When Jesus Doesn’t Tell You What To Do
Cody Janicek | RUF-Global, Prague | February 26, 2019
“What are you going to do when you graduate?” is a question that was rarely on the minds of students studying in Prague just 30 years ago. But today, it seems like it’s all students are asking. The first generation of Czechs not born under a totalitarian regime are finally coming of age. For most of them, the communist world of their parents - a world in which a career was given, not chosen - is unthinkable. While the heavy-handed, state-enforced restrictions of the past have been eliminated, they’ve been replaced by new kind of tyrant - one which will sound familiar to American students: Choices.
So. Many. Choices.
Czech students have never seen the kind of opportunities that are now available to them. (The same is true for most of the West, by the way.) The possibilities seem limitless: study anything, live anywhere, and find a spouse from any corner of world. But with an abundance of options comes an often paralyzing sense of anxiety: “What will I do?”
“Will I go into accounting or medicine? Should I get married and start a family or focus on my career first? Should I move closer to home or experience someplace new? And how could I possibly pick just one? What if I regret my decision later?”
For Christian students in particular, there’s the added uncertainty about what God would have them do. They struggle because they know that their decision-making grid is different from the world’s: God’s opinion matters and our own desires are not the only criteria for the choices we make. So how do I know what God would have me do? Will it be obvious? Should I wait until it’s clear?
For those who’ve had their entire lives determined by an academic calendar, this brave new world has a lot more uncertainty than they’d hoped. How do we navigate life in this present age? How do we make decisions in a world filled with risk, trouble, and suffering? If only Jesus were here so we could ask him.
Life Lived in the Absence of Jesus
During a walk to campus last week, I listened to a few chapters of John’s Gospel. It was a long walk and I was able to listen to chapters 13-17, one of the most compelling narrative sections in all the Bible. Remarkably, these chapters cover only part of the final evening of Jesus’ life. As the story builds, there’s a growing uneasiness: Jesus insists to his friends that he’s leaving. And in a radical departure from their last three years together, they won’t be able to come along.
You can hear the confusion in Thomas’ question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5) He’s asking a question you’ve probably asked yourself: “How will we know what to do if you just leave us here?”
Jesus knew that his friends were about to be thrust into a new kind of world: a seemingly Jesus-less one. A world in which he’d no longer be by their side, answering their questions and calming the storms. And on his last night with them, he has one of his last opportunities to prepare them to live in that kind of world. What will he tell them? What will he leave them with?
One of my favorite insights from the late Eugene Peterson is that Jesus always seems unhurried. Jesus, Peterson wrote, doesn’t bring about the redemption of his people by force or resistance, but through “leisurely conversation, intimate personal relationships, compassionate responses, passionate prayer, and - putting it all together - a sacrificial death.” All of this was on display in these chapters in dramatic fashion. Hours from death, Jesus chose to spend his last evening sharing dinner with his friends, washing their feet, and praying.
More than any other Gospel writer, John gives us these long accounts of the conversations and monologues of Jesus that give us a unique insight into his demeanor. To be sure, much is said in these chapters, but as I listened to Jesus’ final words to his friends, I began to notice a couple of common threads that weave his words into just a couple of instructions - words for his people to live by.
Rest in Your Justification
I know that first century feet were dirty (muddy roads, sandals, etc.) and that foot-washing was a common experience in Jesus’ day. But Peter’s response to Jesus grabbing a towel and a water basin tells you all you need to know about this scene. What Jesus was proposing was unseemly. It’d be one thing for a teacher to wash his students’ feet (which itself would have been unheard of), but for the Messiah to do it? Demeaning.
“Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’” (13:8)
No doubt, the disciples were filled with questions: “Where are you going? Hold on, you’re going to be killed? And one of us is going to betray you?” But Jesus doesn’t really give specifics about what’s to come. What he does divulge, they misunderstand (13:28-29). Yet Jesus makes no effort to clarify his words. To be blunt, their lack of knowledge about future events just wasn’t that important. So on his last night with the disciples, we find Jesus more concerned with how they relate to him than he is with telling them what’s about to happen.
To put this in theological terms, it seems that Jesus’ priority for his disciples was that they would rest in their justification. He set aside time on his last evening to demonstrate with dirty feet (not to mention the Lord’s Supper) what he came to do: he came to cleanse them. This is where Jesus’ attention was focused. “Will you have a share with me through my washing?” This is what he chose to communicate, not what was going to happen to them.
“What can I do to be fruitful, Jesus?”
“Abide in me,” Jesus says, “and you’ll bear much fruit” (15:5).
“Yeah but what do I do? Which way do I go?”
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).
Ugh, give us something to work with here.
So we’re seeing that part of what it means to rest in our justification is to understand its significance. A true understanding of the implications of peace with God will put everything - especially your life plans - into the proper perspective. “What will I do?” is an important question with significant ramifications for the rest of your life. But in relation to our eternal peace with God, it pales in comparison. Life’s (and eternity’s) biggest problem has been solved: The God whom you were created to know and enjoy has reconciled you to himself through his Son. And the answer to the question, “Will I be OK?” is answered with a divine “Of course!”
Pursue Your Sanctification
That’s not all, though. In case we’ve misunderstood what resting in our justification means, Jesus reminds us that following him also includes the pursuit of holiness. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (14:15-16). It turns out, this wouldn’t be such a Jesus-less world, after all
Jesus was insistent that it was actually better for the disciples that he should leave them (16:7) because the Holy Spirit would come and indwell his people and, speaking on Jesus’ authority (16:13), bear witness concerning him (15:26). And by the power of this Helper, Jesus’ disciples would be able to abide in Jesus’ love, pursue holiness, and keep his commandments (imperfectly).
In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit is primarily to bear witness about Christ and to help God’s people to pursue obedience to his revealed will. And for most of us, that’s the rub: The will of God which has been revealed (love God, love people, put your sin to death, etc.) isn’t the one we really want in on. We want to know his hidden will, what’s going to happen.
In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis invites us to read a series of letters written by a demon, Screwtape, to his protégé in order to guide him in tormenting a human “Patient.” In one such letter, Screwtape encourages his pupil to capitalize on a growing uncertainty in mind of his Patient:
“There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human's mind against the Enemy [Jesus]. He [Jesus] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”
Lewis captures the same priorities that Jesus demonstrates on his last evening with his disciples. While they desperately want to know what’s about to happen to them, Jesus is more concerned with whether they’ll pursue obedience to what’s already been revealed (i.e., his ‘commandments’).
As I reflect on my own experience, most of the time I've spent worrying about God’s will for my future would have been better spent seeking God’s will for today. How will the reality of my justification anchor my hope today? How will I abide in Christ today? How will I deepen my love for Jesus and keep his commandments by the power of his Holy Spirit today?
When Jesus Doesn’t Tell You What To Do
In part, growing in maturity means realizing that life lived in the absence of Jesus’ bodily presence involves a lot more uncertainty than we’re comfortable with. God doesn’t seem to be in the business of letting us peer into the future to discover his will for our lives. But he invites us to live by faith in the midst of that uncertainty, promising to be with us by his Spirit and to help us bear fruit in keeping with righteousness.
Don’t get me wrong, the questions students face aren’t trivial; quite the opposite. What should you do? Will you go into accounting or medicine? Full-time ministry or be an active member of your local church? I don’t know. And to be honest, Jesus (probably) isn’t going to give you an answer. Your pastor, parents, and friends (probably) shouldn’t try to either. Yes, they can walk with you through - and speak into - the decision-making process. (Listen to them!) But they can’t give you a definitive answer. Often, you’ll be forced to choose between several good options. So how will you decide?
Anchor your confidence for the future in what Jesus has already accomplished for you. Pray for a deepening conviction that your biggest question has been answered by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Receive help from the Helper Jesus sent you and, by his power, endeavor to love Jesus and keep his commandments. In other words, “seek first the Kingdom of God” (Mt 6:33).
In that confidence, freely take a calculated risk and make a decision.