Confession: I’ve been telling myself the wrong story. (Have you done that too?)
I am working on self-discipline in the way I eat, move, work and sleep. It’s been discouraging at times, and I can’t seem to get it all together. When I fail (oh that oat-bottomed brownie from the Simply Classic cookbook tasted like heaven on a plate), I attack myself, unrelenting. When I beat myself up when I’m down, I end up reverting back to an all or nothing mindset.
It’s either I do everything perfectly, or I become a slothful, sleep-deprived, chocolate-devouring workaholic. Perfection or total failure. No in between. And the swinging between the two extremes takes it toll on my heart. I’m living a defeated story where I can’t seem to get my life together.
Honestly, this has tormented me. I’ve read my Bible, looking for Scripture that helps free me from myself. (I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul who did what he didn’t want to do, and didn’t do what he wanted). Still, I can’t seem to grasp the dance between self-control (a fruit of the Spirit) and the freedom that Jesus fought so hard for me to have. Where do healthy habits intersect life in the Spirit? Is it both? How?
Couple all that with the fear that I’m growing older, and I don’t look like I did when I was twenty, and you have angst-riddled me. I’m grateful for voices like Allison’s that help me feel better about the crazy expectations of beauty in this world.
I keep thinking about the Kingdom of God, about how its parameters differ wildly from the world’s. I mean, when did Jesus ever worry about how His body looked? And in terms of discipline, His was simply responsive to the Spirit. He ate, fasted, slept, stayed up all night–as God led. He freely obeyed. He didn’t fret.
The kingdom of this world reminds us that what we make, what we do, and how we look matters most. That’s the story it tells us, and we eat it as if it were oat-bottomed brownie goodness. But there is a much better story: The Kingdom of God reminds us that what He makes, what He does, and how He works through us is what matters most. We simply need to live loved.
I’m guilty of telling myself the first story–that I must discipline myself for the sake of the world’s standards. And that’s the wrong story. It cannot create change, just like the Law cannot set us free to obey. This is a warped legalism, our constant self-improvement campaigns.
Grace and freedom look a lot more like you responding to the Spirit, come what may. To live from a position of worth, knowing you are already wildly loved and you’re simply living in light of that–instead of working so dang hard to PROVE you’re worthy.
The new story we can tell ourselves is this:
I am in the beautiful throes of redemption. I am not what I was, nor am I what I will be with God’s amazing help. Laziness doesn’t ruin my story. When I fail, it doesn’t negate the narrative God is writing through me. He is the hero, and I am the one trusting His heroic ways in my life. If I choose to have healthy habits, it’s not to gain traction in the world’s system, it’s to bless myself (who is deeply loved) because it’s easier to work in the kingdom with a healthy heart, life, and mindset.
I hope that resonates with you today. Your task isn’t to yell at yourself when you don’t meet your impossible expectations. No, friend, it’s to do as Rachel Marie Stone puts it in her excellent book, Eat with Joy: to move redemptively toward the new possibilities He has for you. He’s already prepared good works for you to do beforehand (thank you Ephesians 2:10).
N.T. Wright puts it beautifully when he writes, “Don’t despise the small but symbolic act. We live still in this modernist dream which says, ‘Unless you can change the whole thing, it’s not even worth trying.’ That’s not what Jesus did. Jesus did small but symbolic acts, each one of which was freighted with kingdom meaning. God probably doesn’t want you to reorganize [everything] overnight–learn to be symbol-makers and storytellers for the kingdom. Learn to model genuine humanness in your worship and your stewardship and your relationships–the Church’s task vis-a-vis the world is to model the true humanness as a sign, as an invitation.” (The Challenge of Jesus, 188).
Did you catch that? Your imperfect humanness serves as an invitation to others to experience the kingdom of God. Wow. Maybe all our self-improvement mars the image of the kingdom! Maybe God is not after us becoming awesome, but it’s about Him being the awesome part of us.
“When you obey the call of Jesus Christ, the first thing that strikes you is the irrelevancy of the things you have to do, and the next thing that strikes you is the fact that other people seem to be living perfectly consistent lives.” Oh, you mean like that pesky Proverbs woman?
“Such lives are apt to leave you with the idea that God is unnecessary, by human effort and devotion we can reach the standard God wants. In a fallen world this can never be done.” It can’t? But, I’ve tried so hard.
“I am called to live in perfect relation to God so that my life produces a longing after God in other lives, not admiration for myself . . . God is not after perfecting me to be a specimen in his showroom; he is getting me to the place where he can use me.” Hmm, but I kind of liked being a pretty statue in your showroom, Jesus. You mean perfection has to do with my relationship with you, not my spiritual to-do list?
So here I sit in my office wondering what kind of excellent conclusion I can make from all this. I don’t yet have it figured out, but I am moving redemptively. I’m better than before. I know that my works don’t make me justified, but I also know self-control and a life of good habits gives me more breathing space to love others in my life. I know I need to continually remind myself of the REAL STORY: that I am wildly loved, nothing separates me from Jesus, and I can live joyfully in this moment.
I am not the sum of my body parts, nor am I evaluated by the world’s mathematics. Instead, I rely on the paradox of Kingdom calculus: what’s small is big, what’s unimportant is essential, what’s last is first.
I won’t understand it all. But I do understand the encouraging voice of the Spirit–the voice that beautifully reminds me that even if I fail horribly and I’m the most lackadaisical human on earth, He still flat out loves me (and you). Perhaps all this pursuit of self-discipline should be diverted to the pursuit of simply this: I am loved in this moment.