Being less than what we are
I published a poem the other day called, rather depressingly, I am so cruel to myself. It seemed to receive a bit more attention than other pieces I’ve shared lately, and it was even picked up by a cool poetry publication. I guess people can relate.
The poem describes two (real life) scenarios. In the first scenario, my partner and I are rearranging the furniture in our apartment and end up regretting it about an hour later. She’s especially frustrated with the results, so I try to assure her that it’s no big deal and that it’ll be a lot closer to the layout of our dreams in due time.
The following day, we have the second scenario: I’m trying to write something… something, anything at all… and the output is painfully unremarkable. Both unable and unwilling to take my own advice, I fall into a miserable funk for hours.
What she and I were suffering from, I suspect, was a lack of grace in concert with a host of unrealistic expectations. In neither circumstance was anything so dire and painful that it warranted teary-eyed frustration or hours of self-loathing.
It’s certainly important that we’re able to forgive ourselves, and one another, for these occasional lapses in contentment, resilience, or (especially) in beaming optimism. But if I’m to be completely honest with myself, when I think of dwelling in that rather self-indulgent funk (which happens more often than I’d like to admit) I feel far below the dignity of a child of God.
The inconsistency is palpable.
As natural as they may be, episodes of frustration and impatience like these are like a signal flare indicating that we’ve sold ourselves into spiritual slavery; we’ve fallen out of sync with our spiritual identity.
Desire as a universal problem
If you’ve ever experienced the deep peace of knowing yourself as made in God’s image, it might soon become apparent that you possess certain desires (and attitudes toward those desires) that require adjustment — desires that seem remarkably capable of taking you far, far away from your spiritual heritage.
This problem has been recognized not only by Christians and adherents of the Abrahamic traditions— desire has posed a problem to Eastern traditions as well. The Buddha recognized early on that “inordinate desire” was at the root of human suffering, and that to transform and adjust such desire is to acquire something akin to true human dignity.
Greek philosophers in the first century after Christ, such as Epictetus, taught how crucial it is for us to get a grip on what is truly within our power and what isn’t. This teaching has come down to us in the form of the very popular Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
I’m no expert, but I believe that when we start to live into our spiritual identity, we become — often gradually but sometimes suddenly — free of this kind of confusion.
“Being” and “doing” as spiritual exercises
In becoming free, or knowing our freedom, we need to recognize that being and doing are mutually reinforcing factors:
Dwelling in our spiritual identity increases our sense of freedom, while exercising our freedom increases our capacity for dwelling in our spiritual identity.
In the Christian tradition, we witness Jesus repeatedly going off alone to commune with his Father in heaven. We see him repeatedly coming back to life among others and bearing fruit. So much fruit, in fact, that people find themselves spontaneously recognizing him as something more than human.
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I say to you, I do not speak on My own. Instead, it is the Father dwelling in Me, performing His works (John 14:10).
…[May I be] in them, and You in me, that they may be made perfectly one; and that the world may know that You have sent me, and have loved them, just as You have loved me(John 17:23).
Neither the practice of being or doing should frustrate us since to be frustrated is to become the opposite of free.
For example, let’s say you’re attempting to steep yourself in the living truth that you were created in God’s image, but it seems to be going nowhere. You can find neither rest nor peace in the mere thought of it. When this happens, stop. Go and do something to exercise your freedom. Be creative, go back to work, serve someone. Do something worthy of the identity you’re attempting to dwell in.
Conversely, let’s say that all of your efforts to exercise your spiritual freedom appear to be falling short; every move you make is checked, rejected, and riddled with self-criticism. Perhaps you’re trying to make fruit and not actually bearing any. It’s time to disengage. Return to meditation, to contemplation, to prayer, worship, nature, reading, conversation with a spiritual friend or mentor, or to silence — to dwelling in your spiritual identity and being renewed therein.
A hard teaching
This all boils down to an incredibly difficult principle that I’m hesitant to put into words. Our ordinary, day-to-day minds don’t like it very much, and my own mind is no exception.
Still, there’s something marvelously sensible about this teaching, and it remains worthy of our attention:
The children of God always get what they want.
They get what they want because they want whatever God wants.
To get what one wants is to be free.
This teaching requires thorough reflection if we’re to see what it’s not about — it is not about harnessing the power to avoid hardship or sorrow. It deals in something deeper than mere satisfaction and pleasure, preference and aversion, likes and dislikes.
I’d like to finish with some words from the Greek philosopher I mentioned before, and then those well-known words of the Apostle Paul:
This is God’s signal to you: If you want, you are free; if you want, you will blame no one, you will accuse no one — if you want, everything will happen according to plan, yours as well as God’s.
Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content (Phillipians 4:11).
This is just a part of a series of meditations on finding ourselves in God. If you’d like to receive these meditations right in your inbox, use the link below.