“The Myth of Magic Neutral Time” is the sort of goofy phrase you come up with in college ministry to make basic concepts of spiritual life stick for your students. Sometimes you can’t just come out and say stuff—it’s like you have to trick the truth into them.
In any case, this particular neologism struck me in a conversation with my friend Katie. We were discussing the frustrating phenomena of future college freshmen who plan on “taking a break” from their faith to just go off and “have a little fun for awhile.” This is idiotic for several reasons. But to see why, let’s first explain the Myth of Neutral Time.
Myth of Neutral Time
I always tell my students they need to be aware of the myths and stories they tell themselves about reality, because the story you think you’re in determines the character you become. Neutral time is a particularly popular story. It goes something like this:
I’ve been a good kid in high school. I’ve done my homework, been to Bible study, and didn’t mess around too much or anything. Now, though, I really want to go out and enjoy myself a bit. The “college experience” is calling, and I can’t be expected to go and not let loose a little bit. I mean, I really love Jesus and my faith will always be a big part of my life, but you know, I’ll just go off for a bit, maybe a semester or two, have my fun, and then be back around. You’ll see.
Many assumptions underlie this story, but the main one seems to be that faith is unchanging, timeless, and perennial. Your walk with Jesus is something you can leave alone for a while and, once you’ve done your own thing for a bit, pick up again. “Neutral time” is like calling timeout so you can go the restroom or take a break in the middle of the game; when you come back the score, time, and possession is just like where you left off last.
Magic (Or, Nothing Works That Way)
I call this explanation “magic” because basically nothing else in life works this way. If I decided, “You know, for the next few months, I’m not going to watch my diet or work out or take vitamins or anything. Then I’ll just pick it up again and be right back where I am now.” If I think that’s how it will work, I’d be sorely deluded.
Or take human relationships. Imagine one day I looked at my wife and said, “Honey, for the next few months we’re going to cut back on this whole ‘communication’ thing. I love you, and our relationship is really, really important to me, but you shouldn’t expect more than a text message every couple of days. I’ll be out traveling with the guys, catching up on hobbies, and just having a good time. When I’m done, though, we’ll pick it up seriously just like it is now.” Again, does anybody think this approach will actually work?
In both cases, despite calling “neutral time” on my diet or my relationships, the landscape will seriously shift beneath me. Biological and relational reality doesn’t just stop because we say it will. Excessive eating will inevitably add fat to my frame, and lack of exercise will lead to muscular atrophy. Purposely not talking to my wife for a few months will put a strain on our relationship, no matter how important I say it is. If I’m not constantly engaging her, sharing life, hearing her heart, and being involved, some distance will enter the equation.
Jesus Is No Different
As I Lay Dying had a song a while back called “The Only Constant is Change” whose chorus says, “The only constant is change / nothing remains the same. The only constant is change / there’s only growth, or decay.” This is obvious for most of our life. But for some reason we think our relationship with Jesus is the only place it doesn’t apply.
I’m not exactly sure where this assumption comes from, but I’ll hazard a few guesses. For some, it’s probably because we have an overly cognitive idea of faith where, if we keep believing certain propositions (with no necessary correlation to behaviors or habits), we can be confident we’re still Christian. It could be a trivialized version of assurance where we think, Well, you know, I prayed that prayer, and I’m not explicitly ditching Jesus, so it’s all good. Or maybe they’ve so compartmentalized their faith that they’ve disconnected from the real world. Whatever the case, because faith is a part of reality, things don’t work that way.
Don’t get me wrong here: this is isn’t because Jesus won’t take you back; he truly is the God of the prodigal son. But not every alleged son comes to his senses, or even wants to. And after a while, spiritual inertia sets in such that your time away not only hinders your ability but even changes your desire to come back. Jesus’ open arms also don’t always cancel the harsh, temporal consequences of life lived in sin.
Abide and Strive
My point here isn’t to question perseverance or assurance, But Christians are kept by the power of God in part by actually heeding the words of Jesus and his apostles. Jesus explicitly says “abide in me” (John 15:4). Building on the vine metaphor Jesus warns us we only have life and vitality, we only give fruit, as we actively draw sap from the vine (15:5-8). This teaching speaks of our union with Christ by the Spirit, but it also carries the expectation that disciples will actively meditate on Jesus’ words and works so as to “abide.” More than once the apostle Paul speaks of the life of faith as a physical contest in which we discipline ourselves, striving after Christ with energy and singleminded devotion, so as to not lose the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27; Phil. 3:12-21).
The Bible nowhere imagines an “off season” to faith. Please don’t fool yourself into believing you’re special. Jesus is calling you to abide; Paul is encouraging you to follow him as he chases after Jesus. Right now.
Take active stock of your life and ask yourself some key questions. Have you called neutral time on areas of your walk with Jesus? Have you neglected communicating with Jesus in prayer? Have you starved yourself of the Word? Or time spent in active fellowship with the body? Perhaps you’re indulging secret (or not-so-secret) sins?
Probably what you need most is to meditate on Jesus’ words to abide, to remain in him. Stop and consider the deep implications of that statement. Let your heart be melted by the gospel—that Jesus wants us to abide with him, that he’s promised to abide with us despite our wandering hearts. Only when you see that truth will the myth of calling neutral time from such marvelous, unfathomable love will be seen for the unnecessary tragedy it is.