I want to be clear about something from the very start: I adore my cell phone. From the very first time I found myself in the grocery store, not knowing if my wife wanted tuna fish packed in water or in oil and I was actually able to call and find out, I was in love. I like social media, being able to keep up with my friends…GPS maps…weather prediction…google at my fingertips…it’s all incredible. I do admit, though, to a certain disturbing compulsion with the phone. Whenever there’s a moment in which nothing else is going on, I feel that itch in my fingers. What’s going on? Has anyone emailed me? How many likes does my last Instagram post have? I’ve even, I’m ashamed to admit, texted while driving. What am I thinking? Why do I that? Where does this compulsion to go to my phone come from?
I never really knew, until Louis CK told me. Here’s what he said, during an appearance on CONAN:
Underneath everything in our lives there’s that thing. That empty. That forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. And when things clear away, and you’re not watching anything, or you’re in your car, that knowledge that you’re alone starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad. That’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100% of people driving are texting. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second. Because it’s so hard.“People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second. Because it’s so hard.” Now, of course, as Christians we do not believe that it’s all for nothing and we do not believe that we are alone. And yet…we know the feeling, don’t we? All people do.
Remember Paul’s agonized cry at the end of Romans 7? After he laments his inability to do the good things that he wants to do and his compulsion to do the things that he hates, he shouts out into the void, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24) Anyone who has come face-to-face with the truth about themselves has screamed this question. Maybe not out an open window; maybe not out loud at all. Maybe just through clenched teeth looking in the mirror this morning. “Who can save me from this incredible mess I’ve made?” This is what Louis CK is talking about. This is the empty that most people feel, and the reason we can’t stand being alone. We need a rescuer: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” This is the universal human cry. St. Paul, Louis CK, you, me…all of us. So who will rescue us? Well, we know the answer—spoiler alert, our savior is Jesus Christ, redeemer of the world—but let’s think for a moment about that daily empty that Louis CK talks about. Who will save us from that?
Most people, Christians included, come somehow to the conclusion that they are going to have to save themselves. The problem is that we are inveterate doers, not able to trust others to do things for us. We like, when we see a problem, to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We are producers; we like tangible results. We like to look back at the end of a day and see a job well done. But truly introspective people—people who are honest with themselves about themselves—know that things don’t work out so simply. Things aren’t right just the way they are. People feel the friction between the way things are and the way they’re supposed to be. That’s why everyone’s striving, working, struggling. Every person you see on the street…every person you meet in your life…is trying to figure out a way to get from the way things are to the way things ought to be. Because at the end of most days, we look back and don't see a job well done. Our tangible results are disappointing. Our personal production department hasn’t met its quota. We got to work, but our work left us short of our goal. And we wake up the next morning, get to work again, and more often than not come away once again defeated. As Louis CK says, life is tremendously sad.
So, in general, we agree with Louis CK about our diagnosis. Life is tremendously sad. We don’t want to be alone for a second. Because it’s so hard.
What’s the prescription? What will rescue us from this body of death? What’s the medicine we can take to fix things? How do we heal ourselves from this sickness? Like I said before, we are doers. We’re producers. We want to get to work healing ourselves, but what do we do? What’s the rehab regimen? Our cell phones can distract us for a few minutes, but they’re not a lasting solution.
To find a more permanent healing, many Christians have turned to these verses from Romans, or the many like them in the New Testament: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:5-6). There you go, it seems…a simple prescription: set your mind on the things of the Spirit, and you will have life and peace. And don't live according to the flesh, because that leads to death. Sounds simple enough, right? And to our workaholic ears, our ears addicted to doing things, to production, it sounds downright attractive. It sounds like good medicine. But I think St. Paul is saying something a bit different. And thankfully, Jesus has words for us—in one of his most famous and oft-misunderstood parables—that can help us understand what Paul is saying here.
You know it well, the parable of the sower (and you can read the whole thing in Matthew 13): there’s a sower sowing seeds, and seeds fall on different kinds of soil. Some fall on the path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns. All of these seeds fail to flourish. They’re eaten by birds, can’t be sustained by insufficient soil, or are choked by the thorns. Only seeds that fall on good soil flourish. The seeds that are eaten by birds symbolize people who don’t understand the word of the kingdom, the seeds sown on rocky ground symbolize people who fall away due to trouble or persecution because of a lack of deep roots of faith, and the seed sown amongst the thorns symbolize people whose faith is choked away by the cares of the world. Only the seed sown on the good soil, representing people who hear the word and understand it, can take root and grow, bearing fruit, thirty, sixty, or even a hundred-fold.
Our natural instinct as human beings is to interpret this parable in the same way that we wanted to interpret those sentences from Romans 8. There, it was “live according to the spirit, don’t live according to the flesh.” Here, it’s “make sure you are the seed sown on good soil. Don’t be like the seed sown on the path, or on rocky ground, or among the thorns.”
Here’s the thing, though: Jesus has told the parable of the sower in such a way that we simply cannot interpret it like that! That natural human interpretation—be careful what kind of seed you are—makes literally no sense in the context of the parable. How can a seed choose which kind of soil in which to be sown? It’s impossible! It’s the sower who sows the seeds! The seeds mindlessly fall wherever they are sown. Jesus has given us the most passive illustration possible. We are not the sower in his story. We are the seeds.
Now, this is disturbing. I understand that. It seems to take away our agency. If we’re just the seeds, and we’re powerless to control where the sower sows us, how can we control our fates? How can we make sure we’re those flourishing seeds? Well, we can’t. We don't control our fates. But take comfort, brothers and sisters, this is good news. The fact that we are passive seeds being sown by an active sower is only scary until we know that the sower is God almighty, father of Jesus Christ, savior and redeemer of the world. To people who can’t always—or, let’s be honest, ever—control where our minds are set, hearing “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” is terrifyingly scary, until you read what Paul writes directly before and after it. Hear these words of comfort in Romans 8, verse 9: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
Notice what’s missing? There are no conditions! No, if/then! Just “You are not in the flesh!” And guess what? If you look back at the scary verses—“to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace”—there are no conditions there either! No if/then. These verses are not prescriptions for you to use to heal yourself, they are not medicine; instead, they are descriptions of the goodness of the Good News! “To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
This is the sweetest Gospel, beautiful music to the ears of us who worry that we don’t adequately set our minds on the spirit, that we might have been sown on the path, or on rocky soil, or among the thorns, we whose hard work doesn’t yield the results we’d hoped and whose production departments have fallen well short of expectation. Right after we realize our shortcomings, our inability to do what we want and our compulsion to do the things we hate and we call out to God for a savior, we get one: “Thanks be to God, who saves through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). But Paul’s not done: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4).
Hear the Good News today: On account of Christ, you don’t have to worry about whether you are in the Spirit or in the flesh. God has acted. On account of Christ, the God who gave his life for you, you are in the Spirit. You don’t have to worry about the kind of soil in which you’re planted. God has acted. On account of Christ, you are the seed thrown on good soil!
We agreed on the diagnosis: simply put, life is impossible. What’s the prescription? How do you heal yourself? You don’t. God has acted. You are healed. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus and there is nothing more you must do. We don’t need to be doers anymore. We’ve been promoted! We’re not in the production department. We’re in the celebration department.
So let’s celebrate. Let’s bask in the sunshine of a day in which there is no work to be done, our tangible results are prepared for us in advance by Christ, and the doors of our personal production departments are locked tight and there are banners hanging out the windows that read “It is Finished.” In Christ, God has done what your hard work couldn’t: made a sinner like you righteous. He has sown you on good, fertile soil and has sent his Spirit to dwell within you. He has finished the work and accomplished the goal of your salvation. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” That is absolutely true. But take comfort. God has acted. In Christ, you are in the Spirit. In Christ, you have life and peace.