I’ve taken up power dog-walking lately. Jacky, my granddaughter’s golden retriever, is a noble beast, a trained service dog that stays in his service mode best when he’s walking really fast. Our own dog, Buddy, is a Jack Russell terrier (mostly) that we rescued when he was abandoned in our neighborhood. He’s much smaller than Jacky, but likes to keep the same 3.5-4 mph pace. At this clip, we’re all in the zone, focused on the walk itself and not too distracted by other dogs, in their case, or by mental wanderings, in mine.
Power dog-walking is a picture of diligence. When you’re focused, putting all your energy into following hard after Yeshua, loving God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might, you don’t have much left for the many blandishments that surround us. Yeshua addresses this aspect of diligence when a would-be follower says to him, “Lord, I will follow you . . . but let me first go and bid farewell to those who are at my house,” and he answers, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62-63).
Diligence, then, requires focus and intensity, but it is more than just staying in focus; it is also about completing the task before us, staying focused on what needs to get done until it is done. In The Speed of Trust, author Stephen Covey discusses how trust is created and restored in a business or organizational setting. He makes the obvious point that character is essential, but then adds that character must be coupled with competence to create real trust. This doesn’t mean that we only trust the most brilliant and effective people around us, but it does mean that results produce trust more decisively than almost anything else. If someone seems to be a person of character, but doesn’t follow through on commitments, we lose trust. Conversely, someone who simply makes modest commitments and is diligent to fulfill them quickly gains our trust.
It’s not uncommon, however, among followers of Yeshua to misapply grace in a way that undermines such diligence. God has forgiven us, and given us all things in Messiah, we think, so it doesn’t matter that much what we do. But, of course, the truth is just the opposite: God’s free gift in Messiah Yeshua impels us to serve him wholeheartedly. The siddur captures this balance in the section called Kabbalat ol malchut ha-shamayim –“Accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” This section opens by listing our unworthiness, and goes on to acknowledge God’s grace despite it:
The pre-eminence of man over the animals is nothing, for all is but a fleeting breath.
Yet we are Your people, the children of Your covenant, the children of Abraham, Your beloved . . .
And then it provides the response:
Therefore it is our duty to thank You, and to praise, glorify, bless, sanctify and give praise and thanks to Your name. (from the Koren Siddur)
Because God has chosen us apart from merit of our own (and this sense of unmerited favor is greatly intensified in Messiah), we are to be in yoke, just as my dogs are on leash, and focused on God’s assignment, not on sniffing out the bushes and running after stray cats. The great reward is that we are in yoke to Messiah himself (Matt. 11:28-30).
Since diligence is an active trait, let’s consider a simple exercise to build it up. Early each day identify just one task you can accomplish that same day, whether large or small, public or private, and make sure you do it. It might be a phone call or note that you’ve been procrastinating about, a chaotic drawer or desktop that you can organize, or an extra measure of prayer for a persistent need in someone’s life. It’s best if this task directly fulfills a commandment of Scripture. The main thing is to focus on it, and get it done this very day, to help make diligence a steady habit, which by definition it must be.
For lots more on the virtue of diligence, and more insights on ethics and the siddur by my colleague Ben Ehrenfeld, go to www.rivertonmussar.org.