"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lessons Learned from "The Year of Living Biblically"

In this final post about The Year of Living Biblically I want to record a few lessons that either the author pointed out while writing about his year-long project or lessons I learned from his experiences.  Joni recommended that I read this book because her husband was reading it, had read parts of it to her and she thought it would be of interest to me.  As I said in my initial post, it was different than what I expected. I thought it would be more serious.  A man who worked at soup kitchens and washed people's feet and AJ Jacobs did do the former, but - again - this book was much more humorous than I imagined. (It even has a "HUMOR" label on the back cover.) 

So here are some final things about this book.

I recall that AJ would admit how difficult it was for him to pray. Other parts of his project - wearing certain clothes, eating kosher foods - were fine, but as an agnostic, worshiping God when he didn't know if God existed felt weird.  Yet the more he did it, the more he felt OK with it.  As he gave thanks for food and drink and the fact that he made it to and from work safely, he realized how many things went right every day, how many good things there were in life. By giving thanks, AJ developed a more grateful attitude.

And I like this!  When we focus on being thankful, we aren't moping about how bad life is and complaining and gossiping. So that's a good lesson!


One day as AJ was admiring an article he'd written for his work, he suddenly stopped short...

Here I am being prideful about creating an article in a midsize American magazine. But God -- if He exists -- He created the world.  He created flamingos and supernovas and geysers and beetles and the stones for these steps I'm sitting on.

"Praise the Lord," I say out loud.

I'd always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward.  The sentences about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension.  I'm not used to talking like that. It's so over the top. I'm used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place?  God shouldn't be insecure. He's the ultimate being.

Now I can sort of see why. It's not for him. It's for us.  It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain.  (pg. 220)

And I like this!  When we start focusing on God, we stop being proud and self-centered. We realize how insignificant the things we "create" really are so why should we go about thinking we are "all that" compared to the neighbor next door or someone in another culture?

Another ...

During his year-long project AJ gets input from groups who follow the Bible - some more literally than others. He visits the Amish, Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, serpent handlers in Tennessee and a creationist museum in Kentucky.  Even though he admits that he could never believe the creationist point of view since it's not based on science, he admits they did teach him that life isn't random and that we do have a place in this universe.  Later in the book he notes, "My existence is not a meaningless collection of actions, so I should take seriously every decision." (pg. 275)

And I like this! The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made!  We aren't products of chance who have no purpose in life.  While we should never have inflated pride in thinking we are better than others, we should realize our lives have meaning and we are here for a reason. Our decisions matter.

Lastly and most importantly...

On day 336 AJ mentioned that he'd had a "bit of a mental breakdown" the week before about his Bible project.

"In the final stretch, I've been frantically trying to read every single book on religion, trying to interview every religious leader, trying to figure out how to obey every rule.  What if I miss an insight? What if I overlook a potential translation?  I haven't paid God five shekels to redeem my first-born son. I haven't talked to a Seventh-day Adventist yet. What if they have the secret?  I've barely made a dent in the Bible."  (pg. 313)

I remember when I mentioned on Facebook that I was reading this book. I'd only read maybe 50 or 75 pages (out of more than 350) and my friend said that her husband was a bit frustrated with the author's fearfulness. At the time nothing had bothered me this way, but I said I'd look out for it.  AJ had admitted he was a germophobe so I thought maybe that would come into play in an annoying way, but nothing like that bothered me.  Then as I read further I realized maybe AJ's fear that bothered Josh was his inability to keep every rule, his list of 700-plus biblical rules were too many to keep up with!  If he focused on food laws and eating kosher, he couldn't focus on praising God or avoiding lying so much.  Not gossiping. Not lusting.  Those were super-tough and AJ was honest in admitting this.  Rather than this frustrating me, it made me note this Monday night as I finished the book:  "his wanting to keep all the rules, striving, yet he cannot: that is THE POINT."

AJ (rather, using him as a metaphor for all those who take God seriously) was trying to earn God's favor by keeping every rule. By wearing his hair a certain way, by growing a beard, by not mixing fabrics, by eating certain foods and avoiding others, by not lying, by not coveting or lusting or stealing or murdering, by keeping no record of wrongs, by forgiving, by doing good just for the sake of doing good, by giving a tithe, by feeding the poor.

He realized it was exhausting. It caused a "bit of a mental breakdown"! 

This is what is great about grace. The Law was there to show us we could never measure up to God.  It was a tutor, a school teacher if you will.  It taught us, there is no way I can keep myself pure.  Even if I keep these rules, I still have to worry about ritual impurities almost constantly.

This is why Jesus is important.  He made a way where we don't have to keep 700-plus rules in order to reach God.  He is the bridge.  We can rest in the work he did for us on the cross and fall on the mercy and grace of God.

"God, I can't keep all these rules!  Trying to do everything right is driving me nuts!  I cry out for your mercy in dealing with me. God, be merciful to me a sinner!" 

And the wonderful thing is, God is merciful. God is full of grace.  He abundantly pardons. He is the Savior.

And I love this! Enough said.


mmal said...


LK said...

I wish they would do a followup with him and see what he retained in his everyday life from the experience. Would be so fascinating.

Lat said...

700 plus rules? Don't even know if I can manage above 7 :)

I don't think everyone can follow every rule written down.I find AJ's expectations too high.We must accept that there's beauty in being imperfect.In fact I don't believe that God wants us to be perfect by striving towards every rule written down.That's impossible to achieve.

" The Law was there to show us we could never measure up to God. " Then why have it there in the first place? Why wasn't the Law more simpler,say up to 7? Afterall no matter what we can't even think about measuring up to God anyway.
Just my thoughts here.Thanks!

Carmen said...

Sounds like a really interesting, wonderful read.

I loved your whole entry but got to "This is what is great about grace. The Law was there to show us we could never measure up to God" and loved it!

The law is to show us the important of grace. An Ah-hah moment. =) I think there are other reasons but this sure seems like a biggie. =) Thanks for sharing! I should recommend this book to James. He might like it too.

Susanne said...

mmal,welcome! And thanks for your feedback. :)

LK, yes, I thought the same thing! I'd love to hear if it impacted him at all in the long-term!

Lat, yes, imagine that these are only WRITTEN rules, but the Oral Tradition had many many more including how to put on your shoes. Honestly listening to the rabbis talk about the Talmud reminded me so much of the ahadith and all the Muslim rules!

I think God wanted us to realize we can't save ourselves and that we need Him. But that's just how I believe based on the Bible. We can't work ourselves into His favor. Unconditional love means no conditions. :)

I appreciate your feedback!

Carmen, thanks for your comment! I'm glad you understood what I was getting at. Yes, the Law overall is - for me - a way we realize we can't do it ourselves and we just give up and turn to God.

Thank you all for your thoughts!

Becky said...

I really loved this post, your passion shines through :)

I am getting really excited about reading this book once I get it from the library.

I agree that no one could ever live up to all the rules and laws, which is why God's grace is necessary. It's how this grace manifests that we don't agree 100% on :)

Angry Panda said...

Like LK said, I'd love to see a follow-up and hear if his life is different. That's what I badly wanted by the end of the book - to hear he'd made some kind of conversion that was lasting.

I loved the lessons you listed. It was a good reminder, but I don't think that nonbelievers would take as much away.

As far as the frustration with the fears, it was all about him being a germophobe. I can't stand parents that are overly protective and treat their kids like Faberge eggs. And I love his wife's response to him: "Helmet!"

My brother and I have often talked about our childhood and how we played on playgrounds that were made of thick, treated wood, and heavy metal bars. I remember at recess kids jumping into a "net" made of tires and chains. You'd NEVER see a playground like that now. Everything has to be plastic, and plastic coated chains, and rubberized.

Don't get me wrong, our kids are special and precious and we need to watch out for them, but when the general populace lets so much filth and garbage into their homes and then worries about the construction of the playground, it seems completely bass ackwards to me.

So it wasn't so much that AJ was fearful, it was the complete germophobia and wussy parenting that I didn't like. :)

Susanne said...

Becky, aw, how cute that my passion shines through! :D I will be eager to read your thoughts on the book. Oh, and how do you think grace is manifest? I don't know that I've ever read your view of that. Thanks for your comment! :)

Susanne said...

Josh, I told my mom about the book before I was done with it and she asked about that (conversion) so it's cute to see you mention it. :)

No, I don't know that nonbelievers would take the same lessons that I did nor would all believers. It's just what stuck out to ME. Maybe I was trying to justify why I was reading it and was looking for a lesson or two! ;)

Ohhhh, yes, now I see what bothered you. Yes, I agree that his wife's "helmet" thing was great for telling him he was going overboard. But the neat thing - and here I am trying to look for the bright side - is that part of why he wanted to do this project is that he had a son and wondered if Jasper needed some moral foundation that he never had. So maybe his overprotectiveness is what made him read and live the Bible. And who knows how those things will affect his life now and in the future. The end of the story is still to be told.

Really appreciate your feedback on this post and others and for recommending the book through Joni! :)

Angry Panda said...

Suzie - I totally love the way you looked at the bright side. It made me examine my own heart and wonder if maybe I'm a little too cynical.

Because, really, I liked the book and I'm glad I read it even if I wanted my happy ending.

Becky said...

I'm just waiting for the library to put it aside for me now :)

As for God's grace, I believe that none of us are perfect, nor could we ever be, therefore we are all in need of God's mercy, forgiveness and grace. Difference is, I assume that you (like other Christians) see God's grace manifest through Christ's sacrifice. I see God's grace manifest through Her forgiveness of us, when He sees our intentions and how we strive towards leading better lives. I'm not sure if I'm explaining myself properly :)

Susanne said...

No, that's a nice explanation - thank you!

Susanne said...

Thanks, Josh! I don't think you are too cynical. I think we all like our happy endings. :) I appreciate the recommendation and your feedback!