How do you live a productive life?
How do you avoid a life of unmitigated selfishness?
How do you live worthy of God's gift of life?
I may not have found big, significant, complete answers to these questions yet, but I'm finding little ones along the way.
Perhaps, fruitfulness starts as softly and silently as the little grapes that budded quietly and shyly on my neighbor's vine, in tiny bunches like a baby's fist, half hidden by leaves, after days of fruitless (pun intended) looking for them. (I took the photo above with as much hushed care as with a sleeping baby.)
A productive and useful life of service and selflessness is inevitably tied to things, habits,
as small and tasteless as getting up early. Denying the flesh, for a healthy reason--not to feel self-righteous, or to punish yourself, or because you feel you don't have a choice--not because you want to torture your flesh, but because you want to train it to become a more useful creation of God.
Granted, of course, the other extreme is not 'more' God-glorifying. Getting up at five everyday--even if to do your devotions--doesn't boost your righteousness in God's eyes when our hearts and our motivation for doing so are warped.
Getting up at nine six times in a row doesn't mean you've forfeited your right to God's gift of life. There is a place for happy, lazy mornings where pillows are your best friends and sleep is truly the gift of God (believe me.)
But most of the time, for most of us, we're really just complacently sitting on our bums...not because we need to or planned to or can, even, but mostly just because we've never thought of not giving in to that wordless, thoughtless impulse. I can think of several habits which are really just weaknesses, where I take it as an unquestioned entitlement to just unthinkingly do what my flesh tells me to.
What do your lifestyle habits say about the importance you give to your flesh?
I should be developing habits and skills which will equip me to live more fruitfully and usefully--rather than just waiting for a mission or purpose to fall into my life, and assuming I'll be prepared for it.
How much is your lifestyle dictated by the pleasing of your flesh?
Aim for fruitfulness--not the flesh--to become the habit which characterizes your life.
It's easy to love someone when you are surrounded by their gifts.
It's easy to feel God is a good God when He has showered you with many blessings.
it's also easy, however, to end up defining God's goodness by the gifts He gives.
It's only when these gifts are stripped away, or threatened, that you realize your peace in God, your faith in Him, was actually leaning on them.
That you saw them as entitlements rather than gifts.
That you began to define God, and your relationship with Him, by how many blessings He maintained in your life.
In reality, however, it's the other way around. The gifts are only a reflection of the Giver's goodness, not actually His goodness in themselves. Oh, our God is much, much better than that.
If we have eyes which only see and hearts which only appreciate the (comparatively) shallow goodness that we can (comparatively) easily enjoy in God's gifts, we blind ourselves to the real goodness that He is.
Only when we find our joy and trust in the Giver--not His gifts--can we truly appreciate and enjoy the gifts; because we see and relate to them as what they are.
Good, yes. But also impermanent. And most importantly, undeserved.
Being a young Christian. As in literally a young Christian, not just spiritually. A youth--someone who came to the Lord early.
The first thing that pops into my mind would be 'flee youthful lusts'--an exhortation in 2 Tim 2:22 which is easy to remember, not just because of all the 2's (which make it an awesome memory verse) but also because of its relevance. The lusts we face have such strong holds over us because they appeal to our youth. Our craving for thrills and excitement. The appeal which the future holds for us as a vista of opportunities. Love. Fame. Adrenalin. The allure of popularity and the influence of friends. And list goes on and on...
Sometimes it may seem like we have extra challenges as young Christians--we lack the maturity and life experience that 'adult' Christians have, and we seem to have so many more challenges specific to being young, so many 'youthful lusts'.
2 Tim 2:22 is a good reminder, but 1 John 1: 14 is a quiet verse we tend to overlook (especially because it comes right before the significant, powerful 1 John 1: 15. Or maybe because it lacks the nice, snappy alliteration of 2 Tim 2:22..)
What should characterize young Christians--in a good way?
Weaknesses aside--what should the strengths of a young Christian (the 'young men' John addresses) be?
"I have written to you, young men, because you are strong,
and the word of God abides in you,
And you have overcome the wicked one."
As young Christians we have been blessed with strength. Energy. The excitement so characteristic of youth, in this case, can be a powerful motivation when combined with a passion for Christ. We possess all this energy and strength to serve, to strive, to charge out of our comfort zones once we are touched by God. I can't help but think of Isobel Kuhn, and of course Jim Elliot--amazing examples of what God can do with your youth, your life, when you dedicate them totally to Him.
And the word of God abides in us. Should. Our minds are at their sharpest now, our memories at their best. They should be busy reading, studying, meditating on God's word, reflecting how we should apply it to our lives, how it applies to the decision or situation we're facing right now.
The word of God should abide in us. Constantly. Always there whenever we need it, whenever we are given an opportunity to share it.
And finally--we have overcome the wicked one. I myself was rather surprised at this. Aren't young Christians supposed to be constantly struggling with the Devil over youthful lusts and the like?
But that's what we should be doing with all our youthful energy and drive.
Youth is the time to be a fighter. It's the time when we are drawn to throw ourselves heart and soul into a cause, to fight for it and give our all to it.
There is a passage in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov which struck me, because it portrayed such a strikingly different perspective of what we dismiss today as 'teenage angst''--somehow always hurtful to the owner or to others.
In contrast, Dostoevsky--very aptly defining this emotion as "seething youth"--describes it as a form of self-sacrifice:
"...He was partly a young man of our time...demanding the truth, seeking it and believing in it, and...demanding immediate participation in it with all the strength of his soul...with an unfailing desire to sacrifice everything for this deed, even life."
There's a reason why so many pop songs all harp about fighting, defying, rebelling. I used to dismiss all this angst-hype as nonsense, but the truth is, this emotion is a reality. Do nothing with it and it will turn you just plain angsty-emo.
Do something with it, however and it becomes truly powerful. It becomes one of the great driving forces with which youth can accomplish so many things.
Fighters. We should be doing battle in our souls with all the passion we possess. We should be overcoming the evil one, if we truly believe him to be the evil one. Doing battle for the King, and serving Him with fierce, life-blood-pitch loyalty--if we truly believe He is our King.
"...to whom He said, 'This is the rest with which you may cause the weary to rest,'
And, 'This is the refreshing';
Yet they would not hear.
But the word of the Lord was to them, "Precept upon precept, precept upon precept;
Line upon line, line upon line,
Here a little, there a little.'
That they might go and fall backwards, and be broken
And snared and caught. "
Studying Isaiah has been seeing a different aspect of the Bible. It gives me the same poignant feeling of rawness that reading about the Holocaust does; the same sense of helpless suffering, of anguish. Yet throughout it all, redeemed by the powerful sense of a God in control, a God who loves even as He judges the evil committed by men against men and against Him. A God of justice as well as mercy. This world and us need both.
I found all the repetitions of precepts and lines more than a little confusing. What on earth was Isaiah trying to convey? And then suddenly after two days of scribbling question marks in the margin of that verse, it suddenly dawned on me. Perhaps it was exactly what we struggle with today.
God calls us to true fulfillment and joy in Him as we were originally meant to have. Rest for the weary. Refreshing, that we long for in our confused, tired, helpless, contrived and complicated little lives.
But we can't see what God offers us as what it is. To our weak eyes it looks like the very opposite of what He says it is and what we want. It looks like just another burden of rules, of expectations to live up to, of trying, of 'legalistic restrictions'. It looks like losing our freedom. It looks like losing our joy (that is, the feeble, shadowy emotion which is all we've known of joy.) It looks, to be honest, absolutely undesirable and unpleasant. Yuckz.
And we fall backwards and are broken, are snared and caught by what we run after instead, what seems so much more worth pursuing to us. And we never even actually get what we want.
And the tragedy is, it was there...just that the sun of everything else that appealed to our imperfect senses and emotions blinded our eyes, and made it look dark and boring and heavy.
When in fact, that was the refreshing we were looking for.
For Chinese New Year cleaning, I decided to tackle the row of bookshelves full of books--some ancient, some shedding coffee-colored cracked tape and paper, some still in good shape under the gray down time had gently covered them with. Two dusting cloths later, a small book fell out and proclaimed Shadow of the Almighty at me before it landed on my foot, painfully grabbing my attention. I picked it up. Oh. The life and testimony of Jim Elliot by Elisabeth Elliot.
I didn't even know we had this. It looks old. I think this is probably famous--? The title sounds kind of familiar.The picture of Jim Elliot on the cover isn't very nice.
I opened it as these thoughts swept absently through my mind, and immediately was arrested by a phrase on the coffee-ombre page.
We should love hard, and not casually; fervently, playfully, and simply, never heavily or slowly. Slovenly loving makes for wearisome living.
Wow. Here was the powerful combination of a good mind, heart, and pen. I flipped on, just to see if any more gems could be grabbed so easily, though that quote alone put this book on my reading list.
Dreams are tawdry when compared with the leading of God, and not worthy of the aura of wonder we usually surround them with.
Whoa. Now this one hit close to home. I'd been struggling with the idea of not being able to fulfill life-long dreams, how to reconcile such a disappointment with God's loving and perfect providence.
W. Somerset Maugham, in Of Human Bondage, wrote, "These old folk had done nothing, and when they died it would be just as if they had never been." Jim's comment on this was, "God deliver me!"
If I feel like this too--what am I actively doing, besides praying, to be 'delivered' from a fruitless life?
Failure means nothing now, only that it taught me life. Success is meaningless, only that it gave me further experience in using the great gift of God, Life.
And Life, I love thee. Not because thou art long, or because thou has done great things for me, but simply because I have thee from God.
Not because thou has done great things for me. Life's goodness isn't determined by how many dreams we fulfill or happy times we experience even. It is something much simpler, smaller--or maybe in fact so much bigger--than our limited perspective and definition...
And finally. An anecdote of Jim's college days. With his burning desire to build God's kingdom, to lead others to Christ, Jim faithfully joined a group of Christians in a nearby town for their regular meetings in the hopes of being a help to them. Elisabeth Elliot wrote: "His desire does not seem to have been visibly fulfilled, but the exercise of soul that it cost Jim did something at least to preserve him from what, for the average college student, is often a life of unmitigated selfishness."
My immediate response was God deliver me!
Tragically I realized this was too true. Sometimes it even becomes something we justify. As students, as youths, we--and others--accept that our lives should revolve around ourselves. Our studies. Our ambitions. Our needs and desires and pleasures.
It's common to think that because we're so wrapped up in our studies everyday, we 'deserve' to spend all our leftover energy and interest on ourselves. Whether we're working or playing, the focus is always the same--ME.
How many of us are living lives of unmitigated selfishness, unchallenged and unconscious of it? How have I been living a life of unmitigated selfishness, and how should I best actively resist it?
'the exercise of soul...'
Even if there seems to be no results, sometimes God intends us to be blessed by the mere 'exercise of soul' it costs us. This was so encouraging--so often you wonder if what you're doing even means anything, accomplishes anything. It seems like you're putting in all this effort without seeing any of the results you desire, hope for. Am I just slogging my heart out for nothing, Lord? Is it because You don't want me to minister or labor in this channel? Am I doing something wrong? Why isn't anything happening??
Sometimes selflessness isn't obvious, isn't going to immediately bloom into stupendous results and give us the 'fruitful life' we want to feel we have. Sometimes our hopes may never seem to be visibly fulfilled, as Jim's in this specific area of ministry. Sometimes only you are aware of your labor--something other people take for granted, something only you know costs you, is an 'exercise of soul'.
Be encouraged. God knows. Your labor is not in vain.
Thank you, Jim and Elizabeth Elliot.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are