The last three birthdays reminded me that my life is not what I hoped it would be by 30. I'd expected the daily freedoms and sporadic adventures that health affords, and I'd hoped for wifely and motherly adventures along the way. Many of my dreams have been elusive, despite my fervent efforts at realizing them; and the last few birthdays have shined a strobe light onto the deep, sometimes frantic ache of punctured hope.
For years I've longed to recapture young adulthood, determined to regain the years I spent in bed or at the doctor's office. I've been desperate to make the next six years better, easier — healthier. This birthday, though, I've grown tired of trying to scramble up the sand dune of time past, and I have finally stopped and turned to embrace this new season, whatever it might hold. In doing so, I've discovered the gift I kept overlooking.
Thirty-two has gleaned decades of life experiences that confirm the lavishness of God's goodness and the grandness of his grace. Thirty-two offers grey hairs and wrinkles, but they're hard-won wrinkles and grey hairs, earned in the trenches of unexpected suffering and ongoing disappointment.
At 32, my heart has begun to understand what my head has known all along: wrinkles and grey hair can be celebratory signs that we are growing into our truest selves, more glorious than the year before. And they can be credentials — a sign to the world that though we cannot wipe off the whiteboard without our triceps flying to the high heavens, our souls are strong and sturdy, and we are becoming wise.
I only have a few wisdom credentials at this point, but I'm thankful for the few I have, and for the hardships that endowed them. At 22 years old, I couldn't have imagined the layers of richness they would add to my life. At 22, I liked my safe, comfortable little life, and heart-wrenching hardships seemed like the worst possible thing. I did everything I could to avoid — and resist — them.
But oh, my sweet 22-year-old self: if I could reach back in time and talk with you today, here is what I would tell you about life and its hardships:
In 32 years I have learned that at some point life will strip you naked. It will tear away health, or careers, or wealth, or relationships, or beauty, or physical fitness, until you're a naked soul, trembling from the discomfort of nakedness.
At this point, despite all your good theology, you may feel like you have little offer the world — like you aren't as valuable as you used to be — and you will likely scramble to cover up your nakedness. You will reach for the things that have been stripped away, with the hope of plastering them over your life all over again.
There is a good chance God will not let you.
Instead, he may teach you that impressive achievements and a reliable career were fig leaves you were using to cover your nakedness all along, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When we shrink back in shame like Adam and Eve, determined to cover our nakedness, God will come looking for us. He will call out to us, and draw near to us, and his Father's heart will long to clothe us.
We see this when God carefully sewed clothing for Adam and Eve so they'd no longer have to use fig leaves to cover their nakedness. Those clothes were a symbol, a foreshadowing of the righteousness in which Christ would one day clothe the souls of his lovers, so we don't ever have to cower from the shame of nakedness again.
When your fig leaves have been stripped away, you may realize you do not feel relieved by the re-discovery that you are clothed in Christ's righteousness. You may feel like you got the short end of the stick, like his righteousness is not enough somehow. It doesn't help you toward the American Dream, after all, and the American Dream is the ultimate measuring rod for success in the West.
This realization is a gift.
It is a light on the dashboard of your soul, alerting you to hardness of heart you weren't previously aware of. It is an opportunity to invite the Holy Spirit to re-teach you the sufficiency of his grace and the marvels of being his child, clothed in his righteousness. It is an invitation to awaken to the living, Gospel Truth that devours the lie of the American Dream:
There is no life dearer — no life more fulfilling, thrilling, or vibrant — than a life of being a naked soul, clothed in righteousness, loved by God.
Here is what I know that I know that I know: if you are in your bed, almost all day, most days, for years and years, aching from illness and the grief that accompanies it, but you are discovering God's power and learning his love, then you are living your best possible life. You are not missing out. You are writing a most beautiful story.
This story-writing is often painful. In fact, most of the time, it will not feel like you and God are writing a beautiful story with a glorious ending. Instead, it will feel like you have been thrust into enemy territory, castaway and forgotten. When this happens, plunder the enemy territory. If your enemy is sickness, singleness, or grief, carefully survey the landscape and salvage everything of value — every last bit of gold, every last string of pearls — and tuck it into the folds of your heart.
The quiet isolation of chronic illness may be the space in which you learn to listen for God's voice. The hunger for marriage may push you into community with people in whom you'd never otherwise have time to invest. The pain of pervasive grief may teach you to pray without ceasing.
The plundering will add sparkle to your life, but it will not transform your darkness into light. Only God can do that. And he is at work transfiguring the darkness. This is at the heart of the Gospel. When you are weak, then you are strong; when you are empty, then you are filled; when you lose your life, then you find it; when you die, then you are really, truly alive.
I used to love gazing at these paradoxes from afar, intoxicated by their beauty. I never dreamed they would be so brutal to live. Weakness, loss, and death are a miserable lot, and sometimes it can take absolutely ages — even an entire lifetime — before we see signs of strength, gain, and life sprouting from the ashes.
It is easy to lose heart in the midst of the waiting, while our robust hope withers and droops. This is why we need each other. While you wait for Jesus to transfigure your darkness into light, run into a safe community of Christians. Ask them to tell you their stories of God's provision — of the strength he gave them in weakness, and the gain he gave them in loss. If you are too sick to meet with other followers of Jesus, then send a text or an email, asking people to send you their stories. Become a collector of stories that you can revisit when your perseverance wanes.
And when you have stories of your own, share them. Tell your people about the time you got a check in the mail, just hours after sinking despair over financial need. Tell them about the friend who gave her heart to Christ, after you'd prayed for her for years; tell them about the angel that protected you on a long road trip; tell them about the time you ate a waffle and realized, mid-bite, that God gave you taste buds — of all things, taste buds! — all over your tongue, opening you to all sorts of grace. Remember God's goodness together, and watch your hope grow.
And when God turns the darkness into gold? Give it away. Empty yourself right back out for the impoverished in your community. Take every last drop of love you've received and every last bit of grace you've learned and give it to the the lonely neighbor who needs a listening ear, the marginalized immigrant who needs a safe place to belong, the exhausted single mom who needs rent money and a babysitter, the imprisoned and forgotten who need education and opportunity, and the sick and elderly who need hot meals and encouraging words.
If you're immobilized by illness and you can't do much to lessen the pain on earth, then petition heaven on behalf of those whose wounds are raw and gaping. Devote your days to asking God to give them advocates and a sense of his peace, presence, and power. And when you do, you will discover all over again that the discomfort of giving is where Life hides. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Giving, and the Way of Giving is the only way of having what satisfies your soul.
It is hard work persevering through the darkness and resting at the heart of Gospel paradox. But I can promise you this: if you have surrendered your life — your ambitions, longings, and deepest loves — to Jesus, then you will discover that suffering is not the worst possible thing that could happen to you; a comfortable life disconnected from God's love is. And in some crazy, wild way, God can use your suffering to make his love more real to you than ever before, more glorious than you ever imagined. If you thought his love was a glowing candle, your suffering can teach you it is a sunrise.
Once you have felt the warmth of that sunrise, you will want to bask in it forever. You will want to swim in it, to be wrapped up in it, to be united with it. Unlike twenty-two, thirty-two, with its deepening wrinkles and white hairs, will remind you that you are returning to dust, and one day very soon, you will be wrapped up in God's arms, united with him at last. You will touch him, smell him, and look into his eyes, and what you see in them will make you sing and dance with joy.
In the meantime, there is worthy work to do.
So press on, Young One, your face ever-fixed on the Sunrise. You will be glad you did.
***I first heard John Coe use the metaphor of lights on the dashboard of the soul; and I first heard Matt Jenson use the metaphor of plundering enemy territory.
© by scj