Pastorally Speaking: Nathan Knight on “Depth vs. Distraction”

[Editor’s Note: This blogpost continues the “Pastorally Speaking” series. Nathan Knight is Pastor of Restoration Church in Washington, D.C. He writes on the topic of the temptation of distraction and the importance for prayer, rest, and devotion in the life of the pastor.]

In his classic Screwtape Letters, C.S Lewis’ demonic character Screwtape instructs his demonic friend Wormwood on the useful tool of distraction in defeating the enemy (Spirit of God):

“I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind begin to go the wrong way…if I had lost my head & begun to attempt a defense by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch…once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up along with his books, a healthy dose of ‘real life’ [distraction by the ordinary] was enough to show him that ‘sort of thing’ just couldn’t be true.”[1]

Screwtape instructed Wormwood to simply distract his “patient” by the ordinary in order to keep him from the extraordinary. He continues:

“[Many] find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things.”[2]

Could it be, pastor, that you are no different than the atheist in the British museum? Surely, you read good books and blogs, listen to podcasts, and even follow faithful men on twitter that feed you deep thoughts, but have all these scattered thoughts been so faintly rooted in the ordinary that they have yet to take root in the extraordinary.

In other words, have you failed to cultivate a single minded devotion to God that is so captivated by a single verse of the Bible that you are left to consider only that thought for an entire day? Have you found yourself so moved in prayer that it seemed you were in the very throne room of God, or, have you known a time in sermon preparation where the extended thought of a single truth left you with eyes so full of tears you could hardly see the screen you were typing on?

Depth in prayer and devotion is often quenched by the distraction of the ordinary. From the perceived boredom of sitting in a room alone with a book and a blank screen to the throngs of gadgets and technological applications that often excite us more than communion with God, we are men to be most pitied.

Men of depth likely are not cultivated upon the completion of another book, but more likely from a single passage meditated upon for hours, weeks even: pastors who know the value of “no” and the importance of solitude along with the wisdom of simplicity in living, indeed, pastors who know more about less instead of less about more; pastors who linger in prayer and speak of the glories of Christ as naturally as they do the wife they love; these are the men who can lead the church away from puddles and into oceans.

Oh, pastors, what might we offer to our people, to those who don’t yet believe, yes even to God Himself, if we were to set aside the waves of distractions and gaze into the face of Christ but for an undistracted hour? No phones, no podcasts, yes, even no blogs … just the unveiled face of the knowledge of the glory of God found in the face of Christ … what kind of pastors might we be?

May we be the kind of pastors that lead people to believe the unfamiliar because we ourselves have lingered there long enough … past the flood of ordinariness and into the still, deep waters of the extraordinary.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1942), 2-3.

[2] Ibid, 4.

On Going Home at the End of the Day: A Theology of Leaving

There are times when teachers teach lessons that they have not themselves fully learned. Most who know me will read this essay and probably retort, “physician heal thyself” due to the schedule I keep. To them I’ll offer no rebuttal, but I will try harder to take my own advice, which I hope is good medicine for us all.

Human labor is a task inherently unfinished. Some work, like farming, building, and sundry domestic tasks, ebb and flow with the rhythm of life. Seasons come and go, and planting and harvesting are ongoing within that natural cycle. Builders build buildings, and they are occupied and used, repaired and renovated, and eventually replaced – the labor of building appears ceaseless. As long as there is human life there is laundering, cleaning, and cooking – little seems truly completed.

There are some tasks that have natural endings. A first grade teacher teaches a group of youngsters over a given period of time, and then that task ends. Yet, the training of these youngsters continues, grade by grade until their education is complete. The boat builder doesn’t work on the same boat forever; a boat is built, put into service, and the builder moves along to the next boat. In this instance, while a task is completed, labor does not cease. Even in what we moderns call “retirement” there are labors that continue, and the need for the work that supports human existence is interminable.

These realities put some humans in a bit of a quandary, since bringing something to completion is necessary for their happiness. I don’t consider happiness a bad thing; I believe we were made to be happy. In fact, “blessedness” – being in the presence of God and his good for us – is “happiness.” And if finishing tasks, as a part of ordering the world God has created, is a part of one’s happiness, then unfinished work is bound to be a frustration to some at times. So, at the end of day, one may be confronted with the prospect of either leaving the office with tasks yet unfinished, or staying, forsaking other obligations and other goods, in order to finish a task. This essay is written to help sort out this very real, very common matter of life. I want to suggest three reasons the laborer should be content to turn out the lights at day’s end and happily journey home.

First, the Christian doctrine of creation indicates a rhythm of work and rest that is rooted in divine creation itself. The Genesis narrative is a story of divine work and divine rest. It is notable that God does not create the world in one day, nor has Christian theology generally accepted a doctrine of “simultaneous” creation. Scripture reveals that God created over a period of time. God’s creation of matter itself, and his forming and filling of the earth and all that is in it, occurs over time. Time is marked by evening and morning, framing for us that basic unit of time in which is situated our “work day.” God himself works within time, both creating the natural temporal rhythm and working within that rhythm to fashion the heavens and the earth.

Admittedly, God’s labor is marked by rest at the completion of this work, a truth that may indicate the necessity to postpone the cessation of labors until a project is complete. In this case, one might find a rationale for working day and night in order to complete an important task, which may be necessary at times. But, I believe this is the wrong conclusion to draw with respect to the normal ordering of life. The divine pattern of completing creation and subsequent rest is analogous to the human lifetime in this age and rest in the age to come, a rest entered into by means of Christ’s redemption (Hebrews 4). While this does produce an analogy for our daily life, it is not that we are to postpone rest until we complete our labors, rather it is that rest will come for the one who trusts in the Creator. While there are circumstances in life that require us to work unceasingly to accomplish certain vital tasks (in one of those cases that we might properly term an “emergency” or “crisis”), the better paradigm for thinking about human existence is the clear pattern of night and day, which indicates the pattern of rest and work.

In fact, our theological reflection (in the sense of reflection upon God) should lead us to recognize that God himself has not chosen to accomplish everything in one day, one week, month, or year. Not only does God’s creative work occur over time, but His providential work of bringing all things to His good end occurs over millennia. Since God himself does not accomplish all his purposes in one day, it seems odd that His people might fret, forsake rest, and live disordered lives to do what God himself has chosen not to do. What God could do, He does not, and what we cannot do, we attempt to do, to our own detriment.

Second, we should recognize, as I stated at the outset, that human labor is by its nature mostly unfinished business. It is one of the exigencies of temporality that many of the tasks we pursue are, for the largest part of their duration, unfinished. It is true that certain work is done over the short term while other work is a long term project. If, for example I set out to grill a cheese sandwich, I have good reason to believe I will complete that labor in the short term, lest I end up with a grilled cheese blackened beyond description or usefulness. Yet other tasks are longer term propositions. Building a new house is not a task quickly completed, and it requires a series of starts and stops, day by day, in which workers determine to finish certain things and leave other things to be completed in due order. Part of the process of work, therefore, is the messy “unfinishedness” of our labors that tend to keep us in the office “after hours.” Some of us will do well to learn to leave what is unfinished for another day, and to rest well in spite of our dissatisfaction with what is undone.

Finally, I suggest that leaving the office at the end of the day, and the rest that we pursue subsequent to that departure, is a sign of trust in God. It is so in that we are willing to labor hard during the day, and then leave what is unfinished for the day following, trusting that God will sustain us to do so, or indicate that there is other work to be done or, ultimately, that our labors in this age have come to an end. I am not suggesting, of course, that this way of thinking be used as an excuse for laziness. I am suggesting that an honest day’s work deserves to be followed by genuine rest, because that is the way God designed His world in which we live. At the very least, our other callings, beyond our “job”, await us at the end of the work day, and they deserve our attention. Otherwise, the laborer may forsake the calling to family, to church, to friendship, etc. in order to complete that project at work. While there may be certain situations that require us to work long into the night to complete a task, the pattern of our work should be consistent with the rhythm of day and night, of work and rest, that is implicit in creation. To do otherwise could constitute a lack of faith and could be an act of disobedience. In the end, conscience will be the guide for each person, but we should not fail to give careful thought to some of these theological considerations as we contemplate going home at end of day.