Early in my career, a seasoned pastor advised me to develop a philosophy of ministry, a set of core values and convictions that would serve to guide my decision-making and ultimately define my why.
Clarity emerged as I reflected upon the Scriptures, studied a few significant authors, and grew in self-awareness of my giftings, passions, and temperament. By my early 30s, I had come to grips with my vocational purpose.
Personal mission statements were the rave then, and so I developed a short, succinct phrase that expressed my life-calling. There have been a few tweaks over the years, but the essence of that statement remains the same: “Helping people enjoy life.”
This has been my mission both personally and professionally.
Enjoying life is about flourishing—growing in all dimensions of our humanness (e.g., mentally, emotionally, physically, relationally, vocationally, etc.) according to our own unique capacities.
Foundational to flourishing is being rightly connected to God and aligned with his ways. There is no real flourishing—enjoying of life—without living in loving union with Jesus Christ and working with him for the fulfillment of his reconciling, liberating purposes.
That said, I have found that much of our ability to enjoy life is inextricably linked to our expectations. As one pastor-friend of mine said to me years ago, “The distance between your expectations and your reality is the level of your frustration.”
I wonder how often we set ourselves up for unnecessary disappointment and heartache due to unrealistic expectations.
Years ago I read psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. The very first sentence of his bestseller reads, “Life is difficult.” Peck argues that this is “one of the greatest truths” and contends that the minute life is accepted as being full of pain, the fact that life is difficult no longer becomes a problem. He confesses, however, that most (including himself) do not fully appreciate this and moan and argue, as if life should be easy, as if the problems visited upon them are somehow unique and abnormal.
Peck goes on to say that our tendency to avoid difficulty is the “primary basis of all human mental illness.” Some of us go to extraordinary lengths to avoid conflict and difficulty (e.g., drugs, alcohol, work, etc.) but, as he argues, the substitute ultimately becomes more painful than the original problem.
Peck does not imply that we should, in light of this sobering truth, become pessimists or stoics. But he does call readers to be ruthlessly honest with themselves and to the fallen conditions in which they find themselves.
Of course, as Christians, we have a solid basis to be hopeful because of Christ’s resurrection. If God can turn the evilest act ever committed—the crucifixion of Christ—and make it into the most glorious event to have ever occurred, he can turn whatever trial or misfortune that comes our way into something glorious.
But being hopeful does not preclude being realistic.
We live on a broken planet. People fail. People sin. Natural disasters occur. Things deteriorate. Bodies wear out.
We face heartache, frustration, confusion, anger, sadness, and fear on all levels. To live is to lose—health, family, friends, possessions, security, status, . . . eventually one’s life. It is no surprise then, that before Jesus left his disciples, he clearly stated, “In this world you will have trouble” (Jn. 16:33).
Life is hard.
And no one gets a free pass.
One major stream feeding our unrealistic expectations is that we live in a culture inundated with the unrealistic and destructive message that everyone’s life should always be exciting and fun, one whose motto is, “Take it easy!” Making matters worse, we have been trained in the art of indulgence and impatience—a sure recipe for disappointment. Groomed to be dissatisfied (this is how our very economy survives), we have become soft and have little tolerance for pain.
The late anchorman for NBC News, Tom Brokaw, spelled this out in his book, The Greatest Generation. Those who grew up in the United States during the Great Depression and went through World War II knew hardship and deprivation. This became the fertile soil for the making of a generation of hardy, strong-willed people. America’s post war prosperity, however, created conditions that have made Baby Boomers and their heirs less resilient and more selfish. Our prosperity has become our curse.
Depression is at record levels. Mental illness is at an all-time high.
Privileged more than any preceding generation, we have become an addicted society. Why is the joy that should presumably follow such unprecedented abundance missing?
As Westerners, our overall beliefs about life—specifically, what we implicitly think we deserve and can, therefore, expect—are out of line with the reality of living in a fallen world. These illusions, in turn, set us up for unnecessary pain.
Priest and author Henri Nouwen writes, “Many people suffer because of the false supposition on which they have based their lives. That supposition is that there should be no fear or loneliness, no confusion or doubt. But these sufferings can only be dealt with creatively when they are understood as wounds integral to our human condition.”
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
The Apostle Paul reminds the Roman Christians that “creation was subjected to frustration (i.e., futility, decay)” (8:20). Bondage, weakness, and trouble is part and parcel of life on this planet.
But we are part of a consumeristic, therapeutic culture which tells us that life can be comfortable and happy. In fact, it should be. It is our right. This narrative is destructive to human flourishing . . . and joy.
Whereas doctors prior to the 1900s believed some degree of pain was healthy, today doctors are expected to eliminate all pain. Stanford Addiction MD Anna Lembke contends that this “paradigm shift around pain has translated into massive prescribing of feel-good pills. Today, more than one in four American adults–and more than one in twenty American children–takes a psychiatric drug on a daily basis.”
The story found in God’s Word is altogether different. We are under a curse that brings sweat to our brow and pain in our childbearing. “Thorns infest the ground.” Pain is unavoidable no matter how hard we try to avoid it. This present world cannot deliver the deepest and most satisfying joys for which we long.
The good news, however, is that resurrection power has been infused into the cosmos. We live between the “already-but-not-yet” kingdom of God. God’s redemption began in Christ two thousand years ago. However, we must understand that this healing campaign will not be consummated until Christ’s second coming. In the beautiful imagery found in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is winter now, but spring is coming. The great thaw has begun.
In the meantime, we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly” (Rom. 8:24). Such a view keeps us realistically hopeful—with feet planted firmly on the ground and hearts alive with anticipation.
Maybe we can even begin to see that the struggles and heartbreaks we experience are actually means of growth and opportunity for deeper faith, greater wisdom, stronger character, and a more robust joy. In this respect, the words of James provide good counsel: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:2-4).
“Since Christ suffered in his body,
arm yourselves also with the same attitude,
because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin.”
(1 Peter 4:1)