When I was in high school tennis was my life. I tried football in junior high but quit after the first season. I hated it. Aside from getting run over by mammoth 13 year olds twice my size I also suffered from severe asthma - I would literally hide an inhaler in my shoulder pads and pull it out while face down in the grass to sneak a puff or two without anyone noticing.
I figured it would be the death of my pubescent pride in the locker room if the other guys saw me lip-locking that thing. Until, one day, it happened. I was caught in the act, ridiculed and from that point on nicknamed "Puff the Magic Dragon". So I did what any self-respecting (and by self-respecting I mean self-conscious) 13 year old boy would do - I quit.
LOSE YOUR MIND, LOSE THE MATCH
Somewhere during that time period I picked up a tennis racket. I immediately fell in love. It fed my introverted spirit by being a one-man sport and also eliminated any possibility of ever getting tackled again, unless of course a match got wildly out of hand. I figured the odds were in my favor though.
I got pretty good. It seemed to come naturally. I'd spend every spare second of my week on the court practicing (often alone with a wall - hence, introvert) and many weekends traveling to compete in tournaments. Before each match I'd rock out to some Rage Against the Machine and get waaaaay too pumped up to go play what is historically a game defined by civility, etiquette and proper english manners. But I was now a teenager in the mid to late 90's who wasn't really following Jesus, so Rage it was. I began every match very angry at "the man". It was great.
It's been said that tennis is "90% mental, 10% physical", meaning it is the type of sport (like golf) that is so technical in nature that if you lose your mind you will most likely lose the match, no matter how good your skill is. This was true for me - my problem most days was not my forehand but my head, not my physical stamina but my mental stability. I would get overly frustrated, anxious and outright angry when I felt the techniques of my game were off. I was even known to break a racket or two (or three!) against the ground, a fence pole or even a tree. It was in the height of my mental frustration that my coach would motion me to the fence, and in an extremely slow, calm, quiet manner give me very specific instructions on how to fix my game. He would say: "Here's what you need to do…hit the ball over the net, make sure it lands between the white lines, then do it again."
KEEP IT SIMPLE, VERY SIMPLE
This would infuriate me even more. What kind of coaching tip was that? Don't you think I already know that? Clearly that's why I'm frustrated - I know what I'm supposed to be doing but I'm struggling to do it as well as I think I should. Tell me how to fix my swing or adjust my footwork. Correct my technique. Give me something more than just the basics. But he kept it simple, frustratingly simple.
Not until later in life did I grow to appreciate what he was doing with me. He was reminding me of the simple objective of the game - to hit the ball over the net, keep it between the white lines, and then do it again. If I wasn't at least doing that, then nothing else I did on the court would matter. I would lose sight of this and overcomplicate the techniques which always led to frustration and a breakdown of my game as a whole. He was encouraging me to calm down, take a deep breath and to most importantly, keep it simple. Start with what I already knew how to do, then go from there.
Sometimes we make following Jesus far more complicated than it really needs to be. We get overly concerned with technique that we lose sight of a certain simplicity that comes with knowing Him and being known by Him. We focus so much on our religious footwork for Him that we forget to enjoy living the game of life with Him.
It's amazing how simple it can be to complicate the whole following Jesus thing. Here's a few ways I've done it myself and heard others around me do it too:
- I know I'm supposed to give, but that much, really? Let's get specific, from net or gross?
- I know I'm supposed to love my neighbor, but who really is my neighbor? Certainly not that guy, right?
- I know I'm supposed to treat others the way I would want them to treat me, but I'm definitely not applying that rule to those who have treated me poorly.
- I know I'm supposed to forgive, but how far do I have to take that? To her, seriously?
- I know we shouldn't live together before we're married, but our situation is different; it just makes more sense for us financially.
- I know the Bible answers my questions directly and has spoken clearly about my issue, but I'm still going to fast and pray about it for weeks and do a bible study on the topic just to make sure.
The list could go on and on. We justify and rationalize. We make excuses. We make ourselves the exceptions and define the parameters for how much or how little of what Jesus says actually applies to us. Sometimes we spend more time figuring out how NOT to obey Jesus than we do at simply doing what He says. As a result, perhaps we overcomplicate the whole thing and miss out on a lot of things.
LOVE GOD, LOVE PEOPLE
On a few occasions Jesus is asked what the greatest of the all the commandments is - if He could boil down the whole counsel of God into its purest and simplest form, what would it be? His consistent response is two-fold: To love God above all and to love others with all (Matthew 22:36-40).
That's it. Everything…EVERYTHING falls under those two banners. Love God. Love People. Our giving, our willingness to forgive, our ability to trust His promises in the difficult seasons, our commitment to holiness even though sin is more convenient - all of these things and more are done in direct proportion to the extent that we love God above all and love others with all. Nothing is done (or not done) in this life that is not directly tied to these two things, and these two things are so interdependent upon each other that Jesus actually presents them as ONE thing - the singular greatest commandment…LOVE. It's His version of "hit the ball over the net, get it between the lines, then do it again and again and again and again". Keep it simple. Start from there. Nothing else matters if we don't do this first.
Just give, no net or gross talk or arguments over 10% in the Old Testament or New. Just give. Jesus says to. Just serve, no excuses about being busy, we've all got them and can use them. Just serve. Jesus says to. No extended periods of fasting and prayer for a new revelation on what God has already made clear. Get off your knees, eat something, stop delaying your obedience and go do what you're supposed to do. Just do it. Jesus says to. It really can be that simple.
This is not to say that the Christian life can't sometimes get complicated and messy. It most assuredly can and will. While Jesus has been very clear and simple in what He expects and demands of us, He never once promised that our obedience in those things would always lead to easy or comfortable places - as a matter of fact He says more often than not things will get pretty difficult (John 16:33). But the outcomes of our obedience, no matter how complicated they may be, do not negate the fact that He has been clear and simple with us on the front end. Love. Serve. Give. Seek justice. Be holy. And willingly, albeit joyfully, embrace the implications of what these things may require of you. That's the call.
CALM DOWN, TAKE A DEEP BREATH
I know at times it's true for me, and it may be true for you as well - we need Jesus to motion us over to the fence and very gently remind us to calm down, take a deep breath and to most importantly...keep it simple. Stop rationalizing. Stop justifying. Stop dissecting. Stop asking so many questions. Stop complicating the simple. Just obey. Don't worry about the church politics, don't worry about the style of music, don't worry about who's wearing what or drinking what or reading what. Don't feel guilty if you miss a quiet time or feel worthless for not being able to quote the entire book of Romans like that one guy at church can. Just get the ball over the net, in between the white lines and do it again and again and again. Love. It's the first thing that matters, and nothing else matters in its absence.
Love God above all today. Love others with all today. Then do it again tomorrow.
Lord knows I'm trying.
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