How many of us have become that which, in a time of clearer thinking, we swore we’d never be, and hindered someone from hearing our message because of our behavior?
People ask me, “How was your vacation?” I want to say good, restful, enjoyable, and it was all those things to a degree, but it was also kind of disturbing as well. So I want to tell you about something that happened on my vacation and what I believe the Lord is saying to me at this season in my life.
I need to start out by saying that this last year, especially the last six months, have been an extremely stressful time for me. I’ve been doing two shows, teaching two classes at Hope Chapel, I’ve been taking two classes in grad school, I’ve been fulfilling my other responsibilities at Hope, been doing outside speaking and trying to get some writing done. That’s just my professional life. It says nothing of my private life (I still have to do the laundry, folks) or my social life, which has been nil.
As a result of being squeezed like this for such a long time I’ve had trouble with my health, with my breathing, actually, a kind of stress asthma causing me to gasp for air, a feeling like I was suffocating.
It wasn’t until the third day in Wisconsin that I was breathing normally again. But it didn’t last. By the time I’d finally started to relax the trip was nearly over and I started feeling suffocated again. As I realized I’d be returning in a few days I started to get that squeezed feeling.
It’s a little hard to describe the effect it had on me, but it’s important to tell you about this. I got angry, very angry. I resented the thought that I had to return to the demands, the deadlines. I was trying to cram as much relaxation into the week as I possibly could—if you can imagine this, I wanted to rest and fish hard at the same time—but the calendar told me it was a losing battle; I just had a couple of days left. I was testy, cranky, not always civil towards those I was with.
And another thing, I didn’t want to pray; I didn’t want to read my Bible. That was “work.” Frankly, I didn’t want to think about God at all. God was part of my profession. I was on vacation; I was relaxing. I just wanted to be left alone to fish, I wanted to be left alone to chop wood, I wanted to be left alone to repair the pier, I wanted to just be. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians echoed in my mind: “...make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you” (1 Thess 4:11). That sounded very appealing.
Then I was hit by a startling thought. It was this: Did I have a relationship with God or did I just have a Christian profession? I could give others the way and the truth, but had I ceased to be able to give them the life because the life had been squeezed out of me by the pace of my own life?
Why am I telling you this? First, because I’m not going to lie to you about what it means for me to be a Christian. When I defend Christianity it’s not the “apple-pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by” version. It’s the real thing, friends, as much as I can be in touch with it, Christ walking with man—me, in this case—in the nuts and bolts of life, down on the hardtop where life is really lived, because, frankly, that’s where you live it as well.
But I’m also telling you this for another reason: I care about you. And I’ve been around the Lord long enough to know that if something is happening in my own life, it’s probably happening in the lives of those He has given me to speak to, and right now that’s you. This isn’t just for those who are deeply involved in Christian work like I’ve been; it’s for those who are deeply involved in the American life.
I always told myself I’d never marry the corporation, even before I became a Christian, that what I wanted was a part-time job and a full-time family. How many of us have become that which, in a time of clearer thinking, we swore we’d never be?
When I lived overseas in Southeast Asia, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on American values. It’s pretty hard to do that unless you go away, kind of like asking a fish what it’s like to be wet. If you’ve always been immersed in water, wetness is pretty much an unknowable thing. The same is true with being immersed in your own value system; you’re robbed of perspective.
One thing I became aware of when I wasn’t culturally “wet” anymore, so to speak, was that this sense of super-charged growth, our “manifest destiny” to expand in all areas of our lives, our quest to lay hold of the gusto, our value that bigger is better and more is better and newer is better and richer is better, to “Be, all that you can be,” that was an American value. That was a cultural value, not a Christian one, and God isn’t an American.
This realization may shed new light on 1 John 2:15. John says, “Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.”
Could it be, that acquiescence to a “hurry syndrome,” even in spiritual things, a “do, do, do, grow, grow, grow” mentality, is really another way of loving the world? Could it be that this kind of frantic productivity, this obsessive love of growth, is not Christian at all, but just American?
In the medical realm growth out of control is called cancer; it’s a type of malignancy. Cancer does not bring life; it brings death. Certainly I’m for growth; certainly I’m for progress, in a fashion. But I’m wondering if the definition that we’ve applied to growth and progress in our Christian life is not more of an American kind of thing than it is a biblical thing, and the pursuit of that kind of thing actually undermines genuine, stable, fruitful, life-giving spirituality.
I realize there are seasons in life, my friend. But more and more these seasons of output become less the exception and more the rule, don’t they, the status quo: “It’s just for a couple of months.” “It’s just for a year.” “It’s just for a couple years.” And before we know it the children are grown, and we have nothing to say to our spouse anymore, and we’re tired of God, and we shake our fist towards the heavens and ask “Why have you forsaken me?” And we never realize we’ve been following the wrong set of rules.
How do we resolve this? I’m not sure. This kind of reassessment probably falls into the category of “work out your salvation in fear and trembling,” and it therefore is very individual. I’m not sure, but I’m personally taking the next six months to rethink these issues and to re-tool my life. I have to trim my sails; I have to specialize more. I have determine the specific things I do best and let the other things go. I have to move slower, I have to do less better, I have to say “no” more often, and may even have to make less money.
You might be saying, “But I can’t afford to cut back.” Why? Nine times out of ten one of two things, and maybe both, is operating. One, you are operating according to the wrong sense of values, values that say, for example, that every child has to have his own bedroom, that you have to have two cars in the garage instead of one, etc. There used to be a time when two cars in the family was rare. And things still got done. Groceries got bought; clothing got washed. Of course, Mom had to spend more time at home with the children, which is not so fashionable anymore.
Another reason most people are not able to cut back is that they have bought this values system and have organized their budget around two incomes, around working 60 hours a week and working 50 weeks out of the year, and they have allowed their employers to demand this of them, and consequently if they cut back now they wouldn’t be able to pay the bills because they’ve committed themselves to a whole bunch of things that they really shouldn’t have committed themselves to in the first place if their values were different.
Could it be that we’ve accepted a definition of the good life that brings neither goodness nor life?
But one thing I would warn against. Sometimes our solutions to this kind of thing is mechanistic and American. We ask, “What more can I do to fix this?” So we commit ourselves to read our Bible more, to pray more, to give ourselves more to others’ needs when we may be on the brink of crippling ourselves to the point where we won’t be able to give to anyone for a long time.
If your life is consumed by work and you’re neglecting your family and the critical spiritual dimensions of life, including productive involvement in the family of Christians, you may need to trim your professional sails and give yourself more to the classic disciplines of the faith—prayer, Bible study, etc.
But if you’re already consumed with giving in your Christian community, you may have to seriously throttle back and ask whether you have a relationship with God or merely a Christian job.
If your service to Jesus Christ has become consistently laborious, well, you can still give others the Way and the Truth (which is fundamental, don’t get me wrong, and if that’s all we can give at a moment in time it’s still substantial) but you won’t be able to give them the Life. When our own lives become a burden and a chore, when in our Christian lives we feel like we need a vacation from God, something is desperately wrong in the way we view our commitment to Jesus and our contribution to the Body.
At least that’s the way I see it.