“I wanted to let you know,” Cathee tells me, “that I’ve officially given up on First John.”
It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and we’re having breakfast together at a small cafe. “Yeah?” I say.
“I’ve slogged through almost two chapters,” she says, “and I just can’t do it anymore. I love John; it’s my favorite gospel, and I thought I’d enjoy First John, too, but I don’t. He never makes a point. It makes me crazy. I kept waiting for it to get better, but it hasn’t. He just keeps talking in circles.”
It’s true. John says helpful things like:
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning….Yet I am writing you a new commandment. (2:7-8a)
Come again? Are you writing a new commandment or not, John? Because you can’t have it both ways. (Oh, but he can, and he does.)
And that’s pretty tame. When John really gets going, he does the whole circular-logic thing:
They went out from us, but they did not belong to us, for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belonged to us. (2:19)
Arrrgh! Or how about this one:
As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie and just as it has taught you, abide in him. (2:27)
Cathee’s a statistician, so I can totally see why this sort of circularity drives her nuts. Even I find it confusing, and I’m pretty cool with poetic language.
“I hate it,” she says. “So I’m quitting.” Then, rather shame-facedly, she adds, “I’m sorry.”
I shake my head. “Don’t be. It’s not for everyone. I said from the beginning that I didn’t want anyone to beat themselves up if they didn’t finish.”
“I think I would have stuck with it if he’d just made a point every now and then, you know?”
“Cathee,” I say, “it’s okay. Really. I’m not offended. God’s not upset with you. You tried. It wasn’t a good fit for you.” I shrug. “It’s not that you can’t do it.” I give a sort of half-laugh, remembering that she and I had been in a women’s small group together, a decade ago now, and we’d all agreed to memorize Psalm 139. Cathee was the only one who did.
Later, I will wish I had reminded her that memorizing Scripture isn’t a requirement for the Christian life. It doesn’t get you extra stars in your heavenly crown. And it’s certainly not something to slog through even though you hate it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a big fan of adolescent spirituality, where we just do what feels good. But neither am I an eremitical extremist. I believe joy is the best teacher. Now, admittedly, sometimes we have to go through some slogging to get to the joy, but Cathee had slogged long enough to know that she wasn’t getting past the slog to the joy on the other side.
The whole point of memorizing Scripture is to plant God’s word—His life-breathing word of love—in our hearts, where it can work its way through our entire beings like the leaven in the bread until it bears the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (one of which, recall, is joy).
But our food comes, the subject changes, and I don’t say any of this. I largely forget about this part of our conversation until a few days later when Cathee sends me an email:
Since our breakfast I’ve been reading and meditating on Romans 8—wow, what an amazing chapter. I mean, it’s full of famous passages that I pretty much already know, it has passages of beautiful and encouraging sentiments (“Who can separate us from the love of God?” Every time I think of that it makes me want to cry with joy), and it’s chock full of meaty theology.
So I found an online plan that has you memorize the chapter in 19 chunks, and I’ve decided to give it a go. I’m a bit nervous, given how easily I lost momentum on 1 John, but I’m hopeful that a shorter passage, which holds lots more meaning for me, will be less daunting.
I’m hopeful, too. I think Cathee’s on the right track. For her, switching to the Romans 8 train makes total sense. It’s brought her to the place of desire, where her longing for God and her joy in God meet in a passage she wants to press close to—into—her heart, to help her draw near to the ever-present love of God.
And isn’t that why we do anything in the Christian life? To draw ever nearer to the loving heart of God in Christ?