WHEN THE CHRISTIAN JOURNEY FEELS LIKE DRIVING ON THE M25
There are lots of reasons why. The presence of other people is one. Some of the goals we set ourselves are to be better than other people in some way. But we don’t start on a level playing field. Some people are born with more gifts; others get a better education. Some inherit family wealth; others use personal contacts. The idea that only those who wanted it more than others succeed in life is a cruel and self-serving myth. It sweeps under the carpet any suggestion that a person may have done well because of external factors like inherited money and contacts and allows these winners to say they won because they were simply better than the rest. In reality, the level playing field we want looks more like the slope at Lords Cricket Ground.
These divisions are increasingly framed in the language of winners and losers, which only makes the problems worse and can make people depressed when they fail to achieve their goals. That idea that we can achieve anything if we want it enough is as realistic as saying we can drive the 210 miles from London to Manchester in three hours if we believe we can. It’s the presence of other traffic on the roads which makes this unrealistic. And framing these questions this way makes other people look part of the problem rather than the purpose of life itself.
Into all this, St Paul speaks wonderful words from Philippians chapter one: ‘I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.’ We spend our lives worrying about pretty much everything, but here God tells us he will complete our life’s journey for us. We will get to our destination because he is in the driving seat. And the goal is a place in the coming kingdom of God. This belief alone has power to quash the fears that well up in us about the future and what is unknown.
It’s not to say that following Christ on the road is as simple as setting the car to auto speed and sitting back. Rather like the motorway journey to Manchester, you can be speeding along just fine and then suddenly hit a traffic jam. You sit in it for half an hour, wondering how it happened, and then just as suddenly the road opens up again and there is no sign why. In following Jesus, there can be periods – days, months, years – in which little seems to happen and we make no real progress in life with him. It’s worse than Friends, where at least life was stuck in second gear. Here, we crawl along on clutch control for a hundred yards before coming to a stop again. There are often no obvious reasons why this happens. Yes, it can be because we forget God, but sometimes we lose our hunger for him for no discernible reason.
Then there are moments on the journey when the motorway slows up again and the signs indicate that we’re going to have to come off the road and take a back route because there’s been an accident. We like to think the Christian journey is a fairly straight line. We’re prepared to accept there may be kinks in it, but the idea that we might take a totally round-about route in God unsettles us. Yet this is the experience of so many Christians that we have to take it seriously as a work of God.
And then there are those moments on the motorway when the road opens up and as dutiful citizens we move into the first lane only to find, when we need to overtake a lorry a mile down that the lane two-hoggers have caught up with us and we can’t move out, condemning us to miles of driving at forty miles an hour. Sometimes we try to do the right thing for God but it only seems to make things harder, not easier.
This is where St Paul’s promise about God bringing us to our goal in Christ offers encouragement. For all of us, there are setbacks – sometimes real hardships - on the Christian road, but God is always at our side and will never desert us. No matter how slow, winding, positively infuriating the journey proves, his presence with us tells us we are not in the wrong place.
All Christians have a duty to make what they can of their lives for God. It’s not that we can achieve anything if we want it enough, it’s that we can achieve anything if God is calling us to it. When St Paul prays for the young churches in his letters, one of the first things he usually asks for is that people may know God’s will for their lives. We have different callings and they are all equally important to God. He isn’t more interested in nuclear scientists because they are brainier, hedge fund managers because they are wealthier or fashion designers because they are trendier. Every occupation – paid or unpaid – has an incalculable value to God because through them we have the power to bless others with our skills and kindness. A selfish view of life sees other people as obstacles in the way. God is calling us to a richer, more fulfilling, ultimately lasting purpose, where other people are the focus.
This is my prayer, says St Paul, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.
To determine what is best is his way of saying that we may know God’s purpose for our lives. To get there we must be filled with God’s love. And we need to be hungry for God to be so filled. So we have a part to play, which is to seek God with an honest and open heart, because these are the hearts God can fill. It is a wonderful thing to have a sense of God’s love, and it’s a place, once found, we don’t want to vacate. But the whole point about being filled with God’s love is that we can share it with others. In kind words, in practical action, in faithful prayer. And in repeating these things, day after day, year after year. We don’t always feel loving towards other people because other emotions and the stresses we face get in the way. But the thing about loving is not necessarily having nice thoughts about the person in front of us, it’s being the right person for them at that moment, saying and doing the right thing by them.
After all this, we will be presented to God, as St Paul says, pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness. One of the strange things about our culture and its obsession with people obtaining all their goals, no matter how unrealistic they are, is that even if we manage to achieve them, there is often a lingering sense of emptiness or incompleteness. The goals are arbitrary and personal to us; they do not always make sense to other people. And they may not be the goals God has in mind for us.
St Paul does not say that at the end of our lives we will be presented to God having produced the harvest of success or the harvest of achievement. All these things are temporary. But those things we have done along the way to show kindness and love to others – whether we succeeded by the world’s standards or not – are the goals that truly last, which shape the world to come.
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