If Only …

I once read an article that blamed the plague of modern discontent on the internet. Facebook flaunts vacationing friends sailing the Caribbean, or their “perfect” kids topping the honor roll, or we drool over the mansions of the rich and famous. And our hearts whisper, “If only….”

Others argue that it is advertising that supercharges our unhappiness:

Marketers have turned television into an instrument of dissatisfaction. The shows bring an idealized, expensive world into the homes of people who can’t afford it. And the ads remind everyone that their lives are incomplete and unhappy—unless …. (Seth Godin)

It’s not that everything in our lives is bad (after all, we live in the safest, healthiest, and most prosperous time in history); we just wish our environment could be a smidgeon better:

  • If only I could lose twenty pounds.
  • If only I could work thirty-five hours a week instead of forty-five;
  • If only my husband listened more, or my wife was better looking (or I was better looking).

While the internet and advertisers intensify our discontent, Scripture says the human heart has an almost unlimited capacity to pin our hopes on the tiniest of changes in circumstances. As one spiritual writer put it:

The terrible fallacy of the last hundred years has been to think that all a person’s troubles are due to his environment. That is a tragic fallacy. It overlooks the fact that it was precisely in Paradise that mankind fell. (Martyn Lloyd Jones)

Sharing Our Victories or Our Struggles?

Many years ago, I met with a Christian leader who had influenced me in my youth. As we talked, he offered to give me input on a recent sermon series I had preached. A month later, he shared a few positive comments, and then he added this critique: “I think you share your weaknesses too much. People need to hear our victories more than our struggles.”

I think he is mistaken.

The gospels overflow with the deficiencies of the disciples who act like puppies that aren’t housebroken: they fail to understand the parables of Jesus, they argue about which of them is the greatest disciple, they cannot cast out an evil spirit, they correct Jesus for predicting his own death, they miss the meaning of the transfiguration, and they abandon and deny Jesus.

And remember, the gospels were written by these very same weak disciples or by people who heard them tell their stories. The gospel writers hid nothing of the failures of the disciples.

And those struggles encourage me. I don’t need leaders who tell me of their great victories; at least I don’t need them as much as I need leaders who share God’s great victories even when they themselves are clueless.

In the spirit of those “gifts of victory,” let me share (again) of my failure in a current struggle.

Shifting Gears

My parents moved from Detroit to Philadelphia in September 1975. I started university the same month, and I paid my tuition, room, and board by continuing my high school janitor job in Detroit, about a half-hour drive from Ann Arbor.

That October—forty-two years ago this month—I drove my white, 1967 VW Beetle to visit my parents in their new house for the weekend. It was a six-hundred-mile drive. Three short miles from home, my poor old Beetle’s transmission shifted its last gear, grinding itself to death.

My parents picked me up, we had a great weekend, and I hitchhiked back to Ann Arbor after hearing my dad preach in his new church.

My dad was a pastor of a small church, and my parents lived paycheck to paycheck. They couldn’t afford to help with tuition (which is why I drove to Detroit on weekends), and they certainly couldn’t help with my car repair.

I was in a bind. I needed my car so I could drive to work, so I could pay tuition, but I only had $350 in the bank for repairs.

Call Me Ishmael

I need to sacrifice something to God, and I don’t want to.

After months of trying to sell our house, we signed the closing documents a few weeks ago. My wife and I have painstakingly pursued our hunt for a new home. For me, it’s been more of a frantic, obsessive, compulsive quest. We’ve exhaustively examined hundreds of homes, but only one fit our unique criteria for layout and land-use.

Except this house is forty minutes from our community and we wanted a house a mere ten.

That dreamhouse absorbs my mind. I think about it at night. I imagine daily life with family or hosting retreats on hearing God. And I talk about it too much. (Just ask my friends.)

In my obsession with this aspiration, I begin to doubt God’s goodness (or his power), and I think ill-thoughts of my wife (Why can’t she love this dreamhouse as I do?).

I think God wants me to sacrifice something. Because this preoccupation is leading me into evil.

Bringing God Our Emptiness

My leadership at my church feels fruitless and my last few sermons stank; in the first 34 weeks of this year, I published only 25 “weekly” articles; and all my service to a partner charity feels last minute, like I’m doing everything in the nick of time.

Recently, I spend less time with my wife than I want; my brother (who lives in Australia) is visiting for two months and I’ve only met with him once; I’m having far fewer one-on-one meetings to care for acquaintances; and I’m falling behind in paperwork, housework, and email.

Bilbo Baggins once reflected, “I feel like butter scraped over too much bread.”

My heart says, “Me too.” I have too much to do and too little time to do it. My activities suffer from inadequate attention because I’m off to the next thing, which I’ll also do badly because something else (or someone else) cries out for attention. This morning I read this old quote:

God created the world out of emptiness, and as long as we are empty, he can make something out of us.

God is calling me to embrace my emptiness.

Unpleasant Grace

One evening years ago, I babysat my three sons, which meant I read a book upstairs as they wrestled each other downstairs. A shriek rang out and I raced down to find David, my five-year-old son, holding his head as blood gushed through his fingers.

One of his brothers had pushed him off the sofa, and he hit his head against the corner of an end table. It opened an inch-long gash on the side of his temple. As blood pulsed freely, he sobbed uncontrollably.

Without thinking, I said, “David, I think that gash is going to give you a scar.”

He instantly stopped crying, ran to a mirror, and began to examine his wound. He pushed aside his hair and pulled apart the two sides of the torn skin. As blood spurted out of his widened wound, he exclaimed,

“I think you’re right. I’m gonna get a scar!”

The Humility of Our Mysterious Purpose

Two and a half years ago, my wife and I decided to sell our house. We followed commonsense wisdom: we decluttered closets, upgraded appliances, and replaced old wallpaper with fresh paint.

Then we put our beloved house on the market. And nada. Well, not quite nothing. We had multiple almost-buyers, couples who claimed they would make an offer by the weekend. But an obstacle always cropped up, a pregnancy, an illness, a job change, and a declined loan.

We were bewildered. The price was reasonable (based on comparable homes), the house was gorgeous (no bias on my part), and the Ann Arbor real-estate market had taken off like a ballistic missile (houses often received multiple offers the day they were listed).

Where was God in the seemingly senseless delay in selling our house?

Last week we finally got a good offer which we accepted. My immediate thought was: God must have waited for the perfect family to buy, or else God was waiting until the right home came on the market for my wife and me. This morning I read,

“Just as you cannot know how a spirit comes into the bones in the womb of a pregnant woman, so you cannot understand the work of the God who created all.” (Eccl. 11:5)

I thought: Is it possible for me to know even a fraction of the purposes of God?