Is Your To Do List Worth Doing?

Podcast audio above includes a short welcome and prayer before the message begins.

The plot line is really innovative and intriguing. Corporate billionaire Edward Cole and working class mechanic Carter Chambers have nothing in common except for their terminal illnesses. Both are stricken with cancer and have a tentative expiry date attached to their lives. Although Edward is reluctant to share a room with Carter, complaining that he "looks half-dead already," they become friends as they undergo their respective treatments. While sharing their hospital room together, they concoct a plan to leave it and do all the things they have ever wanted to do before they die according to their “bucket list” – the list of things that need to be done before a person kicks the bucket. In the process, both of them heal each other, become unlikely friends, and ultimately find the joy in life. It helps that these two characters are played by seasoned actors, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The Bucket List was a box office success, opening at the top of the box office, and grossing a total of $174.3 million worldwide.

While I don’t have a “bucket list” most of us have made “to do” lists at some point in time; perhaps because of a bad memory or the sheer number of tasks we want to perform or someone else wants us to perform. It helps us stay focused on our task. There is something energizing and satisfying about checking things off a list as “done.”

But what if the things we put on our list are pointless? What if some of those items make no difference whatsoever? What if they take so much time that we neglect the most important things? Rather than have a “to do list” what if we had a “stop doing list” for all the things that are so far outside our purpose that they actually became both a distraction from good goals or a deterrent from reaching life’s important objectives. Jesus had something to say on the subject.

Matthew 7:1-8

7:1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. 6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. 7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (NIV)

Jesus provided the best view of the character of His kingdom in Matthew 5-7 and the character of those who fit in it. It has an extensive list of things that we need to delete and to add on our “to do” list. I have a specific focus, but there were several pieces of advice in the preceding two chapters. Let me note a few things that Jesus said should not be on your list:

  1. Do not murder
  2. Do not break your oath (word)
  3. Do not resist an evil person
  4. When you give, don’t let anyone know how much
  5. When you fast, don’t announce it to the world
  6. When you pray, don’t act like heathens and have long prayers in public
  7. Do not worry about your life or about tomorrow.

This is a good “stop doing list”!

Many of these things Jesus speaks about are ethical issues. They are matters that help define our character… matters like humility, gentleness, temperance, peacefulness, trust. I think Jesus understood that time is a dreadful thing to waste. How would you like to spend 2 years making phone calls to people who aren't home? Sound absurd? According to one time management study, that's how much time the average person spends trying to return calls to people who never seem to be in. Not only that, we spend 6 months waiting for the traffic light to turn green, and another 8 months reading junk mail. These unusual statistics should cause us to do time-use evaluation. Once we recognize that simple “life maintenance” can chip away at our time in such huge blocks, we will see how vital it is that we don't busy ourselves “in vain”.

Psalm 39 gives us some perspective. In David's complaint to God, he said, "You have made my days as handbreadths, and my age is as nothing before You" (V. 5). He meant that to an eternal God our time on earth is brief. And He doesn't want us to waste it. When we do, we throw away one of the most precious commodities He gives us. Each minute is an irretrievable gift--an unredeemable slice of eternity. Sure, we have to make the phone calls, and we must wait at the light. But what about the rest of our time? Are we using it to advance the cause of Christ and to enhance our relationship with Him? Is our time well spent? Paul told Christians to redeem or buy back the time. He characterized it as an expensive commodity that had to be used wisely and constructively. Solomon accomplished everything on his “wish list” and found it meant nothing!

In light of time’s value and speed, cutting life back to more essential things is a good idea. The Lord spoke of these things because He saw people missing the mark of life. They had a “to do” list that was entirely contrary to the character of His new kingdom. His words are easy to understand, but very hard to practice. The first statement He makes in our text is “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” It’s easy to discern that Jesus lived among a group of religious snipers. They loved to target something wrong, get the offender in the crosshairs and pull the trigger. The scribes and Pharisees (for the most part) derived amazing pleasure out of blasting some poor sinner. They loaded both barrels with the Mosaic Law and snooped around just waiting for a chance to unload. Their brand of judgment is better understood as “judgmentalism” – an attitude that seeks to distance the righteous from the unrighteous by exposing the wrongs. Jesus was the target of this type of attitude constantly. The “sin police” followed Him wherever He went trying to determine which Law He had broken and what penalty they could prescribe.

Let me point out a few occasions only in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus was judged:

    He called Matthew as a disciple and He was accused of consorting with the wrong crowd

    He cast out demons and the religious leaders said He used the devil’s power to drive out the demons

    He plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath Day and was harshly condemned for threshing grain or working on the Sabbath

    He healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath and they accused him of working on a labor-prohibited day, so they plotted His death.

Do you hear one word of praise to God for the suffering that was halted by Jesus’ actions? Do we realize how much time and energy is wasted by trying to fix people by making them become obedient to some set of regulations, no matter how good these things might be? What Jesus effectively says is for us to stop judging other people because our practices to condemn will be used against us should we fall into sin or error. He illustrated this principle when they brought Him the woman accused of adultery. He wrote in the sand and the accusers slunk away from the oldest to the youngest. I don’t know exactly what He wrote. I do know He applied a new rule of judgment: “He that is without sin cast the first stone.” They all left until just Jesus and the woman faced each other. I don’t think Jesus wrote something they wanted put on either their resume or their headstone!

Judgmentalism has the capacity to create the “walking wounded” and the “living dead.” There is nothing more counter-productive than creating casualties who bear bitter witness of having been judged until they wanted no part of the kingdom of God. Passing judgment is part of our culture. The “idol” shows and the “survivor” series all feature judgments of other people. Your performance is rated and you’re sent packing. A group of people vote you off the island or out of the contest. Tuck your tail between your legs and run! We’ve become so nice about it. We call people who judge “analysts.” It’s such a benign word:

    “systems analysts” – people who tell you your computer is on the fritz

    “political analysts” – people who think they know which move is likely to lose you fewer votes

    “financial analysts” – people who will tell you how to best invest your money by giving them some of it

    “forensic analysts” – people who can take a few drops of your body fluids and almost tell you your life story.

    “psychoanalysts” – people who probe your mind for something in your past to explain why you’re so messed up now!

God’s analysis, unlike ours at times, is always prescriptive and restorative. He doesn’t want to bring us down. He wants to build us up. Sometimes we can engage in demolition, but God’s work is always edification. The illustration Jesus used to support His point is brilliant – the case of the speck of sawdust and the plank. Jesus paints a ludicrous portrait of a person trying to pick out a speck of sawdust from someone else’s eye while being unaware that they have a 4x4 post or a 2x4 in their own. The person doing the picking perceives someone else’s problem, but is blind to their own. Also, the beam in their eye prevents a clear focus on how to help another person. Jesus makes it clear that when we pass judgment on another person, we have just created the measurement tool for our own judgment.

This principle is illustrated in the account of how the prophet Nathan came to David with a sad story in 2 Samuel 12:1-7: 1 The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. 4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” 5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” [That was David’s judgment of the matter.] 7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! 2 Samuel 12:9-10 has God’s assessment: 9 Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house.”

Please don’t think I’m not in favor of church discipline, but if this passage says anything to me it tells me I am not God and that I am commanded not to pass judgment upon another person. If I am willing to sit in the judge’s seat, I must also be willing to sit in the seat of the condemned. I had a piece of sawdust fly into my eye recently. And if you folks are like me, there is no way that any foreign object can rest in your eye without you knowing it. It burned, it watered, and it irritated me to no end. I used every method I could to get it out. I asked my wife if she could see it. I stood in the mirror making faces that would terrify kids on Halloween Night – all because of one little speck of sawdust. I wouldn’t trust anyone to take it out especially if they had a 2x4 lodged in theirs. They’re more incapacitated than I am!

Do something for me if you dare this afternoon. Find a piece of wood around four feet long and get a few ropes and bungee cords and strap the piece of wood around your head so it sticks out at eye level. Then put a patch over one eye. Then get a friend over or use one of your children or your spouse and try to get close enough to look into their eyes to see if there’s a speck of sawdust or an eyelash in one of their eyes. I suspect that trying to get close means that the piece of wood strapped to your head is going to batter them a little. Try going to bed wearing that kind of get-up. At the least it’ll be in the way, but we’ll get an appreciation for how much damage we can do when we try half-blind microsurgery on someone else’s eye. I would expect concussions, a few fights, perhaps a separation or two and a full week of hospital visitation next week!

Jesus is right! The best way I can help my brother is to get the beam out of my eye and in so doing offer him hope that if I can be released from a huge log there’s hope for his speck of sawdust. And if he wants to keep it and put up with the irritation, he will someday have to face God over it! Abraham Linclon stated: “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.”

But Jesus wasn’t done. I read Him saying that there are some people who just won’t be helped. You can preach to them, witness to them, offer all kinds of spiritual help, but nothing is going to change their minds. Spinning your wheels on lost causes should be on the “stop doing” list. There are people you and I know who are away from God who have invented far more reasons not to live a Christian life than any of us can remember. They have heard more sermons and absorbed so much gospel they could become preachers. Now this is tough language, but Jesus saw people of His day that He knew would never accept His message. He refused to waste time on them so He moved on to those with receptive hearts. Is that calloused and cruel? No! It’s good time management. Jesus says it’s comparable to taking the sacrificial meat from the holy altar and casting it to a dog. To the dog, it’s just meat. He’ll rip it apart to satisfy his hunger. Never at a loss for a metaphor, Jesus says it’s like dressing up a pig with a fine collection of pearls. That’s why Miss Piggy always cracks me up! A pig would prefer a potato peel to a pearl. Its value is wasted because the appetites are for their belly and not their soul. Likewise, there are people to whom the gospel is presented that are more satisfied with obeying their fallen nature than reaching for eternal life. There are times we may just have to move on!

I want to close with something to keep on your “to do” list. I can also be assured that if I’ll take my 2x4 or my speck of sawdust to God, He will deal with me in grace! The fact is, we all need His redeeming power. If there’s judgment to be passed, I need to first judge myself. That’s what I think Jesus concluded when He said, “Ask and it will be given to you (vision); seek and you will find (understanding); knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Shortly after I arrived on the West Coast, I took a day trip to the Gaff Topsails to look over the areas I had traveled as a boy by train and hadn’t seen in a while. I came back late in the evening and in the semi-darkness I saw a quad coming towards me. Usually that time of day, and a cold day at that, you just wave at a passerby. But we showed down and stopped and a long conversation began between strangers. We talked about rabbits [he had a couple] and moose sign and other woodsy topics. It was the first time I’d met this man. A few weeks later he arrived in church with his wife and soon after he was a regular attender. We shared times of fellowship and over a number of meals and conversations I got to know him. I will always remember the heart-to-heart chat we had one day as the Lord spoke to his heart and mine. If you ask for anything on your “to do” list or even the “bucket list” ask the Lord to free you from the meaningless things and open us to the encounters that have eternal benefit. A final question: “Would God honour your bucket list?” I trust that you will be able to look back and see many things that were absolutely worth doing!