We Are Mere Participants

In this lies our greatest strength

Jonas Ellison
Oct 31, 2019 · 3 min read

As a human, I love my righteous sense of ‘doingness’. I‌ love having skin in the game. I think I can do it all (and do it the right way). In my mind, I can single-handedly save the world before noon and pick my kid up from school by 3 pm.

When I‌ take on this humanistic stance, by 3 pm, I’m always deflated…

Here’s the good news: Christianity isn’t about individual human doingness. When we come from this place, we soon find ourselves internally devoid of any connection to the divine. We find ourselves tired. Bitter. Cynical.

God doesn’t need my help in getting the planets to orbit. Or the wind to blow. Or the sun to rise tomorrow. I can’t single-handedly help God bring forth whatever God wants to do with this thing called life or reality or whatever you want to call it. God is so far ahead of me, it’s ridiculous to think that I can sway the balance of life on this planet any more than an unnoticeable smidgen (if that).

I see my task as running to catch up to wherever God is taking this thing.

God is the acting agent and I’m a participatory passenger along for the ride and doing what I can to stay in the car.

Sure, I can get out and walk. I can even feel really good and proud of my walking. I can shake my fists and yell at others who aren’t walking as hard, as fast, or with as much strain and sweat as I am.

Or I can get back in the damn car.

As I discern this vocation as a Christian pastor, I see my job as being to fix my eyes on what God is doing and has done, not on what I can do to help Him. I’m not knocking humanistic thinkers, philosophers, motivators, innovators, workers, etc. I see every human vocation to be a divine calling. But as for my work, if God isn’t the acting agent and the subject of my writings (and eventual sermons) it’s not the Gospel.

I‌ know this sounds like an excuse for human passivity, but it’s not. In the Christian sense, our focus is widened so as to see who/what the true doer behind life itself is. As was just revealed to me by someone active in the civil rights movement, a common protest phrase was, “We’re not doing this! God is doing this!” This takes on a more profound tone and expanded resonance than, “We’re doing this all by ourselves — it’s us against them!” It’s the cry of a more communal and deeper wisdom that understands that God isn’t waiting for the protestors to accomplish what God wills to accomplish. The protestors are mere participants in what God has already willed. It is an idea that has come to pass, not a hard-willed human endeavor.

That being said, it’s not my job (in my particular budding vocational path) to exhort you or anyone to get up, go out, and do… anything (feed the hungry, dig wells in third-world countries, be more inclusive, buy more guns, build a wall, start a war, be more mindful, be nicer, cuss less, use your turn signals, compost, be more moral, etc.). These exhortations might feel empowering to those who are already doing these things. But in a wider sense, they’re self-defeating...

When most people hear these things, they feel hopeless (or am I the only one?). Hortatory messages (and this goes for the secular ‘self-improvement’ crowd as well) — as well-intended as they are — often give people a short-lived ‘boost’ of idealism (I‌ know, those Instagram motivational quotes feel SO‌ GOOD when we first read them). We might even go out and buy some new workout clothes, start a diet, take up composting, download that mindfulness app, etc. But then comes the subsequent crash that makes it seem that living a ‘worthy’ life is utterly impossible.

We humans can’t do it alone.
It’s too much.

It brings rest and vitality to the weary soul to know that we’re enfolded in a loving, creative, intelligent, redeeming, and restorative force bigger than our own feeble human volition.

Grace Incarnate

A collection of thoughts about life in this grace-starved and Christ-soaked world.

Jonas Ellison

Written by

Midlife ELCA Lutheran seminarian with big Catholic energy MDiv-ing at LSTC Chicago. He/him. Blogs daily(ish) at http://jonasellison.substack.com

Grace Incarnate

A collection of thoughts about life in this grace-starved and Christ-soaked world.

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