles God did through Moses. His experience and own two eyes told him that God was faithful. Joshua knew God’s goodness. Joshua knew God’s follow through. Joshua knew God had plans beyond his own. God used the experiences Joshua had to show him He would continue in that same faithfulness. It was a promise of substance that Joshua could hang his hat on. The Lord continues, “I will not leave you or forsake you.” (verse 5)
Now that God has given Joshua a promise and has reminded and revealed who He is to Joshua, He says, “Be strong and courageous for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” (verse 6)
God isn’t telling Joshua to muster up strength or do positive self talk to curb anxiety. God is saying, “This is who I am. This is what I’ve promised.” Then He exhorts Joshua to be strong and courageous. It’s not muster–it’s based on something concrete and dependable. Joshua’s strength and courage would pour out of what He knew was true about God and His promises.
Now that Joshua has been reminded of who God is and what He’s promised, the Lord continues, “careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” (verse 7-8)
My “do good” tendency is to jump right down to what I’m supposed to do. “Obey the law. Got it. I think I can muster up some obedience here.” Jumping straight to the command misses all the good stuff! If I’m missing who God is and His promise, I’m missing the “why”. I’m missing God’s heart and bigger plan. I’m reducing it to modifying my behavior.
Frequently. when I ask someone about their relationship with God, the response is about mustering up good behavior. “I haven’t been having quiet time as consistently as I should. I’ve missed a lot of church. I’m doing better about not gossiping. I think my thought life is healthier.”
I’ve been there.
When I listen back, I hear nothing that has to do with a relationship with the Almighty, full-of-surprises, compassionate, just, always-at-work, personal God. I hear muster. I hear behavior and obligation...often with a little guilt.
Behavior flows out of what we believe. When I’m mustering up good behavior and feeling conflicted, I’d do myself a favor to examine what my belief really is. If I’m trying to convince myself, “I should tithe”, I could wrestle with the belief under the behavior; “Lord, why don’t I want to tithe?” I could search Scripture; “Why do you require a generous spirit? What does that mean?” I could ask and wrestle until I expose a belief that God holds out on me. I could confess that I don’t trust Him to provide and I fear lack. I could experience freedom as He shows me He is a God who cares about my material needs and my heart. I could see how He proved Himself faithful to a widow and her son at their last meal, to thousands of people on the shore needing fish and bread, to His people eating manna for decades in the wilderness. My wrestling, reading, and confessing may result in roots of real faith wriggling their way into the soil beneath me. I may find myself rooted in who God is and write my next check out to partner with His work. I may be giddy instead of guilty.
Instead of doing “right” by mustering up strength and courage, Joshua did right because he knew God was faithful. He knew God had his best in mind and His plan was bigger than Joshua’s life. Joshua had experienced God’s miracles and knew following Him would be superior to anything he could muster up in himself. He knew God’s voice. Because of this; strength, courage, and obedience came forth.
God repeats his command to Joshua and ends it with His promise yet again, “Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
Don't be dismayed or discouraged my worn out, well behaved friends–the Lord has much, much more for you.
Just throwing myself out there a bit...