Life is complicated. What we should do—or not do—is not nearly as clear as some people seem to think it is. Or as I often say, life is messy.
Look, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as good and evil. Actually, I believe the opposite. There is a universal moral law.
Jesus summed it up with two closely-related commandments:
First, love God with every fiber of your being. Don’t let anything less than God be your ultimate heart’s desire. And second, love your neighbor as if you share at least one vital organ. In other words, love your neighbor as if your own life depended upon it, because it does.
So you see, instead of embracing moral relativism, I’m saying that there is not a single list of loving things we have to perform no matter what we’re facing. What will be loving in one set of circumstances—what will bring joy or healing or comfort or insight—will actually be unhelpful or even catastrophic in another.
As I explained last week, Jesus teaches us that wisdom is knowing how to navigate life’s messy places. To put that another way, wisdom is the art of knowing how to do the loving thing in the varied and changing and very specific circumstances of everyday life.
This week we’re going to be clear that becoming wise—perfecting the art of loving—is soul work. And in what may seem like a paradox to some readers, Jesus assigns practices for our bodies that shape and transform our souls. (Luke 6:27-38)
A practice is something we do. Not just once or when we happen to feel like it. We commit to doing it over and over and over. Day after day. Week after week. Whether we’re tired or energetic. And especially when we begin to wonder if it’s worth all the effort and inconvenience. We’re not likely to be very good at it initially. But, over time, we get better at it. We may even master it.
As you can see, the path to wisdom is a long and sometimes arduous path. A path that cannot be bypassed. There are no shortcuts. There are no life hacks that make becoming wise quick and easy. Maybe you’ve seen titles like these on the internet:
“100 Incredible Life Hacks That Makes Life So Much Easier.”
“40 Life Hacks That Will Change Your Life.”
If what you’re looking for is how to recognize your suitcase at baggage claim or how to waterproof your shoes, hacks are certainly handy. But if you’re struggling to help an addicted spouse, maintain relationship with a dysfunctional family, cope with a toxic work environment, or mend the fractures in your marriage, it’s wisdom that you’ll need.
As I mentioned last week, here are the practices that Jesus prescribed:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.
Give to those who would rob you, give to all who beg.
Be merciful, do not judge or condemn, forgive.
But let’s be very clear about what Jesus is teaching us here. He’s not giving us a set of techniques to ensure that we get the results we would like to produce. Rather, he’s telling us what loving people do.
The assumption is this. If we act like loving people long enough, we will eventually grow into people who love because that’s just who we are. Not because we’re dealing with lovable people or we figure that love is just the angle to take to get what we want out of life.
That’s why Jesus says this:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:32-35a)
Wisdom is not a skill set for getting the results we want. Wisdom is a state of the soul, a condition of our heart and mind. And there are no shortcuts for wisdom formation. Each of us has to do our own soul work every day.
Life will inevitably have its ups and downs. It is beautiful and good, terrible and cruel. Our souls will sing and our hearts will break. Wisdom is the art of embracing it all by bringing love to it. By bringing ourselves to it wholeheartedly. No matter what.
Jesus put it this way: “Take up you cross and follow me.” And as it turns out, the way of the cross is the way of wisdom. And wisdom is the way of eternal life.
Ash Wednesday falls on March 2 this year. That’s getting pretty close. If you’re looking for a book to use for individual or group study, click here for some suggestions. I provided an additional list at the end of this post. My latest book Looking for God in Messy Places has a study guide at the end (click here) and A Resurrection Shaped Life provides reflection questions at the end of each chapter (click here).
If you decide to gather as a group using one of my books, I will be happy to join you during Lent (or even during the Easter Season and beyond) for a Zoom or in-person Q&A session (contact Holly Windham at firstname.lastname@example.org and she’ll set us up).