Life and Love, In Progress
Perhaps it’s an utterly ordinary affliction of mid-life, but I find myself wondering often these days about what it means to make progress along the journey of life, whether this progress is physical, relational, professional, emotional, spiritual, or all of the above. It’s fairly normal, I suppose, to reach a certain stage of life and ask questions like, “Ok, how am I doing? Have I gotten any better at anything? Am I more disciplined now than I was at twenty-three? Have certain convictions grown sturdier? Is my faith stronger? Are my relationships healthier? Am I more confident in my vocation? Have I become a better husband, a more devoted father, a more faithful friend? Am I progressing on anything like a more hopeful arc in these important domains of life?
It is, as I said, probably pretty normal to wonder along these lines. Mid-life is when you become more acutely aware that the proverbial clock is ticking and if the maturity needle hasn’t moved appreciably over the first four decades of life it’s natural to wonder how much it will in the time that remains. It’s also, I suspect, pretty normal to be disappointed by the results thus far. We still struggle with the same issues, the same temptations, the same frustrations. We still wander blindly down the same dead ends. We don’t feel particularly confident or faithful or healthy. We’re not failing, exactly, we’re just kind of limping along, playing the game, but not exactly hitting it out of the park. Very often it can feel like we’re surviving but not really thriving in this life that we’ve been given.
Maybe it’s a question of expectations. Maybe some of us are just perversely wired to be perpetually dissatisfied and to ignore the real signs of goodness and hope that exist for those with eyes and ears to see and hear. Maybe our expectations are all wrong and we should just learn to accept ourselves with all of our messy contradictions. Yes, there is probably truth in this. But I can’t shake this idea that I should be growing in wisdom and patience and resilience and resourcefulness and I walk this journey of life. I should be better at some things now than I was then. Shouldn’t I?
What does real maturity look like? What’s the purpose of something as big and beautiful as a life? What does it mean to become a fully human being? These are of course very old questions that have occupied philosophers and theologians for as long as people have been around to philosophize and theologize about such things. And while libraries could be (and have been) filled in response to these questions, for my own journey the answer could be summed up in one primary movement—a movement away from the imperative to be right and toward the invitation to love.
I have always wanted to be right. The truth of the matter—any matter, really—matters to me. More than it probably should. This is what drove me into the study of philosophy in university, what had me poring through systematic theologies in grad school, what inflects and infects pretty much all the writing I have done for the last decade and a half (on this blog and elsewhere). It flogs me into unproductive and often unwise conversations on social media and keeps me rehearsing responses to real or imaginary interlocutors in my head long past any reasonable point of utility. It opens my mouth when said mouth should remain resolutely closed in the domains of marriage and parenting. It can shrink my faith into a sterile cognitive exercise, as if God’s main interest in granting me a handful of decades on this planet was to ensure that I was right about enough things to pass the cosmic test.
I don’t think Jesus has any particular interest in me being wrong. The truth of the matter—whether of the human predicament and task or the purpose of the universe—is not some incidental detail. I think God cares about what I think. But the older I get, the more I am convinced that God cares a fair bit more about what and how I love. The movement of maturity, of wisdom, of spiritual growth is, for me, very much a movement away from being right and toward learning how to love. I can be right—even about God!—and still be a complete ass. I know this because I’m rather good at it. I can also be wrong but loving. I can be kind and merciful and sensitive, even when it turns out I was misguided about this or that idea or issue. I have less experience with this, I grant, but I’m getting there. I still have some growing up to do.
I know how this might sound, at least to some of my readers. Ah, you see, he’s going soft—taking refuge in fuzzy platitudes about love and neglecting the truth. I know how this sounds because there was a time in my life when I probably would have rendered the same judgment. But loving well is actually quite a bit harder than being right. It is for me, at any rate. I’ve learned a lot of stuff in four decades or so on the planet. I’ve picked up a few degrees, I’ve clogged up an entire little corner of the Internet with my writings, I’ve made real progress, I think, in understanding some of the complex issues that are part and parcel of life in the twenty-first century. I’ve probably even been right a time or two. It’s not that hard.
But to grow in love (I mean, real love, not the innumerable feeble imitations that lay claim to the word but know little of what it means)? The kind of love that Christ taught and modeled? The kind of love that sacrifices and keeps no record of wrongs and always protects and perseveres? The kind of love that lays down its own prerogatives and seeks the good of the other? The kind of love that finds its way into the cracks and seams of all that hurts and is broken? The kind of love that doesn’t need to be right? The kind of love that is willing to die that others might live? Here, I fear, my progress has been a bit more fitful and less impressive. Love is hard. But love is, more than anything, what I want for the remaining chapters in my own story, for my kids, for the church, for all that God has made. I would be willing to be wrong about a lot of things if it meant that I would finally grow in love.
The Christian conviction is that the separation between what is true and what is loving is somewhat artificially construed. It’s a distinction that occurs to fragile and fallen human beings because we struggle to imagine things could be other than our many binary distinctions. But of course, it is in Christ that we see the good, the true, and the beautiful coalesce into a glorious singularity. In Christ, the question, “Should we seek to be right or to be loving?” makes little sense because his life embodied (and embodies) a single word in reply: “Yes.”
But in the meantime, for those of us who are still some distance away from Christ-like living and thinking and being, we should probably start with love. My sense is that Jesus would say to all of us seekers: “Why don’t you try to love as I have loved you? And in so doing, you will come to see that you are right.”
The image above is taken from the 2017-18 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is by Elaine Roemen and is called, simply, “Disciple.”