Jesse Ancona's Reviews: Burned Out on Being Good
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Book Review

Burned Out on Being Good:

What to do if your religion is wearing you out.

Mosley, Steven. Burned Out on Being Good: what to do if your religion is wearing you out. 1998, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Nampa, Idaho. ISBN 0-8163-1578-7 (alk. paper)

We were five souls in the purgatory of an extended work program, earning tuition for our year at Valley Grande Academy. Hoeing weeds occupied our hours when there were no ditches to dig or garbage bins to dump. If all else failed, the boys could always be sent out after the weeds. ...

There wasnít any realistic hope of eliminating all the weeds; our campus included several wide fields. We were just putting in time under a low, gray sky. ...

One of the reasons I canít forget those hours is because in my mind they became a picture of the religious life. What do Christians do anyway? They hoe weeds. At least thatís what it seemed to most of us at the academy. You have to keep fighting off the evils of the world that creep up around you.

Look out! Thereís a patch of lust springing up over there Ė and you know how fast that stuff grows. Whoa, thereís a string of Satanism subtly infiltrating the church. Oh, and right under your feet thereís a thorny cluster of doctrinal error. Better cut that down.

That was our picture of religious goodness. Hacking at weeds.

...One of the pitfalls of a legalistic culture is that sooner or later it creates a religion of avoidance. Our faith becomes defined by the things we avoid. Thatís one reason so many people burn out on being good.

...A religion of avoidance manages to be both intimidating and unchallenging at the same time. The thought of spending your life, always vigilant, guarding against those little sins, fills people with dismay. Itís just too hard not to fall. And yet, though terribly difficult, the prospect doesnít arise as a great challenge, either; it doesnít seem worthy of lifeís best energies.

p. 7-10, Burned out on Being Good, from the first chapter, "Are You Worn Out by the Weeds?"

     The author then discusses how the focus on the trivial becomes like animism, where certain things are said to be good or bad in and of themselves. Instead, he encourages us to avoid trivializing our faith, and look at the good or bad use of things, without being doctrinaire about minor matters.

     The rest of the book is about how to get back to the big picture. The second chapter talks about seeking God. The third chapter talks about a faith involving a natural process of growth through response to the love of Christ. The fourth chapter makes it clear that legalism always comes back to a lack of love, and he calls it "Getting Back to Love."

     The whole book is broken into four sections: Part 1 is "Standards: Quantity Versus Quality"; Part 2 is "The Truth: Me Versus Error"; Part 3 is "The Church: Us Versus Them"; and the short, pithy fourth part is "The Heart: From Unhealthy to Healthy". But the book read naturally, one part flowing into the other, and it was only in writing this review that I was able to appreciate the poetic completeness of its structure.

     Written in a conversational style, it is pithy, short, and full of stories and examples from real life. It is easy to understand, and it is Biblical.

     The entire book reminds me of what Christ said to the Pharisees, "It is the sick that need the physician, not those who are whole," and they went away, puzzled, because they assumed he was saying the sinners he was fraternizing with were the sick, and they were the well. In other places and times, He let them know just how sick they really were.

     Many churches believe the Law is done away, and believe in a subtle kind of antinomianism; others, like the Seventh-Day Adventist Church this writer is from, believe that God still requires obedience to His commandments. From my own experience, though, having attended churches that believe in the Law and those that donít, is that this distinction doesnít matter much to peopleís expression of their religion. This particular failing, what many of us in the old Worldwide Church of God used to call "majoring in the minors," is a universal part of human nature. Thus, the real potential audience for this book is wider than just the so-called "legalistic" churches.

     Look at how your church treats its teenagers. If there are rules about boysí and girlsí hair length, girlsí skirt lengths (or whether they can wear pants), or makeup, youíre more legalistic than you think. Look at how you view entertainment: can you condemn a book without reading it, or music without listening to it, just by knowing a few things about it? Are you one of the people burning Harry Potter books? Then youíre so legalistic, itís blinded you. If you want to keep the Law, then keep the Ten Commandments: at least you wonít become trivial or silly. Except for the Sabbath, nobody will really mind: people wonít dislike you for avoiding killing, stealing, adultery, and cursing God and parents, by and large. They may even think you are a "good person." Not that this is really the whole answer, either.

     But trying to keep a bunch of little rules, usually ones only relevant to contemporary life, ones that will seem silly in ten years, rules about clothes and entertainment, and popular culture, is not unimportant to God. Whomever you serve, thatís who your master is. When you are serving trivial rules, you are not obeying God, and that is no trivial matter. As a matter of fact, calling yourself a Christian, and using the name of Christ and God in pronouncements about unimportant things, causing their names to become laughingstocks, is a kind of blasphemy: do nonChristians say bad things about God because of you? This is also anything but trivial.

     Why deal with your heart, when you can fill your time with empty rituals, and superstitious avoidance of items symbolic of evil?

     Why indeed? The eternal "busy-ness" and exclusivity of many churches across the spectrum of denominations pays silent tribute to the idea that, when all is said and done, a lot of this religious rickrack is an attempt to both placate and avoid God. And that impulse is as old as Adam and Eve, who made coverings of leaves for their nakedness and hid from God.

     Much of manís religion has focussed on doing things to avoid making the gods mad, and to make sure they leave us alone. Monotheism and Christianity doesnít root out that very human tendency. I have even spoken to Jewish people who have complained that, though they like going to synagogue, and they enjoy the ritual, it leaves them feeling empty, and most people they know feel the same way. Having experienced some of that ritual, myself, I know its powerful attraction, but at the end of the day, even that is not enough. I would say that a person who believes in any Theistic, Bible-based religion could probably benefit from this book, for, though it is aimed at Christians, it is primarily aimed at human beings and their universal failings.

     The cure for false religion is true religion. The author gives a very good grounding on how to start over, and build on what is real and true and eternal, and that starts with God. And love. And goes from there. Doing this will allow you to be happier, and feel a sense of purpose and challenge in your life. It will also make it easier for you to get along with other people. When you have to make a stand for your religion, it wonít already be old and tiresome, because you wonít have been spending all your days "crying wolf."

     If the title of this book appeals to you, buy it and read it, and youíll have it to keep. It more than lives up to its promise. If the title puzzles you, maybe take it out of the library, and see if maybe youíre not on a path that hasnít burned you out yet, but you just havenít gotten it. If youíre satisfied youíre not, itís still good to understand many of your fellow believers who are in this trap, so rather than condemning them for their "legalism," you can see ways to help them.

     One of the things I like about this book is the fact that it didnít make me feel bad reading it. Some books that address problems in the Christian life or the church manage to be so depressing one becomes filled with despair. This book didnít do that to me, and I donít think it will do that to you. I felt good reading this book, but I learned things I needed to correct. It didnít fill me with guilt, but hope and determination.

     If your nonChristian family, friends, or workmates have ever made comments about your behaviour that indicates they think you are uptight or stuck-up or rigid, maybe you need this book. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, and peace. They lead to living peaceably with all men Ė most of the time. If that doesnít describe you or your life, this book is certainly well worth a read.

Reviewed by Jesse Ancona
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