Monday marked the start of the month of Ramadan. Ramadan Kareem to all my Muslim friends. This is the month in which Muslims fast each day until sundown. It is the time in their calendar at which they believe Allah will bestow special blessings on them.
One of the sadder realities behind the Muslim worldview (from the perspective of this Christian, at any rate) is the total lack of grace. Allah, as far as one can tell, runs a points system whereby one’s good and bad deeds are weighed up and, in the end, determine whether one can enter paradise. Unfortunately, it is not a straightforward system because he may decided – for reasons known only to him – to disregard one person’s tally and reject them whilst another’s considerably worse tally might well be decided to be adequate for entry. Nobody can know or question the mind of Allah on these things.
The reason that Ramadan is seen as so vital is that it provides an opportunity for special blessings. The good deeds done during Ramadan are worth more than they would be at other times of year. And so those who are keen to earn favour with Allah will be seeking to make the most of this time.
Of course, and this is the saddest part, there are exceptions. Those who are ill or pregnant or have some other significant reason they cannot partake don’t have to fast. That may not sound sad but kind and helpful. Only, when you ask whether Allah chalks up the Ramadan blessings and good deeds they have been forced to miss out on to their account in lieu of their ability to join in, the answer is a clear no. So, whilst illness may excuse you from the command, it still bars you from accessing the necessary grace that you need for your good deeds.
For this reason many people, despite illness and infirmity, force themselves to fast. I remember one friend of mine, as he spoke to his Muslim neighbour who was making herself ill through observance, noted this. He said is surely cannot be right that your God would force you to make yourself ill in order to please him. My God, he said, does not insist on my making myself unwell before he will be pleased with me.
And, with that said, I am sure every Christian reading this will give a hearty Amen. We will all be affirmed in our belief that Allah expects what is unreasonable and unmanageable from his subjects. We will give thanks that Yahweh does not so expect of us. Isn’t it great that we serve a God who does not demand our making ourselves ill to please him.
Except, of course, we say that is what our God wants but many of us don’t really believe it. Let me be clear, our God does not want us to make ourselves ill in order to please him. Nor does he dole out grace based on our performance for him. As Christians, our entire thing is (or should be) that Jesus has all that is required for God to be pleased with us. God does not dispense grace to us based on our performance, but based on Jesus perfect performance that has already been accepted by the Father as finished and complete. We don’t have to try to earn God’s favour, we already have it in abundance in Christ.
So what do I mean when I say that we don’t believe our God wants us to make ourselves ill to please him? At one conference I attended, I remember hearing person after person speak about how we need to ‘burnout for Christ’. Many bemoaned the need for rest suggesting there was plenty of time to rest when we get to glory. People are dying in their sin, you must press on – even to the point of illness – because Christ needs you to be about his business.
Is this an isolated incident? Nope. There are plenty who bemoan the need for rest. They decry the concept of taking a break. They think it lazy, or unspiritual, or somehow neglecting the Great Commission to dare, even for the sake of your own health, to take a step back. Stories abound of people ‘dying in harness’ or pressing on in mission until they could simply go no longer. These things are spoken of, not so much as the foolish idolisation of ministry, but of wonderful examples of faithful service. And I’ve no doubt whatsoever such people did so out of a desire to please the Lord, and were doing it out of love for him, but it is no different a philosophy in reality to the Islamic belief that God will only be pleased with us if we fulfil certain duties, even if they make us ill.
It bears saying that there are times when we should push ourselves to do for Christ. There are those with very little on their plates who are very quick to talk about the need for rest. There are those who need chivvying up to perhaps take on a bit more because, well, they don’t really seem to be doing very much in the cause of the gospel. But it should also be noted that I do not believe that is the majority of pastors, missionaries and gospel workers. Most have a tendency to overwork and push themselves to the point of burnout and illness. Our God, we insist, doesn’t require us to make ourselves ill to please him – unless, of course, we have made an idol out of ministry or we are working on our own functional points system so that we can access God’s grace. Then, we will gladly allow people to make themselves ill in ministry because, actually, we think Yahweh requires this to make him pleased with us.
Those of us inclined to cheer that on as a wonderful godly example need to ask ourselves seriously, how are we functionally any different to our Muslim friends when we do that? Do we actually believe in a gospel of grace if this is our outworking of it? Do we actually believe that, by our union with Christ, the Father is perfectly happy with us already in the Son? If we don’t, our theology will push us closer to a gospel of works-righteousness than we might find comfortable. We might well cheer when the lack of grace is noted in the Islamic worldview, but we should be careful lest we fall, because some of us really aren’t all that far away from that ourselves.