Faith, Life

A Simple Calling

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV)

Sometimes I wish that God would give me a Moses-moment. You know, a burning bush or a booming-voice-from-heaven to make his will for my life a little clearer. Or maybe show up a bit like Morgan Freeman’s God appears to Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty. It’d certainly make things a lot simpler.

Many of you probably know the feeling I’m talking about. We want to follow God’s will for our lives. Yet, with a plethora of choices ahead of us – about our career, our future spouse, whether or not to go on that long-term missions trip, where to study – following God’s calling often seems impossibly confusing

What is God’s plan for my life? What if I make the wrong decision? Do I risk disobeying God?

These are all valid questions, and of course we should pray carefully and seek advice from wise friends and mentors about the big decisions before us.

I think, however, that we often risk over-complicating what it means to “follow God’s calling.”

I think that us millennials too often confuse God’s purpose for our lives with what our society tells us gives us purpose, meaning, and identity. We talk about God’s calling in terms of particular career paths or individual vocations. Accordingly, we can all too easily conflate God’s will with the individualistic notion that our identity and purpose is found in our personal achievements and successes “for” God.

In focusing on what we do for God, we risk putting ourselves, rather than God, at the centre-stage of His will for our lives. We make His will about us rather than about Him, what we do for Him rather than about what He is doing in us. 

“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

The gospel calls us to lay down our own agendas, our own glory, our own egotistical desires for the sake of the Kingdom. In some of the most challenging words in the New Testament, Jesus tells us that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

These words force us to drastically reconfigure our way of thinking about God’s will. God’s calling on our lives is not that we’d be recognised by other Christians for the great work that we do for the Kingdom. His will is not about our glory, but about His. It is about the putting to death of my ego, that I might become more like Christ.

His will is that I might lose myself so that I might find Him, enjoy Him, and be like Him.

God’s will is simply that we’d be conformed to the image of Christ, not the image of the high-achieving, successful, popular individual which society imposes on us as the ideal picture of the purpose-driven life. God’s will is nothing short than our sanctification, our transformation into the great Christ-like life.

According to Dallas Willard, “The most important thing about you is not the things that you achieve; it is the person that you become.”

The Word of God already tells us what God’s will is for our lives. Put simply, we are called to glorify God in all we do.

Paul tells the church in Corinth,

…whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

1 Corinthians 10:31, ESV

Elsewhere, he tells us that, in whatever we do, “in word or deed,” to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17 ESV). We are created to be image-bearers of the Father, ambassadors of Christ, to proclaim His name in all we do through our conduct and word. In whatever season of life we find ourselves, in every career and relationship, we are called simply to worship Him.

This is a freeing revelation. Often, we get so caught up in trying to discern the little individual details of God’s calling on our life that we miss the bigger picture, which God has already revealed to us.

Whether you are employed or unemployed, you are called to worship Him. Whether you are married, single, or dating, worship Him. Whether you are eating or drinking, playing sports, studying, working, resting, God’s will is simple – worship Him. Our highest calling is to be satisfied in Him, to give glory to Him, to decrease as He increases in us

To paraphrase the famous words from John Piper, God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him. 

God’s will is simply that we would be conformed into the image of His Son through the transforming work of the Spirit. It is to worship Him in all we do – whether that is in the valley or on the mountaintop. It is to give ourselves to Him in the trenches of our mundane day-by-day living. It is to give Him glory in our relationships, our recreation, our procreation, our eating and drinking, our laughing and crying, our failing and succeeding, our living and our dying.

His will, I think, is simpler than we’ve made it. 

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Faith, Life

The Productivity God

Peering back into my childhood with rose-tinted spectacles, everything seemed so much simpler than it does now.

Back then time was always at a premium. Summer days were filled with time to draw and play with my favourite toys and go cycling with dad and sit nonchalantly in boredom. “Leisure time” was frequent and regular, not the rare commodity that it is now.

These days, on the other hand, I find that I’m rarely bored, because I don’t have time to be bored. Days are for work and to-do lists, for deadlines and emails, for social engagements and time spent with others. From the moment the alarm goes off in the morning to laying down at night, every action is coordinated, where possible, into a pattern of productivity and efficiency: spontaneity happens in the brief commas between diary appointments.

In this busy blur, life swings between shades of anxiety and excitement, of good times and difficult times, times of great breakthrough and times of draining disappointment. Caffeine is fuel for the fire of this constant busyness. Moments alone in silence are few and far between in the loudness of this 21st century living.

This none-stop busyness, masked as “productivity,” is a secret sickness with a myriad of symptoms: constantly checking your phone and emails in the worry of missing something important. Incessantly fretting about how much you have to do and how little time you have to do it. A calendar blocked out with no time for solitude at either end of the day. Burning the candle at both ends; early mornings and late nights to try and fit everything in. Befriended by lethargy and apathy as you are absorbed in your own world of demands and personal commitments. Not being “fully present,” either with others or before God. Crushing anxiety and fear that time is slipping from your hands.

I say all this as a sort of self-diagnosis. This busy season of life has, in many ways, been a wake-up call about the silent menace of endless activity. The way we spend our time is the most telling measuring-line of the things we value most in this world; the minutes we spend in busyness are offerings to our self-made gods.

So often, we sacrifice those things most important to us in the name of the god of productivity.

For me, that sacrifice has so often been my prayer-life. Yes, I sacrifice prayer – that most important, necessary, life-giving communion between creature and Creator, between son and Father – the well of strength for the weak man able only to depend on God.

And yet, this is what I offer up to the god of productivity. In the brief moments snatched in prayer on my busy days, there is a mental block between God and I because my mind is filled with so many other pressing matters and anxieties. But what is more pressing than the urgency of prayer? Even more telling is that, at other times, I forego praying altogether – all in the name of being more productive.

I might be the only one who struggles in this area. But I’m afraid I’m not.

The way we spend our time is the most telling measuring-line of the things we value most in this world.

The god of productivity is a lie, a scheme to rob you of that which is most important in this world. We need to take back what he has stolen. Enjoyment of time spent in communion with the Father is the most important pursuit of the Christian who, having been clothed in Christ, now calls upon Him as “Abba,” as a child, as one beloved.

This post isn’t a treatment, but a diagnosis. It isn’t a judgement, but a self-reflection. Nor is it morbid introspection, but a confession that I hope some will resonate with. Most of all, it is a hope for what could be and a stand against what is.

All it takes is a change of perspective. The psalmist says,

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Ps. 127:1, 2, ESV).

The way we spend our time indicates what we worship. The reason we fall before the lure of productivity is because this world measures success in results, activity, products and outcomes. The economy of heaven, on the other hand, offers a radically different account of success.

In this economy, it is not what you have done that is important, but who you become. The enslaved soul becoming a son. The beggar finding a place at the king’s table. The sinner redeemed, the thief forgiven, the broken made whole, the homeless homed, and the poor man given hope.

And this gives us a totally new perspective on how we use our time. No longer are we a slave to results, but a soul postured before the Saviour, growing in Him, receiving grace after grace that overcomes all striving and incessant working. It takes surrender, but who is more worthy of surrendering all – our time included – than Him?

As Jesus famously said to Martha, “You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41,42).

And what is that “one thing”?

Simply to dwell with Him

 

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Faith, Life

Move On

I have a confession to make. I’m rather good at feeling sorry for myself.

The sort of self-pitying behaviour I’m talking about swings two ways. On the one hand, when I mess up or make a mistake, I tend to wallow in self-condemnation and guilt. I’m an introspective type; sometimes a little too introspective, I’ve concluded. It means that when I do wrong, I beat myself up to no end.

On the other hand, when I feel low, I find it easy to fall into self-justification. You too might be accustomed to the type of fatalistic, self-justifying behaviour in the following scenario: you’ve had a bad day, so you think to yourself, “It doesn’t matter what I do now. Nothing I can do can make things any better or any worse.” The mind says to the will, “You’re already feeling down. The day is already a defeat. It doesn’t matter if you eat another donut, watch another episode of Suits, drink another beer, insert-unhealthy-behaviour-here to make you feel more comfortable about yourself.” Numb yourself from reality, and justify it to yourself. You deserve it. Not.

Both types of self-pity – whether it’s self-condemnation or self-justification – are destructive, numbing, and paralysing. Neither of them are God’s purpose for us. They leave us stagnant,  wallowing in a pit of self-despair. Like Elijah on the mountain, we find ourselves in a pitiful state of defeat, obsessing about our own woeful lot, without the perspective either to accept the past for what it is or press forwards into the future.

I think God sometimes says to us something to this effect: Get up. Gird yourself and move on. Get a grip and press forward. Ouch.

Of course, that sense of guilt is not, in itself, a bad thing, so long as it leads us to repentance. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, talks about this healthy guilt as “godly grief that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). On the other hand, the type of self-aggrandising, self-pitying, despairing guilt, the guilt which holds on to past sins and does not let them go, is a “worldly grief [which] produces death.”

Guilt that leads to repentance is an essential part of sanctification. Repentance means that we accept our own mistakes, but then we are enabled to leave those mistakes at the foot of the Cross, knowing that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12, ESV). We can press on, knowing that by God’s grace coupled with our partnership and obedience to His will, we are being perfected by Him, being “renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16, ESV).

Guilt that leads to self-pitying condemnation, on the other hand, leads to death. It involves, in a way, a rejection of God’s grace; we think that our sin is too powerful for His love to overcome. This type of guilt is a burden too great for the human soul to bear. Acceptance of God’s abundant grace, on the other hand, results in a type of self-forgetfulness, allowing us to forget what is behind and press on to what is ahead, “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14. ESV).

God calls us out from the cave of crippling despair, from our state of wallowing in defeat and condemnation. When the Israelites complained to Moses during the Exodus from Egypt, thinking themselves defeated what does God say to them? “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on” (Ex. 14:15).

Move on. 

Today, God may be telling you to move on. The story of Easter is that death has been defeated once-for-all-time. Our sin and rejection has been left at the foot of the Cross, nailed to the tree; our condemnation is met with His acceptance. Our old self – self-pitying, self-condemning, self-justifying – has been crucified with Him on Good Friday; we are raised to a new life of freedom by His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Freedom to move on.

When Jesus raised Lazarus to life, He said, “Lazarus, come out!” To each one of us, too, He calls, “Get up, come out, leave behind your grave-clothes, and move on.

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Faith, Life

It’s Okay to be an Introvert

I was always a quiet and unassuming kid.

I kept a small, close circle of friends, and even then, I’d much rather spend time in my own company. I’d while away my childhood days with my head stuck in a novel, or, even better, by fabricating fantastical towns and worlds out of Lego bricks.

For the most part, keeping company with myself suited me just fine.

As I grew up all that began to change. As I entered secondary school and puberty, I was thrust into a world of new social interactions, of canteen politics and classroom cliques. While trying to survive the hormonal minefield of the troublesome teens, I also had to learn an art that didn’t come all too naturally to me: the art of socialising.

The years went by and I was slowly drawn out of my own skin.

While the skill of conversation didn’t come naturally to me, I started to become more at home around other people. My quiet childhood years now blossomed into more amicable teenage years, and I found a new love for being with people.

Now, in the middle of my degree, I love the busy social life that university affords. The friends I’ve made here number among my best and closest friends, and for them I’m grateful beyond measure. In contrast to my insular past, I’ve learnt to open up. I now thrive by being around people, meeting with friends, and attending social gatherings, which is something that would terrify me as a child.

What I’ve realised recently, though, is just how far the pendulum had swung.

In putting away my overly-introverted tendencies, in forcing myself out of my shell and realising I enjoyed being in the air, I left a little bit of myself behind in the process.

Deep down, I’m still an introvert – and, by playing the extrovert, I’d forgotten that.

Before I began to burn out, I didn’t realise just how much I needed quality time to myself. I’d want to spend all my waking hours in a flurry of activity – being around people or working or meeting up with friends. I like the feeling of keeping a full calendar – but, mistakenly, I’d sacrificed carving out vital time to myself.

I’d look up to my friends who seemed to be doing it right – able to balance sixteen coffee dates a week with commitments to their degrees and being on society committees and so forth. “They’ve got it right,” I thought, “I want to do it that way.” I’d mistaken doing more, being more available, with serving my friends better, as the “better way” of doing life.

The problem is, I began to stretch myself thin, I began to grow weary and burnt out.

How could I serve others from the overflow of my heart if my tank was half-empty? I compared myself to others who seemed to cope so well – and grew discouraged that I couldn’t do the same. But, simultaneously, I realised that I wasn’t able to sustain that level of busyness. Something had to change.

This past half-year has been a long process of learning that it’s okay to be myself. In trying to imitate others I’d burnt myself out. In a culture where being an extrovert seems the most desirable personality trait – exuding confidence, constantly energetic, socially adept – I’d mourned that I had neither the energy or the persona to be like that. Jesus, quoting the book of Leviticus, teaches “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

But how can you truly love your neighbour unless you love yourself – the unique personality and quirks that God has individually given to you?

I’d bought into a lie. 

What I’d forgotten is that to each of us, God gives a unique purpose, unique gifts, a unique personality, by his grace, that fits into his plan for the church – his body – as a whole. In a much-quoted passage, Paul writes:

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts,yet one body…But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

1 Corinthians 12:18-20, 24b, 25

In learning to be myself, I’d gone too far in the other direction, forgetting the unique gift I had been given not in spite of, but because of, my personality. I can’t serve as another member of the body that I’m not. But, in corollary, another member of the body can’t fulfil what I’ve been called to do. Both introvert and extrovert has a unique role to play.

So I celebrate my friends who are extroverts – I love your energy, your charisma, your affection, your drive, your passion. I uphold your ability to lead the church and to inspire others, to lift others up and boldly follow your vision.

But, to my introverted friends, and to myself, I extend this reminder. We each have a unique role to play. A different way of looking at the world. A different way of loving people. A unique stake in the mission that others do not have. Just because the gift may seem, at times, less prominent, less visible, lower-key, doesn’t mean it isn’t as important. We are part of the same body, so don’t mourn not being like others. Embrace your unique gifts.

I’m learning, once again, the art of being an introvert.

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Faith, Life

Chasing Home

Reflecting on the past four months, I’ve realised that I’ve slept in 12 different beds, in nine different cities and towns, across three countries and two continents. Whether that’s been just for a night or for a few months at a time, I’ve called quite a few places “home” this summer, whether temporarily or more permanently. At this point in time, I’m settling into new student housing in Nottingham.

All this isn’t to boast about having a pretty adventure-packed Summer (although it has been great). Rather, it’s to illustrate a point.

You see, my nearly constant movement over the past few months has meant I’ve had to embrace the temporality of it all. Wherever I’ve had the privilege of visiting, whoever I’ve had the blessing of meeting, it’s been in the knowledge that for each circumstance and in every situation, it was for a short time only.

Sometimes I’ve made a place my home for a season – for example, my time at university is a season of life where I’m pretty much based in one place for an extended period. At other times, it’s more temporary than that – like on a short-terms mission trip.

The Bible says that the whole of life is a bit like this. Whether we know it or not, everything – every experience, season, relationship – is temporary, is passing away.

Qoholet, the wisdom-writer of the book we call Ecclesiastes, says that everything is like vapour, a wind. The Hebrew word often translated meaningless in the English translation of in Ecclesiastes 1 also carries the senses breath, vanity, and delusion. Everything is temporal, fleeting, gone in a moment, he says. Later he notes the seasonal nature of human existence (the famous sequence starting “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” in Ecclesiastes 3), and mourns that no matter what legacy he leaves, after death it will amount to nothing more than a “striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:17, ESV). He doesn’t even have power over what his successors do with what he leaves behind – they may go and squander his riches and everything he has toiled for during his life (ibid. v. 18, 19).

The Psalmist paints a similar picture of human existence:

Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow. (Psalm 144:3, 4, NIV)

That’s right: our existence is like a shadow, flickering and changing as the sun passes and gone as swiftly as the coming of the day’s end.

Every place we call “home,” whether in the knowledge it is for a short time or as a more permanent dwelling, will pass away. Every empire we build, every business and entrepreneurial pursuit  we pour energy into, every dream, every victory and defeat, everything that seems so final, so momentous, everything that we seek security and permanence in, these things are passing away. Every relationship, every family, everyone we love and hate, every person we promise to spend the rest of our days with – they, too, are going like a wind, mortal human beings that they are. Human existence is a fleeting shadow. Our degrees, our careers, our legacies, all is but a vapour, swallowed up in the passage of time that washes over our existence like an ocean that we are but a drop in.

All this might sound bleak to you. It might be something you choose to ignore. Our own mortality is a hard truth to swallow.

But the Bible offers some eternal perspective on our own fragile existence, a reason to rejoice – a reason for hope. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, gives us the following insight, as he reflects on our eternal hope of glory:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NIV)

This world is not our home, Paul says, at least, not like it is. The life we live now – our life in this world – is like a tent, a temporary residence. It is but a temporary dwelling, a passing place as we await the permanent, unshakeable, eternal dwelling place promised us, assured by our salvation in Christ.

Now we are wanderers, then shall we have rest. Now are we exiles, then shall we have a home. Now we hunger and thirst, then shall He satisfy our every need. Now we long for security, then we will dwell in an unshakeable Kingdom.

Paul uses the image of being “clothed…with our heavenly dwelling” as He pictures eternal life. The portrait here isn’t of some dualistic, abstract vision of heaven, some “place in the clouds” that our disembodied souls will float off into, with no likeness or resemblance to our world. No, not at all. Rather, it is that this world is groaning, longing for the time when heaven touches earth, transforming it into all God intended for Creation. It is material, concrete, real – where everything lacking is made whole.

This is an image of a world – even this world – transformed; a world where brokenness is transposed into wholeness, where sickness is done away with, where everything is made new, nakedness and depravity are clothed with bright raiment, where dark places are pierced with unfathomable light, where everything hurting and dislocated in this world is renewed, restored, redeemed.

It is life as it was meant to be – the bare bones of our mortality clothed with eternity, depravity clothed with abundance. It’s as the writer of John’s Apocalypse says: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, ESV).

What does it mean for us now? We can either mourn the temporality of it all, or we can embrace it. Embrace every opportunity, every meeting, every encounter, every season of life as a gift. It is all from God, and it is all going back to Him. And every worry and heartache, everything “insurmountable” obstacle that seems so significant at the time, every burden- these things, too, are passing away. There will come a time when we will be clothed fully, when we come home, when we enter into the eternal feast when the Kingdom is established in fullness. For now, we wait.

It gives us unshakeable hope for the future, and perspective for today. And even now, the Kingdom is breaking in, making all things new. We are living in the aftermath of Christ’s shattering victory over the clutch of death and evil and darkness on the Cross.

And because of that, we have utter freedom. Freedom from having to clutch and strive for the things of this earth as if they’re all we have – freedom from the anxiety arising from our own mortality. He has given us utter freedom, even as we experience eternal life here and now.

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