Saturday, November 28, 2015

Matthew 11:28-30

Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

What is it to be "heavy laden"? For me, it has been the effort to make my life meaningful by filling it up. You get one shot at life, I thought, and I didn't want to waste it. So I've got to be something and do things, and I've got to start right now, because life is passing by even as I speak. This was how I thought as a young man.

But be what and do what? That's not so easy a question to answer. For there is the problem of opportunity cost. To do something or to be something is implicitly to choose not to do or be all the other things you could have done or been. To become an engineer is not to become an English teacher, an historian, or a philosopher. Suppose you choose the wrong thing? You will have invested long time and effort to become something you should never have been. And there is no "do-over." You can't get those years back that you invested in becoming something you were not.

I always envied the nerds who knew who and what they were: engineers. No anxious struggle about life's direction for them. I, on the other hand, could be interested in just about anything but not overwhelming passionate about anything. So I would flit from thing to thing, hoping to land on one that I would somehow know was "me", like finding the girl you "just knew" was the one for you.

In his Either:Or, Kierkegaard discusses something he calls the "rotation method": This is a way someone bored with life keeps himself from going crazy. What he does is pursue an interest for a while until it becomes fatigued and he is bored with it. He then moves onto another interest, going from one to another until he eventually, after enough time, comes back to the first which has become interesting again through neglect. This was essentially what I did. My best friend used to ask me what "kick" I was currently on.

There is an alternative. And that is, instead of trying to fill up your life with either things you are becoming or things you are doing, to recognize the futility of that approach, and instead empty your life. But isn't that just giving up on life itself? Yes, it is and would be, and is why the great philosophers like Aristotle did not recommend it. But the fact of Christ changes everything.

For by emptying yourself and taking on the burden offered by Christ, you open yourself to the possibility that Christ Himself will fill you, and satisfy you in a way not possible for anything on Earth. As Kierkegaard would say, it is the difference between filling yourself with the eternal versus the merely temporary.

That sounds all well and good, but how do I know such satisfaction is an actual reality rather than, say, merely a pious hope? For if it is merely a pious hope, then the apparent death that would happen if I empty myself is an actual death. The rotation method may be unsatisfying and ultimately lead to despair, but at least it is something, and I get at least the satisfaction that I am trying.

This is where the matter of faith comes in. Faith in this context does not mean a blind belief in something you know to be false or have no reason to believe is true. It means to act take a chance and act on trust. Is the Gospel true? Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead and show that a life of self-emptying is really a life of true fulfillment rather than a living death? I cannot prove that in any absolute sense. But then I don't think that is necessary. At least it wasn't for me.

It was enough for me to establish that the Gospel was at least plausible. Furthermore, I was and am firmly convinced that something highly unusual happened in Palestine in the first century. For the events that launched the Christian religion form a hinge point in history, one that turned the world from an eternal cycle of civilizational births and deaths, with one epoch not so different from any prior one, to a world launched in history, one condemned to development and change, and charging through time to some denouement to happen when no one knows. (See Chesterton's The Everlasting Man for the classic development of this theme.)

The conviction that something transcendent happened at the origin of the Christian religion, and my own recognition of the futility of trying to make life significant by filling it up, was enough to allow me to make the act of faith in renouncing the life I had been following and instead attempt to empty it and follow Christ. Yes, there was a bit of Pascal's Wager going on here.

What does it mean to embrace a self-emptying life in the name of Christ? It means to sacrifice all things you might have become or done for the sake of following Christ, and that means living for others rather than yourself. For me, it meant that instead of pursuing various hobbies obsessively I would spend that time coaching youth soccer or playing games with my children. It meant accepting a professional career that I might not have been passionate about, but was competent enough at to be successful enough to support a family. And it is to accept that as the years go on, working at a job that is just a job, and getting older and slower, missing the experiences I might have had, that in fact I was not slowly dying but rather accumulating treasure in Heaven, which is Christ Himself.

There are consolations. The vanity of earthly pursuits becomes more obvious as one grows older. And  we find that there are earthly rewards as well: Matthew 6:33. But these rewards also constitute a temptation, for they renew the possibility of life as self-fulfillment: I have filled my life with family rather than experiences or personal development. If we are following Christ, we devote ourselves to our family for His sake, not our own. If we give in to the temptation to the latter, then we are open to grasping after our family (e.g. helicopter parenting, or forcing our children to take their freedom when they are older rather than giving it to them as free equals.)

And it's not like flipping a switch. More like a slow process where one gradually weans oneself from the temptation to grasp at life rather than renounce it for Christ. And I am constantly tempted to grasp, especially in retrospect. The last few years I have taken up long distance running as a way to avoid getting old faster than necessary. Running a weekly 5k fun run here in town, I find myself envying the younger men (in their 30's and 40's) who did not wait until they were 50 to take the sport seriously. I wonder what I could have done had I taken running more seriously back then. But at that time I was changing diapers, or coaching youth soccer teams, or going to little league games, or playing board games with my daughter. I imagine an alternative history in which I have filled my life with such things and am happy, a history that I know is a lie, and thank God that he gave me the grace to see the futility of that life before I had misspent it.

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