Updated: Feb 19, 2020
I was having a conversation the other day in which I was commiserating with my friend Eleanor over the moral state of our society. We were mourning over our children’s corrupted childhoods, their inevitable materialism, and their lack of moral heroes and heroines, albeit prematurely, as neither of us have children. Eleanor mentioned, with certain qualifiers given to reassure me that she meant this in the least cult-like way possible, that she would almost like to live in a community environment.
She went on to elaborate on this thought, and described something very akin to the Quaker lifestyle. She continued in saying, “You know, where someone is the teacher, and I could be the cook (Eleanor is a great cook), and you could be the…(insert awkward pause)…well, you could be the…(insert second awkward pause).” At this point, I interrupted laughing, and said, “I couldn’t be anything. I couldn’t live there because I couldn’t be anything.” She attested that I could live there, and that I would be “the catch-all,” whatever that might be. I haven’t told Eleanor this, but as I looked back on our conversation later, I actually considered this a great compliment. I believe (and based on Jesus actions, God also believes) that our society is faulty in assigning varying degrees of importance to people based on what they do. It is flawed in that it promotes defining who a person is by their resume’. I have never liked this, although I am guilty of it just the same. When Eleanor could find no profession with which to define me, I felt that I had crossed some barrier in our world. It meant, to me, that Eleanor saw me as me—that when she looked at me, she did not see a job, but a person. If she does not see me as a job, she also does not rate me as a job, and that made me feel like a success. I want to share an excerpt from the science fiction book, Empyrion by Stephen R. Lawhead. In this book, four people from earth find themselves on another planet, populated by humans who have lived there for thousands of years. They are learning the dynamics of what seems to be the Eden of all cultures, the Fieri. This is the observation of the Fieri work habits from the perspective of the narrator in the book, “No one, apparently, held down a single career. Each of those tasks necessary to the maintenance and functioning of society was divided among any number of people. And since there was no such thing as wages—they simply had no concept of money—it didn’t really matter who did what. People tended to do what they liked to do, receiving training in several different occupations and then pursuing them most casually. This had the effect of removing such societal ills as avarice, ambition, and stress from the work environment. The Fieri ascribed no status to what a person did; they were more concerned with the quality of the life being led.” This being a fictional book, I am fairly certain that it would never be possible to institute these precepts. But wouldn’t it be fascinating if everyone really liked what they did, and did it solely for the good of humanity with absolutely no thought of getting ahead or worrying about accomplishing their career goals or getting a raise? Perhaps I am idealistic or delusional for even thinking that people would consider this something to be desired, but for me, this place would be very close to heaven. You see, when I allowed ambition to be a determining factor in my life, it materialized as a form of desperation. For years, I believed that this desperation was fueled not by selfishness, but by a desire to do what God wanted me to do. This was only superficially true. I did want to do what God wanted me to, but I was filled with despair over it, not for God’s sake, but because I wanted other people to see me doing what God wanted me to do. What disapproval I received from those for not attaining worldly success, I wanted to make up for by gaining the approval and recognition of the Christian community. I was simply substituting one group of human commendation for another. I honestly believe that I did not know I was suffering for my selfishness. I think I believed I was floundering because God would not guide me. I now understand that He would not guide me because I was not seeking only HIS approval. If I had been, I would have been content to sail through the seemingly monotonous days, learning how to be like Him, to love like Him, completely invisible and unlauded by others. This turns the seemingly monotonous routine of waking up, showering, eating, working and doing laundry into the extraordinary. It sounds like a cliché, but it truly does transform every day life. The few people who did not make me feel like more of a failure than I already did because of my apparent lack of goals and direction, told me not to worry about things, just live day to day, trusting and seeking what God wanted me to do each individual moment. That is a simple sentence, and I know it sounds trite, but there is so much wisdom, knowledge and experience embedded in it. Unfortunately, wisdom, knowledge and experience rarely get handed to you in a fun package. Or, rather, when they do, you dismiss them as insignificant. And, so I went on trudging through the sloughs of hard learning. Eventually, my desire for success became less about the approval and recognition of other people as much as it was about my own personal self-worth through the validation of others. I focused this need for self-approval into a very neat bundle that held the one thing I thought I wanted to do with my life: write and perform music. It was the passion that I wanted to pursue, and where I believed God wanted me. I somehow wrapped up the actualization of this dream with any kind of happiness at all and God’s will. It was the source of as much pain as joy, and I treated it like a curse rather than a gift. I used to say that I wished God had given me the desire to be an accountant or some other such ordinary job, because that, I knew, could be realized under the power of my own strength. How to attain anything akin to success in the music business was a foreign concept to me, and so seemingly impossible. I have talent, and that is about it. There is much politicking required, by all accounts, for progression in that world, and I am in no way a politician. I admittedly lack the ability to small talk, to brown nose, and to network, which, anyone will tell you, is the key. This is all too very like the corporate world that I generally denounce. Success among the arts is so often determined by who you know and how well you play the game. This was where my frustration primarily manifested itself. I am not opposed to placing myself in situations that cause me discomfort. I know that life requires this, and I am capable of “sucking it up” and just doing what is necessary. I would do this in spurts for years; try to push into that world, to play the part, do what everyone I asked for advice told me I should do. Every time I even began the attempt, it was like what I had perceived as a screen, passable with determination, became a brick wall, impenetrable to all human effort. All of my zeal simply accomplished an increase in my discouragement, and the validation that I was a failure at doing what God wanted me to do. If God wanted me to be a musician outside of my home, surely He wanted me to pursue it, right? But, even in that respect, I felt like God’s presence with me decreased as my pushing increased, like an inversely proportionate equation. So, each time I began plowing ahead in pursuit of what I thought was God’s will, I stopped shortly thereafter. The more years I did this, the faster I would recognize that I felt outside of God’s plan and go back, until my steps towards completing this quest became more and more imperceptible to those around me. Before I had the epiphany I am about to divulge, I was becoming aware of red flags in my spiritual walk before I even took action, when I was just in a state of mind considering another push to achieve something musically. I had so many people listing all of the things I needed to do if musical success was what I wanted, but every time I attempted them, I only became more and more lost from myself, lost from the love I had for music in the first place, and, worst of all, lost from the presence of God. As my apparent efforts to accomplish anything musically lessened, the pressure from outside sources to “stop being lazy” and “step outside of my comfort zone” grew steadily greater. I even had someone tell me that I was using God as an excuse for my laziness when I said that I did not feel He wanted me to actively pursue a musical career. It was actually this conversation that brought me to the consummation of my emotional journey with ambition. Mulling that accusation over and over in my mind, it occurred to me that what I had said was true. All of the times I was pressing for some sort of success were the times I felt the farthest away from God. Those were the times I began to feel like an insignificant failure. I had been susceptible to frequent bouts of depression for years. When I tried to look back at those periods of depression, using hindsight beneath the microscope of what I had just realized, I could pinpoint the same root…desire to achieve this musical goal and feeling like a failure because of it. Supposedly, the goal was for God, but when I tried to attain it, it became all about me. In pursuit, I stopped considering where I felt God’s hand leading me, and let my lack of advancement be a source of self-doubt as opposed to a sign that perhaps I was moving away from God instead of towards Him. The root of this state of mind and of my blindness to the true problem was the pressure I put on myself to be something, which I equated with being somebody. I’ve heard people say, “God doesn’t care what you are. He just cares who you are.” This is true in the sense that what you are for God grows solely out of who you allow Him to make you. I would say it is more true that He cares who you are before He cares what you are. What you are makes very little difference, if you are not who He wants you to be to begin with. Since I have stopped trying to prove to the world and myself that I am something, I have become a lot more comfortable just being a person, and that is where I believe God wants me. After all, humanity itself is the one level on which I can relate to every other person. Something of my journey can be compared to Martin Luther’s, although I do not presume to place myself on an equal plane of spiritual maturity or intelligence with him. If you do not know, Martin Luther entered the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, Germany, wanting to renounce himself for God. He soon recognized that this separating of himself from the rest of the world as some sort of Christian elite was simply another form of arrogance. Perhaps this is not true for all, but it was for Luther. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of this journey, and does so much better than I could. Bonhoeffer states, “The call to the cloister demanded of Luther the complete surrender of his life. But God shattered all his hopes. He showed him through the Scriptures that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction. Monasticism had transformed the humble work of discipleship into the meritorious activity of the saints, and the self-renunciation of discipleship into the flagrant spiritual self-assertion of the ‘religious.’ The world had crept into the very heart of the monastic life, and was once more making havoc.” The devil takes the search for humility, and turns it into something that offers worldly pride. (In this sense, “worldly” is meant to include anything other than Christ Himself, because even the approval of the church, comprised of other Christians, can be substituted in place of doing God’s will, especially when you consider the state of the church as a whole in most historic times. The church as an entity is not greatly known for how well it sought to achieve God’s true work.) This is basically where I ended up, although it took me some time to get there. My music was intended by me to be an offering to God, but I also wanted it to grant me some sort of special status. I wanted to be a Christian, noted because of my talent, esteemed because of my faithfulness and wisdom. I am afraid I still have some of that, or a lot of it, if I am honest. Even in writing all of these thoughts, I have great trepidation about becoming so pleased with how wise I think I am, that it stops being about God, and starts being about how humble I have become and how proud I am of it. Back to the topic at hand, I have some trouble maintaining the strength of my conviction that I am to wait, interminably, until I feel direct guidance from God. I still have people who express their contempt for my lack of goal-oriented activity. At these times, the story that has established itself as my vindication is that of Abraham. I do not generally use this in defense to others, but it serves as a calming, steadying force within my own mind. Abraham had this desire—a good desire, even—natural and somewhat noble, to have a son. God even promised him that he would have a son. Years and years, Abraham waited…past the point it was even physically possible for his wife to bear children. Finally, he took matters into his own hands. He decided that maybe he should accomplish God’s will for himself. This decision, culminating in the birth of Ishmael, has literally caused a world of endless problems. The thing is, Abraham was successful in achieving his goal. He did have a son when he decided to do it himself. But, this was definitely not what God purposed for him. For Abraham, fathering a child with someone other than his wife was the only conceivable way he was going to attain his goal, since Sarah was past the childbearing age. He took the action that anyone would have told him was physically necessary to fulfill the promise, but had he waited for God’s completion of the promise, much pain would have been avoided. By all accounts, doing the things I do not feel led to do is the only way to accomplish musical success, just as Abraham’s way was the only way he could fathom having a son. But the “only” way conceivable to us is not necessarily the way that God has planned. He sees beyond what is “possible,” because with Him, all things are possible. The problem with the “conceivable” way is that it is just that. When things happen in ways that seem feasible to us, it allows room to deny God’s power. One of my favorite Jars of Clay songs states it like this, “Rescue me from hanging on this line. I won’t give up on giving You the chance to blow my mind. Let the eleventh hour quickly pass me by. I’ll find You when I think I’m out of time.” In Abraham’s case, God did not come through in the eleventh hour, but the twelfth or maybe the thirteenth, far beyond the latest possible moment. God waits for us to give up, so that we will be able to recognize His handiwork. He wants us to give up willingly and freely, before our only reason is because it has become completely insurmountable. Plodding through years of desperation until you reach hopelessness is far more difficult than freely handing it to God to begin with, but it requires trust—real trust, not just words. There are statements that I heard more than once growing up in the Christian subculture. They are as follows: a) God only helps those who help themselves, and b) God can’t guide you if you don’t start walking. These statements always seemed somewhat duplicitous to me. Am I supposed to follow God, or expect Him to follow me? Somehow, it still took me a while to clarify what I really believed in the matter. I now believe they are both bunk, and only stated by those who do not yet know what it means to wait for and follow God. For me, Abraham’s life validates this belief. When I apply the truths of his story to myself, it frees me from the worldly pressure I feel to make something happen. I could probably achieve at least a moderate level of success by doing all of the things I believe should be done and all of the things I have been told I have to do, just as Abraham achieved his desired goal. However, I know that this would be selling myself and the world and God far short, and would mean never realizing the amazing potential God has planned for my life. The success that I could contrive would never be as powerful, as fulfilling or as meaningful as whatever God has in store. To include yet another C.S Lewis work, a quote from The Great Divorce states this precept succinctly. Lewis says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” In this case, Lewis is speaking of the ultimate fate of either heaven or hell, but I think it can apply to independent cases of disobedience as well. In other words, push hard enough for something, and you just might get it, whether it is good for you or not. If we could only truly believe the words Jesus speaks in Matthew, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” He is not speaking of death here, but of turning over the control of your life—acquiescing to what God’s plan is for you. I have a feeling that we would find in the end, that all things of consequence are gained by “giving up” to God, and very little is lost. I am thinking of this along the lines of giving up our ambition and dreams to God. I realize that there are situations in which these statements would sound harsh by worldly standards. However, when someone has been martyred or shunned by their family or the like, I still think it applies, in that what those Christians gain will be infinitely greater than what they have lost. In other words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) I actually have an idea that if we could look back from eternity once we get there, any sacrifice we could possibly make on this earth will seem paltry compared to His, and all sacrifice will seem right and necessary for following His call. Isaiah 64:6 says, “All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.” There is no beyond the call of duty when it comes to God. I would also like to clarify that when I say “give up” in terms of the ambitions and dreams I speak of, I do not mean that you must deny yourself everything that brings you joy, everything that makes you who you are as an individual. This would simply be self-denial akin to what Martin Luther found revolting about the monastic life. It can be a form of attempting to attain salvation or to gain God’s approval by works. God may ask you to abstain from involving yourself in the things that you love, but that is a personal conviction, and not the action I am trying to advocate here. In my walk at this point, “give up” means to stop attempting to transform my aspirations into a career, to stop letting them control my emotions and to release the need for them. I do not believe that God asked me to stop singing or to stop writing songs. However, if I could not let go of my desperate aspirations unless I did so, then I believe that is what He would ask next. I have known of prolific writers of books who upon attempting to follow Christ, lost the ability to produce anything at all for a time – until they learned to put their passion for God ahead of their passion for writing. I quoted from the C.S. Lewis book, The Great Divorce, earlier, but for my purposes now, let me outline its premise for you. It is a story about a journey to heaven told from the perspective of one man. It includes his story as well as those of some of the people he has traveled to heaven with. He is dreaming, but you don’t find this out until the end. There are numerous “ghosts” (a group comprised of himself and all of the individuals arriving with him), and they are met by the “solid spirits” of people who have already been in heaven for a time. The solid spirits are trying to tell them why they should come further in to heaven instead of returning to the “grey town” (symbolizing hell) from whence they came. One of the conversations he witnesses is between the ghost of a fairly well known artist, and the solid spirit of another renowned artist who has come to meet him. The ghost goes on and on about wanting to paint the beauty of the landscape. This is the solid spirit’s answer: “Don’t you see? You’ll never paint at all if that’s what you’re thinking about…if you’re interested in the country only for painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country…. Every poet and musician and artist, but for grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells to love of the telling, till down in deep hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but in only what they say about Him, for it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower, become interested in their own personalities, and then in nothing but their own reputations.” I believe, had God allowed me any measure of success, this is the road I would have been traveling. “But for grace…” said the solid spirit. But for grace, indeed, I say. My failure was the “curse” I needed in order to take my eyes off of myself, and learn to love my gifts as gifts for no other reason than that I have them. Maybe one day God will lead me to use them publicly for His glorification. I definitely believe that for that to even be possible, He had to first teach me to use them privately as such, instead of treating them like they were useless without a human audience or human recognition. Actually, quite the opposite is true. A human audience may as well not view your art or read your writings or hear your songs if privately you do not love the work for its own sake and for God’s. To best illustrate my thoughts on this matter, I’d like to return to the book I referenced earlier, Empyrion by Stephen R. Lawhead. It is a conversation between one of the travelers from earth, Yarden, and the woman who has been her guide in the world of the Fieri, Ianni. They have just watched a troupe of Fieri dancers perform the most exquisite and emotive dance that Yarden has ever experienced. After the performance, the audience simply gets up, and silently trickles away. I think it will be best communicated if I do not try to condense it, but share the entirety of the conversation. “Why did no one acknowledge the dancers?” asked Yarden as they walked back across the meadow toward the Arts Center, a palatial edifice made of rust-colored sunstone, with numerous wings and pavilions radiating from a common hub. “Or praise them for their artistry?” “Praise belongs only to the Infinite,” Ianni explained gently, as she had explained so often to Yarden since becoming her mentor. “Would you have us praise the vessel for its contents?” “I don’t know. It just seems that one ought to show some appreciation for the dancers, for their art, for the joy they bring in the dance.” “The joy of the dance was theirs.” “They shared it with us, then.” “And we paid them the highest tribute—we honored the beauty of the moment, and respected the serenity of the performance.” Yarden thought about this. “By leaving like that? Without a word, without a sound—just leaving? That was your tribute?” Ianni, a tall, dark-haired woman, slender with long graceful limbs, folded her hands in front of her and stopped walking, turned to Yarden, and said, “We shared the moment together, and we took it to ourselves. We have hidden it in our hearts to treasure it always. What more can one do who has not created? It was not our place to judge, only to accept.” They walked again, feeling the warmth of the day and the pure rays of the sun on their faces. After a time Yarden nodded, saying, “I think I understand what you are saying: the artist practices her art for herself alone, but she performs as an expression of praise to the Infinite Father for the gift of her art—a gift she shares with her audience.” “Or with no audience at all.” “Yes, I see. The audience does not matter.” “Not to the performance, no. But if the audience is moved to praise the Infinite too, so much the better. Let praise increase! Of course, an artist is pleased when the audience is pleased. That is only natural. But, since she performs her art for herself and for the pleasure of the Infinite, the audience’s response or lack of it is of no concern.” “The only concern is how well she has performed.” “Yes, whether she has used her gift to her best abilities. If she has, what does it matter whether she had an audience or not, or what the audience thought about the performance?” When we stop doing whatever it is that we may do in order to impress others or in order to gauge our happiness by their response or in order to attain some level of status, that is when we are free to enjoy the thing that we do for itself, with no strings attached. Anything else only muddies our motives and detracts from the joy of the doing of it, because we can never expect to only receive praise from those around us. I long to detach myself from needing the approval of others, and from using that as a meter for how I feel about myself. The love of my song was what ambition took from me. God has given it back.
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