Thursday, February 15, 2018

What Are We Waiting For?

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Thoreau famously wrote.

I hate to say it, but a great number of modern Christians could be described in just that way. Their lives are quietly unhappy — unhappy to the point of deep frustration, and even depression. Having been told that the Christian life should be abundant, joyful, meaningful and characterized by freedom, they find themselves living in a way that is dull, tired, seemingly pointless and characterized by a bunch of “have to’s” — when they stop to characterize it at all.

The problem, we might say, is that the Christian life isn’t much when you just aren’t living it. As a group of old stories, or as a set of merely theoretical propositions, Christianity really has no vitality at all. Paul warned us of this; if the resurrection was merely a theory to us, he wrote, we would soon find ourselves “of all men most miserable”. And I think the same could be said of the Christian life in general: Faith without works is dead.

The Waiting

If I may venture a diagnosis of this peculiar “deadness” in the experience of many modern Christians, it would be this: that we have grown accustomed to just waiting for something to change. Living, as we do, in a culture of convenience as well as of rapid change, we have grown accustomed to the idea that the most effective way to live is to hold position, watch as things develop, and see what opportunities appear on the horizon, rather than to strike out in some proactive project of life change.

We “surf” the tides as they come in; we don’t try to summon them.

We are not great sinners; at least, not as we ourselves reckon sin. We are not perhaps indulging in drunkenness, adultery, drugs or online pornography, like we apprehend our neighbors may be doing. We pick the clean side of everything. But we aren’t exactly pioneers of innovative, separate living either: in most situations, we are pretty much creatures of our culture. If drifting and general lassitude can be said to be sins, then I suppose we can own those.

But we’re also sad. The peaks of promise to which we looked in our youth have given way to the flatlands of daily life. We carry on; but we’re not much inspired, not much thrilled, not much elevated. We find not much opportunity for maturation, less for service, and perhaps least of all for gratitude. But we still hope: we’re waiting for all that to change.

Cruising

The problem is that we don’t realize that a failure to make choices IS a choice. To refuse to change the situation is to sign on for whatever situation already obtains. To rest in the status quo is, at the same time, to embrace it.

And we have embraced the world. Not its general wickedness and confusion, perhaps, and certainly not its depths of depravity. But we have tended to accept as necessary whatever terms it offers to us as “average” citizens. We are not too unusual, not too surprising, not too strange, not too different in our habits and assumptions to fit in quite serviceably as cogs in the general working of normal society.

However, this “friendship” we have arranged with the world is ultimately at “enmity” with God. Fitting comfortably with the plans the world has for itself is not a sign of normalcy; it’s a signal that we really aren’t doing anything for God. We have become marginally useful to our environment; but in so doing, we have allowed ourselves to become wasted space in the kingdom of God.

We didn’t choose this. We never actually thought of choosing anything at all. We were simply being sensible — waiting and reacting, instead of rushing ahead without instructions. We were being average.

But we didn’t see life for what it really is; a moving process in which commitment is not avoidable. Consequently, it may be made actively, or else it will be made passively. But it will be made.

Existential Urgency

Dr. Victor Shepherd, referring to existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, has pointed this out in his 2015 book The Committed Self: “We can always defer making up our mind, but we cannot postpone making up our life.” That is, in our minds we can hover in indecision; but while we do, life will go on, and the state we are in will be settled by default.

He illustrates it this way: a man may be undecided about whether to marry a particular woman or to remain single. However, while he debates, the matter is settled — unless he does decide to marry, and then takes action to bring that about, he is already single. His life has been made up, even while his mind is not.

Dying to Live

I fear that a lot of us modern Christians are just like that. We’re waiting for something to happen, hovering in indecision. The richer, deeper, fuller spiritual life we have been promised is, we think, supposed to arrive; and when it does, we’ll be very happy to live it. But as it has not yet arrived, we are not enjoying ourselves much. We’ve failed to realize that the deeper, fuller spiritual life is not coming without our first committing in faith to doing the will of God, whether or not personal happiness and satisfaction ever appear.

That last bit is crucial. That is, unless we “crucify” our desire to be satisfied before we obey, we will never set forth in faith, and will never find the level of spiritual satisfaction and happiness for which we long. It will not come to us on its own; it will come as the byproduct of a life sold out to Christ, or it will not appear at all. If we manage at all to become “happy”, then, it will only be on the shallow and empty terms the world offers; but more likely, we will always be quietly miserable, always feeling that there is that deeper spiritual life, but that we have missed out on it.

Commitment is simply not avoidable. The Christian life is a committed life, or it’s nothing at all.

Choose This Day

The negative upshot is this: if you’re not actively committing yourself to God, then automatically, you’re already committed to the life you’re living.

But here’s the positive point: you can always choose to be committed to something better. We have not only that power, but that commission from God. Human beings are not passive pawns of a preconditioned environment, far less predetermined by the material forces that seem so overwhelming to unbelievers. We are sons of God … free, autonomous agents, capable of choosing options for ourselves and pursuing them; and with the Lord’s help, of triumphing over the world and its preconceived conditions. And we are tasked with pursuing the higher, richer, deeper knowledge of God, to progressively reforming our characters and to active service which we choose to do, in his name, in the church and in our in our world. We have no such calling to sit fatalistically on our haunches.

We are choosers, not waiters.

So what could you choose to do for God today?

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