I’ve been sick for the last month. Sniffles turned into bronchitis; bronchitis became pneumonia; and the pneumonia was accompanied by a gut wrenching nausea. I was sick, in bed, too tired to think or pray. A walk to the kitchen for a sip of water left me gasping for air.
And I felt drained emotionally. All my life to date felt inconsequential, like I’d played a good game of chess but was checkmated in the end. Game over.
I often think negative thoughts when I’m sick so I try not to take them too seriously; but I also feel more honest. My self-protection filters are lowered, I have less pretense. And in this illness I saw a longing in my heart that I usually hide away, a desire with too much control.
I want my life to bear fruit; to make a difference; to leave a legacy; to know that this earth was better for me having lived here. I want a name, a sense of significance, to know that my life mattered.
Is that so bad? I never thought so before, but now I question it. Today I feel better physically, but I also feel a smarter spiritually, and I think my desire for a legacy has been a misdirection.
What I most need is a deeper—more real—relationship with God.
True and false legacies
Scripture overflows with metaphors of God’s tie to us, but it never says God is a spark plug and we are crankshafts (though I am often cranky). The images are relational not mechanical:
- He is a shepherd and we are his sheep;
- He is our father and we are his children;
- He is our betrothed;
- He is our friend.
Only one Biblical image hints of mechanics, the picture of God as the potter and us as the clay. But this metaphor means we are the artistry of God. Artists delight in their works of art. Even this slightly mechanistic metaphor bristles with relational connectivity.
When I was sick, I read only two verses every day for four weeks. They explain relational legacy:
Abide in me, and I in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me. I am the vine and you are the branches. If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will bear much fruit. But apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).
After reading these few words for twenty-eight days straight (I’m slow), I realized I have been looking at life the wrong way: I wanted to leave a legacy, instead I was leaving spiritual sanity.
A branch doesn’t get fruit by looking to the fruit; it gets fruit by looking to the vine.
Which way do we look?
Scripture promises a relationship with God that involves a personal, intimate connection; in it we receive real life—every joy, hope, and satisfaction—all completely from that link. “Life” will never come from legacies we leave, our good deeds, or the fruit we bear. Only from the link.
It means our fruit (deeds and legacies) are byproducts of that relational bond. If we want fruit (deeds and legacies), we must pour our energy into one thing only: drawing on the vine. Even Jesus admitted, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I can do nothing on my own” (John 5:19, par).
I’ll never leave a legacy of value if all I care about is a legacy; I’ve been looking the wrong way.
How can we find “life” in our lives?
Branches thrive on the vine only by drawing life from that connection; the relationship itself becomes its sustenance. It’s more than a mere connection (some connected branches are cut off because they refuse to “abide”). It means we learn to dwell and draw life in him. We:
- Thirst for him. Branches get moisture from the vine, but not like garden hoses (where water flows in one side and out the other). Branches draw in water from the vine, and that water miraculously comes out as grapes in our lives. The legacy is the relationship.
- Converse with him. All human intimacy is based on communication. God invites us to converse with him, to tell him everything we tell our friends, and to expect him to speak to us personally. Not all God-speak is doctrine; much is simply relational.
- Serve him as he likes. Intimate relationships involve knowing each other’s desires and loving to satisfy them. As our Godly intimacy grows, we want to delight him. (And he us.) Abiding in Christ means growing obedience, even when we don’t understand.
What about when our legacies are dying?
My desire to leave a legacy was (I now believe) mostly selfish. It was a way to stake a claim for my self-worth, to make a name for myself. But self-worth can’t hold a candle to God-worth. Jesus said, “As my father has loved me, so I love you; remain [continue, dwell, draw life] in that love.”
Only in dwelling upon that love will we bear fruit. The legacy is just a byproduct.
John Milton was a writer who lost his sight in an age when blindness almost always meant intellectual death (long before braille or audiobooks). His legacy of spiritual insight was threatened. He dealt with this threat in his sonnet, On His Blindness. It begins:
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless,
Milton’s most treasured talent (“which was death to hide”) was now useless. No legacy. No fruit. No nothing. Game over. How did he deal with the loss of legacy? He learned to abide in God. His poem ends relationally victorious over mere legacy:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Milton’s poem is bearing fruit in my life; his legacy was formed when he dwelt in Christ. That’s what I need more than aspirations for legacies: to dwell in God’s love. And to stand and wait.