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The Fifth Mile

Continued from here, featuring guest contributor Elizabeth Cook.

by Elizabeth Wyse Cook

We are probably all familiar with the “second mile” principle. Jesus, referring to the law that a Roman soldier could require a Jewish man to carry his heavy backpack one mile in any direction, said, “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” Matthew 5:41 The Jews had no choice but to obey it or face the wrath of the Roman government. If the soldier wanted a rest, the civilian had to carry that pack. And I doubt that all the soldiers were considerate of the direction the civilian was headed or of the load he was carrying for himself.

Roman Soldier B & W Pictures, Images and Photos
image source
I’m sure we have all heard explanations of why Jesus said this. The one I’m most familiar with is that when we are forced to do something we don’t like, we can change our attitude about it by doing more than is required. And we might even get a chance to witness to the “soldier” in the process because he will be so shocked at our choosing to help longer than we have to.

However, what often happened in my experience was that the “second mile” became commonplace. As someone told me, “The second mile is totally expected. We have to go the third, fourth, or even fifth mile” to get approval. As I thought about that, I realized it was true. No longer were we appreciated for doing normal chores. We had to give up our free time to do extra chores. No longer was a met deadline good enough. We now had to meet the deadline even though the necessary materials were delivered late. No longer were we praised for finishing the job. We were expected to finish it in shorter and shorter amounts of time.


When it becomes commonplace to work late, to cut sleep short, to arrive early, to look like a model every day, to work without pay, to be enthusiastic over every new idea, to have no free time, could it be that something is not quite right?


I was taught this “second mile” principle. (Actually, at some point, it was changed to going the “extra mile.” I think the logic was that sometimes there are more than two miles to go, but I don’t remember for sure.) I also taught the “extra mile” principle; it was one of the “keys to obedience” that we taught the children. I am no longer sure why. I don’t know what “children obey your parents” has in common with an unjust law requiring servitude.

The second mile, by definition, must be a choice. It can never be expected or forced or presumed. Otherwise, it becomes a ridiculously long first “mile.” And I believe God has something to say about changing weights and measures for our own gain.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful environment if everyone was genuinely appreciative of everything that was done for them? Maybe even appreciative of the first mile, but especially of the second mile? I have been in environments like that. I’ll admit; I sure enjoyed them more.

Something that I was shocked to learn is that not every choice is a genuine choice. I thought I was making the choice to go the extra mile. And sometimes I was. But when the extra mile becomes expected, the choice starts to have some unusual consequences. When the choice is choosing the extra mile or being branded a rebel, is that really a choice? When the choice is going the extra mile or facing disapproval or shunning, is that really a choice? When the choice is going the extra mile or being threatened, is that really a choice? When the choice is going the extra mile or losing your job, is that really a choice? If your choices are a) yes, b) yes, or c) yes - is that really a choice? No, it is called bounded choice. You only have choice within the boundaries set by the one in control.

Here’s an example. We were told that we could choose what kind of smile we wanted to wear. 1. A joyful smile – smile because we were happy. 2. An obedient smile – smile because we had been told to. 3. A ministry smile – smile because it would help others feel better. But not smiling was not an option. If we were having a down day, we were not permitted to show it.

By definition, a choice is not a choice if all options are the same thing. Neither is it a genuine choice if you are given two seemingly equal options, but you know without being told that one of the options comes with major negative consequences.

It was amazing to me that when I was given genuine choices, I wanted to go the extra mile, even when it was in no way expected! When I was no longer exhausted from trying to keep up with “fifth mile” expectations, I actually had the energy to do special things for others and enjoy doing them. And when I stopped expecting the “fifth mile” from others, I was able to be grateful to them when they were willing to help in any way. It made the relationships in my life much more harmonious. Loving people for who they are rather than what they do is definitely more fulfilling!
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Eliza is a young woman who was burned by legalism, but then discovered that Jesus already kept the law for her.  Her desire is to get to know Him better.  You can contact her at elizabethwysecook(at)gmail(dot)com.  You may remember Eliza from this article by Sarah Posner.

3 comments:

  1. This are powerful and interesting and thoughtprovoking thoughts...

    cornelia seigneur

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  2. And when I stopped expecting the “fifth mile” from others, I was able to be grateful to them when they were willing to help in any way. It made the relationships in my life much more harmonious. Loving people for who they are rather than what they do is definitely more fulfilling!

    @Eliza wow! you said it perfectly for me. We are human "beings" not human "doings". I love your articles!

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