When Reality Doesn’t Match Your Picture
by Julie Sparkman
You have a picture of how life should go. We all do. This picture is often made up of big life things—the perfect family, a fulfilling job, deep friendships. Your picture includes little things, too. Hot water that lasts the length of your shower. Easy traffic on the way to work. Chores completed happily by children who are more than willing to do their part around the house.
We all know that life rarely cooperates with our picture. Siblings argue. Jobs can be frustrating. Friends disappoint us. The hot water runs out just as we put the conditioner on our hair. We hit every red light on the way to work. And rarely are the chores completed without much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What do you do when life doesn’t match your picture? How do you respond when the gap is large between how you long for life to be and how life really is? Our response to this question reveals our truest statement of faith—the one we operate out of in our daily life rather than the one we recite on Sunday morning. It often reveals a dangerous theology that we unwittingly teach from our pulpits, in our classrooms and around our dinner tables: the “theology of good choices.”
The theology of good choices goes like this: If we do the right thing, follow the right path and make the wisest choices, then we will get the outcome we desire. We’ll achieve our picture. So, we search diligently for the “right” way to do life and follow it to the letter. But what happens if we don’t know what the right way is? What if we think we are doing what’s right, but it turns out to be wrong? What if we did it right, but we still don’t get what we want? What if we did the right thing, but someone else messed it all up? What then? If we ascribe to the theology of good choices, we will inevitably end up in shame and blame—shame for our own failure, blame for someone else’s. This cycle of frantic efforts—“If it’s to be, it’s up to me!”—disappointment, and despair is exhausting and disillusioning. It’s the very set up that Jesus died to rescue us from.
In Matthew 11, Jesus extends an invitation: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This offer is not an open invitation. It comes with a cost—a surrender of your attempts to make life work apart from Christ. It’s a call to repent of placing your hope in your picture. The word “weary” describes one who is so exhausted from her own efforts that she is finally ready to leave behind her ways of defining what is best for herself, and her personal efforts to attain it. It is only when we lay down our own efforts that we are able to come under the yoke of Christ and let Him teach us how to live as sons and daughters, rather than orphans who must fend for themselves.
When we come to Jesus, we come with our picture in hand. We don’t have to kill our desires; we don’t have to tear up our picture of how we long for life to be, because the picture is not the problem. In fact, much of what is contained in our picture actually reflects our very design. We were designed for Eden—for intimate relationships without fear of rejection, a world unmarred by danger and satisfying work. Even though we no longer live in a perfect place with perfect communion with God and each other, our design has not changed, so we’ll continue to long for a perfect world. It’s good to long for these things. Faith does not mean we come to God devoid of desires, but that we are vulnerable enough to be honest about our desires, even though He does not guarantee that He will grant them in the way that we want.
True rest—true joy—cannot be found in the fulfillment of our pictures. We can enjoy those moments when life seems to align with them, but as sweet that those moments are, we know they are only temporary. True rest is found when we remember our deepest and truest desire as believers: to bring glory to God in each and every moment He allows into our lives, in or out of the picture. Thankfully, no person or circumstance can ever keep us from living out this ultimate desire of our hearts. We are free to live for His larger kingdom picture—the one He always has us in.
Julie Sparkman brings fun and practical insights to serious topics such as applying the gospel to otherwise crazy everyday relationships. A full-time certified counselor by the American Association of Christian Counselors, she is the cofounder and executive director of Restore Ministries, a counseling service for men, women, children/teens and college students. She is the author of Unhitching from the Crazy Train, which is based on a small group curriculum by the same name. She calls the greater Birmingham, Alabama, area home, where she has been instrumental in creating and training pastoral care teams.
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