A certain man went in for an annual check-up with his doctor. Some people get nervous about going to the doctor, but not this man. He looked forward to going to the doctor. He was obsessed with his health and relished any opportunity to improve it. When the time came for him to fill out his medical history in the waiting room, he smiled to himself as he checked “No” in every box. No diabetes, no high cholesterol, not even an ingrown hair.
It wasn’t long before they called his name and he strolled to the examination room. The nurse came in and took his temperature (98.6) and his blood pressure (115/75), then told him that the doctor would be in to see him shortly. When the doctor finally arrived, the man greeted him warmly and began telling him all about his recent gains in the gym, his new diet plan, and how he had gone from 10% to 8% body fat. When the doctor finally had a chance to talk he said, “That’s great! Why don’t we take a look at you?”
When the examination was over, the doctor told him the good news: “It looks like you’ve got another clean bill of health. I guess we will see you again next year.” The doctor stood to shake the man’s hand and leave but before he could, the man said, “Wait a minute, Doc. I have something I want to talk to you about.”
“Ok, sure. What’s on your mind?” said the doctor.
“Well, I’ve been seeing all these commercials on TV for different medications and I’ve picked out a few that I am really interested in. Could you tell me more about Abilify, Lyrica, Symbicort, and Lunesta?”
Confused, the doctor asked, “Hold on a minute, I don’t understand. Are you telling me you have symptoms for depression, fibromyalgia, asthma, and insomnia? You didn’t say anything about that earlier. And I didn’t see any signs of any of those.”
The man smiled, “No, no, no. Sorry for the confusion. I am feeling great. I just saw the commercials and they sound like really great medications. It sounds like they really work well.”
It took the doctor a moment to process what the man was telling him. “Well, um, yes. They are very effective medications… if you are dealing with any of those issues.”
“I’m not,” the man said proudly,”But I would really appreciate it if you could write me a prescription for any of those drugs.”
The doctor replied, “I am afraid I can’t write you a prescription… But I would be happy to refer to a psychiatric specialist.”
Most of us could not imagine acting like the man in the story above when it comes to our health. Who in their right mind asks for medication when they are perfectly healthy? But often, that common sense about our physical health doesn’t crossover into our thinking about our spiritual health.
If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have engaged in some form of discipleship or spiritual formation. You have worshipped with other Christians, you have read your Bible, you have prayed, you have helped someone in need. These are great things to do and they help us look more like Jesus.
However, there is a danger involved with any practice that helps us look more like Jesus. It’s the problem of legalism. Legalism creeps up on us. It is sneaky. It is really good at disguising itself as something beneficial.
Legalism creeps in when we worry more about our Sunday Morning attendance record than actually worshipping God. When we focus on how much of the Bible we have read rather than how much God’s Word has changed us, legalism has snuck unto the premises. Legalism disguises itself as relationship with God, when it’s really about building up our own spiritual self-esteem.
So, I love what Dallas Willard has to say about this:
“One of the signs of a healthy use of disciplines is how you feel when don’t do them. And if you feel guilt then you need to rethink it. Guilt is not a profitable motivation for the spiritual life… Disciplines are like medicine, the ideal condition is you don’t need it. They are not righteousness, they are wisdom.”
Often, we think of spiritual disciplines (like: prayer, fasting, reading our Bibles) the same way we do exercise. The more reps you do, the stronger you get. But Willard says the metaphor isn’t exercise, it’s medicine.
Remember when Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17; Matthew 9:12; Luke 5:31)? The truth is, we are all a little bit sick. Sin throws our spiritual immune systems out of whack and it destroys our spiritual health. In the ideal world (i.e. the Kingdom of God), people wouldn’t need things like prayer or weekly worship to be fully obedient to God. When the kingdom finally arrives, obedience will just happen naturally because God will be so fully present and obvious to us all.
But in the meantime, we have to take our medicine. Saying your prayers in the morning and at night is like your doctor saying, “Take one of these pills, twice a day.” You wouldn’t need to take that medicine if you were healthy, but since you are sick they keep your soul functioning properly.
Brother Roger, of the Taizé community, says it best:
“Assured of your salvation by the sole grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, you do not impose discipline on yourself for its own sake. Gaining mastery of yourself has no other aim than to render you more available.”
There is no legalism there. Everything we do, from worship to prayer, is about making ourselves more available to God and to our neighbors. Medications may be an unfortunate (and temporary) necessity, but the goal is a clean bill of health.