In the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John, Jesus makes a short trip across the Sea of Galilee to a city called Capernaum. Shortly after his arrival he finds that hundreds, if not thousands, of people from the town he was just in (Bethsaida) have travelled in their own boats in pursuit of him.
Many of these townspeople had been part of the 5,000 whom Jesus famously fed by miraculously multiplying loaves of bread and baskets of fish. When they find Jesus here in Capernaum they seem to exclaim: “Teacher, when did you come here?”
Jesus is perceptive. I see him smiling a little, maybe shrugging. He says, “You’re not looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill in bread and are hungry again.”
You’re just hungry again. That’s why you’ve followed me here. His lesson then is: “Don’t strain for temporary food, but for eternal food…”
Eternal food. One might have heard a hollow sound were they to knock upon the collective skull of the crowd just then (admittedly, the same simple-mindedness would have been true of me as well). Trying to be perceptive themselves they may have assumed that by “eternal” Jesus was referring to a longer-lasting prize they’d yet to receive. So, moving away from the topic of their growling stomachs, they ask, “What must we do to be doing the work of God?”
Yep. I’ve asked this question often. It’s the old bartering-masked-in-piety trick I revert to when I’m feeling pretty good about life, above certain sins, and confident in my own standing. Alright God, I’m ready. Put me in. Let me show you what I can really do. Don’t just give me that eternally loving presence thing you’re always talking about. This time let me earn it.
It’s the opposite of bartering for God’s help and provision, in a way. You know what I mean. Rather than the prodigal son-esque: “I’m at the end of my rope, God, help me!” thing, it’s believing that God’s grace makes me into some kind of indentured servant. It’s saying, “Hey, see what great work I’ve been doing here? See the prayer, the charity, the abstinence? I’ve moved on; I’ve become healthy. So how about we just call things even?”
Christianity tells of many mysteries. For example, that the first will be last, and the last will be first, or, that Jesus did not come to bring peace but something that would split and divide up families. But I’ve found nothing more mysterious than how freely receiving what I need begets more belief that I need to make up that free gift to God.
Jesus is kind in his response to the crowd. “You are doing the work of God by believing,” he says.
He means, you are paying me back (if you must hear it this way) by your belief. That’s all.
A very close friend of mine—let’s call him Joey—confessed once that he found believing in God to be too difficult. Misunderstanding him, I replied, “Yeah, me too, man.” Joey kindly laughed at that. He explained that the burden of being a Christian was too heavy for him, and that he was tired of feeling guilty for not carrying it very well. He and I both grew up as evangelical Christians. Our church taught kids that devotion to God was paramount; that devotion was, if nothing else, proof of one’s salvation. From around 8th or 9th grade it was encouraged (and quietly expected, I presume) that kids were daily engaged in some form of what was coined, “quiet time with God.”
In short, a “quiet time” is spending a portion of one’s day (maybe 20 to 60 minutes) in solitude while reading the Bible or praying. It’s difficult to know exactly where or how the idea of our modern ”quiet time” came about (and frankly, we need a better phrase for it—not only does it carry a burdensome reputation, it also sounds a little too close to “sleepy time”), but I suspect it’s been something Christians have done for a long time to try to know God better. It may have been poorly dictated sermons by Joey and my pastors that were to blame, or that he misinterpreted some teachings on what devotion to God meant (God knows I did). But his interpretation of what being devoted to God meant was that it was a rule to follow, and that failure to keep the rule was not exactly a sin, but not exactly helping him be on God’s good side either. Joey believed the proof of his faith could be found in his ability to follow through with the rule. And so, from a young age he saw how, each day, he could not prove his faith.
Back to Jesus. He said: “Only believe.” So, what does this mean?
Hear me rightly now: is a man who calls himself a painter but never gets up to paint really a painter? In Christianity, there exists a fine line between legalism and some sort of free-formed Jesus-y association, and an argument could be made that neither extreme is really what Jesus taught. But, I often wonder how Joey’s faith would be different today if the emphasis he remembered while growing up at church was that he didn’t need to do anything to be on God’s good side. That his devotion to God would actually be a reaction to God’s enduring love for him.
Five years later, Joey still seeks a god in the world, and I can see how he thinks it could still be true. But the Christian God is too unattainable. For what it’s worth, though, it’s my belief that his seeking, his yearning for a god, is proof of a very strong devotion indeed. It’s proof that, if nothing else, he has tasted something enlivening and that he will cross many seas to find it.