Move On

I have a confession to make. I’m rather good at feeling sorry for myself.

The sort of self-pitying behaviour I’m talking about swings two ways. On the one hand, when I mess up or make a mistake, I tend to wallow in self-condemnation and guilt. I’m an introspective type; sometimes a little too introspective, I’ve concluded. It means that when I do wrong, I beat myself up to no end.

On the other hand, when I feel low, I find it easy to fall into self-justification. You too might be accustomed to the type of fatalistic, self-justifying behaviour in the following scenario: you’ve had a bad day, so you think to yourself, “It doesn’t matter what I do now. Nothing I can do can make things any better or any worse.” The mind says to the will, “You’re already feeling down. The day is already a defeat. It doesn’t matter if you eat another donut, watch another episode of Suits, drink another beer, insert-unhealthy-behaviour-here to make you feel more comfortable about yourself.” Numb yourself from reality, and justify it to yourself. You deserve it. Not.

Both types of self-pity – whether it’s self-condemnation or self-justification – are destructive, numbing, and paralysing. Neither of them are God’s purpose for us. They leave us stagnant,  wallowing in a pit of self-despair. Like Elijah on the mountain, we find ourselves in a pitiful state of defeat, obsessing about our own woeful lot, without the perspective either to accept the past for what it is or press forwards into the future.

I think God sometimes says to us something to this effect: Get up. Gird yourself and move on. Get a grip and press forward. Ouch.

Of course, that sense of guilt is not, in itself, a bad thing, so long as it leads us to repentance. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, talks about this healthy guilt as “godly grief that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). On the other hand, the type of self-aggrandising, self-pitying, despairing guilt, the guilt which holds on to past sins and does not let them go, is a “worldly grief [which] produces death.”

Guilt that leads to repentance is an essential part of sanctification. Repentance means that we accept our own mistakes, but then we are enabled to leave those mistakes at the foot of the Cross, knowing that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12, ESV). We can press on, knowing that by God’s grace coupled with our partnership and obedience to His will, we are being perfected by Him, being “renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16, ESV).

Guilt that leads to self-pitying condemnation, on the other hand, leads to death. It involves, in a way, a rejection of God’s grace; we think that our sin is too powerful for His love to overcome. This type of guilt is a burden too great for the human soul to bear. Acceptance of God’s abundant grace, on the other hand, results in a type of self-forgetfulness, allowing us to forget what is behind and press on to what is ahead, “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14. ESV).

God calls us out from the cave of crippling despair, from our state of wallowing in defeat and condemnation. When the Israelites complained to Moses during the Exodus from Egypt, thinking themselves defeated what does God say to them? “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on” (Ex. 14:15).

Move on. 

Today, God may be telling you to move on. The story of Easter is that death has been defeated once-for-all-time. Our sin and rejection has been left at the foot of the Cross, nailed to the tree; our condemnation is met with His acceptance. Our old self – self-pitying, self-condemning, self-justifying – has been crucified with Him on Good Friday; we are raised to a new life of freedom by His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Freedom to move on.

When Jesus raised Lazarus to life, He said, “Lazarus, come out!” To each one of us, too, He calls, “Get up, come out, leave behind your grave-clothes, and move on.

It’s Okay to be an Introvert

I was always a quiet and unassuming kid.

I kept a small, close circle of friends, and even then, I’d much rather spend time in my own company. I’d while away my childhood days with my head stuck in a novel, or, even better, by fabricating fantastical towns and worlds out of Lego bricks.

For the most part, keeping company with myself suited me just fine.

As I grew up all that began to change. As I entered secondary school and puberty, I was thrust into a world of new social interactions, of canteen politics and classroom cliques. While trying to survive the hormonal minefield of the troublesome teens, I also had to learn an art that didn’t come all too naturally to me: the art of socialising.

The years went by and I was slowly drawn out of my own skin.

While the skill of conversation didn’t come naturally to me, I started to become more at home around other people. My quiet childhood years now blossomed into more amicable teenage years, and I found a new love for being with people.

Now, in the middle of my degree, I love the busy social life that university affords. The friends I’ve made here number among my best and closest friends, and for them I’m grateful beyond measure. In contrast to my insular past, I’ve learnt to open up. I now thrive by being around people, meeting with friends, and attending social gatherings, which is something that would terrify me as a child.

What I’ve realised recently, though, is just how far the pendulum had swung.

In putting away my overly-introverted tendencies, in forcing myself out of my shell and realising I enjoyed being in the air, I left a little bit of myself behind in the process.

Deep down, I’m still an introvert – and, by playing the extrovert, I’d forgotten that.

Before I began to burn out, I didn’t realise just how much I needed quality time to myself. I’d want to spend all my waking hours in a flurry of activity – being around people or working or meeting up with friends. I like the feeling of keeping a full calendar – but, mistakenly, I’d sacrificed carving out vital time to myself.

I’d look up to my friends who seemed to be doing it right – able to balance sixteen coffee dates a week with commitments to their degrees and being on society committees and so forth. “They’ve got it right,” I thought, “I want to do it that way.” I’d mistaken doing more, being more available, with serving my friends better, as the “better way” of doing life.

The problem is, I began to stretch myself thin, I began to grow weary and burnt out.

How could I serve others from the overflow of my heart if my tank was half-empty? I compared myself to others who seemed to cope so well – and grew discouraged that I couldn’t do the same. But, simultaneously, I realised that I wasn’t able to sustain that level of busyness. Something had to change.

This past half-year has been a long process of learning that it’s okay to be myself. In trying to imitate others I’d burnt myself out. In a culture where being an extrovert seems the most desirable personality trait – exuding confidence, constantly energetic, socially adept – I’d mourned that I had neither the energy or the persona to be like that. Jesus, quoting the book of Leviticus, teaches “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

But how can you truly love your neighbour unless you love yourself – the unique personality and quirks that God has individually given to you?

I’d bought into a lie. 

What I’d forgotten is that to each of us, God gives a unique purpose, unique gifts, a unique personality, by his grace, that fits into his plan for the church – his body – as a whole. In a much-quoted passage, Paul writes:

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts,yet one body…But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.

1 Corinthians 12:18-20, 24b, 25

In learning to be myself, I’d gone too far in the other direction, forgetting the unique gift I had been given not in spite of, but because of, my personality. I can’t serve as another member of the body that I’m not. But, in corollary, another member of the body can’t fulfil what I’ve been called to do. Both introvert and extrovert has a unique role to play.

So I celebrate my friends who are extroverts – I love your energy, your charisma, your affection, your drive, your passion. I uphold your ability to lead the church and to inspire others, to lift others up and boldly follow your vision.

But, to my introverted friends, and to myself, I extend this reminder. We each have a unique role to play. A different way of looking at the world. A different way of loving people. A unique stake in the mission that others do not have. Just because the gift may seem, at times, less prominent, less visible, lower-key, doesn’t mean it isn’t as important. We are part of the same body, so don’t mourn not being like others. Embrace your unique gifts.

I’m learning, once again, the art of being an introvert.

Chasing Home

Reflecting on the past four months, I’ve realised that I’ve slept in 12 different beds, in nine different cities and towns, across three countries and two continents. Whether that’s been just for a night or for a few months at a time, I’ve called quite a few places “home” this summer, whether temporarily or more permanently. At this point in time, I’m settling into new student housing in Nottingham.

All this isn’t to boast about having a pretty adventure-packed Summer (although it has been great). Rather, it’s to illustrate a point.

You see, my nearly constant movement over the past few months has meant I’ve had to embrace the temporality of it all. Wherever I’ve had the privilege of visiting, whoever I’ve had the blessing of meeting, it’s been in the knowledge that for each circumstance and in every situation, it was for a short time only.

Sometimes I’ve made a place my home for a season – for example, my time at university is a season of life where I’m pretty much based in one place for an extended period. At other times, it’s more temporary than that – like on a short-terms mission trip.

The Bible says that the whole of life is a bit like this. Whether we know it or not, everything – every experience, season, relationship – is temporary, is passing away.

Qoholet, the wisdom-writer of the book we call Ecclesiastes, says that everything is like vapour, a wind. The Hebrew word often translated meaningless in the English translation of in Ecclesiastes 1 also carries the senses breath, vanity, and delusion. Everything is temporal, fleeting, gone in a moment, he says. Later he notes the seasonal nature of human existence (the famous sequence starting “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” in Ecclesiastes 3), and mourns that no matter what legacy he leaves, after death it will amount to nothing more than a “striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:17, ESV). He doesn’t even have power over what his successors do with what he leaves behind – they may go and squander his riches and everything he has toiled for during his life (ibid. v. 18, 19).

The Psalmist paints a similar picture of human existence:

Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow. (Psalm 144:3, 4, NIV)

That’s right: our existence is like a shadow, flickering and changing as the sun passes and gone as swiftly as the coming of the day’s end.

Every place we call “home,” whether in the knowledge it is for a short time or as a more permanent dwelling, will pass away. Every empire we build, every business and entrepreneurial pursuit  we pour energy into, every dream, every victory and defeat, everything that seems so final, so momentous, everything that we seek security and permanence in, these things are passing away. Every relationship, every family, everyone we love and hate, every person we promise to spend the rest of our days with – they, too, are going like a wind, mortal human beings that they are. Human existence is a fleeting shadow. Our degrees, our careers, our legacies, all is but a vapour, swallowed up in the passage of time that washes over our existence like an ocean that we are but a drop in.

All this might sound bleak to you. It might be something you choose to ignore. Our own mortality is a hard truth to swallow.

But the Bible offers some eternal perspective on our own fragile existence, a reason to rejoice – a reason for hope. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, gives us the following insight, as he reflects on our eternal hope of glory:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NIV)

This world is not our home, Paul says, at least, not like it is. The life we live now – our life in this world – is like a tent, a temporary residence. It is but a temporary dwelling, a passing place as we await the permanent, unshakeable, eternal dwelling place promised us, assured by our salvation in Christ.

Now we are wanderers, then shall we have rest. Now are we exiles, then shall we have a home. Now we hunger and thirst, then shall He satisfy our every need. Now we long for security, then we will dwell in an unshakeable Kingdom.

Paul uses the image of being “clothed…with our heavenly dwelling” as He pictures eternal life. The portrait here isn’t of some dualistic, abstract vision of heaven, some “place in the clouds” that our disembodied souls will float off into, with no likeness or resemblance to our world. No, not at all. Rather, it is that this world is groaning, longing for the time when heaven touches earth, transforming it into all God intended for Creation. It is material, concrete, real – where everything lacking is made whole.

This is an image of a world – even this world – transformed; a world where brokenness is transposed into wholeness, where sickness is done away with, where everything is made new, nakedness and depravity are clothed with bright raiment, where dark places are pierced with unfathomable light, where everything hurting and dislocated in this world is renewed, restored, redeemed.

It is life as it was meant to be – the bare bones of our mortality clothed with eternity, depravity clothed with abundance. It’s as the writer of John’s Apocalypse says: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, ESV).

What does it mean for us now? We can either mourn the temporality of it all, or we can embrace it. Embrace every opportunity, every meeting, every encounter, every season of life as a gift. It is all from God, and it is all going back to Him. And every worry and heartache, everything “insurmountable” obstacle that seems so significant at the time, every burden- these things, too, are passing away. There will come a time when we will be clothed fully, when we come home, when we enter into the eternal feast when the Kingdom is established in fullness. For now, we wait.

It gives us unshakeable hope for the future, and perspective for today. And even now, the Kingdom is breaking in, making all things new. We are living in the aftermath of Christ’s shattering victory over the clutch of death and evil and darkness on the Cross.

And because of that, we have utter freedom. Freedom from having to clutch and strive for the things of this earth as if they’re all we have – freedom from the anxiety arising from our own mortality. He has given us utter freedom, even as we experience eternal life here and now.