I think that a big part of growing up is realizing how much growing up you still have left to do. For some time now, I’ve had a sense of the kind of person I’d like to be when I am a fully-fledged adult: how I want to conduct myself around others, my self-motivation and capacity for perseverance, etc. My early reading of the Existentialist philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard – who is just about as melancholy as he is helpful – has forever shaped my process of self-reflection. I suppose one of the risks of reading stuff like Kierkegaard is that you start equating “self-actualization” with success – and shortly after that laziness or a lack of motivation with failure. I know who I want to be, but why am I not there yet?
Have you ever tried using guilt-avoidance as a source of motivation or self-discipline? (Example part 1: Don’t eat that cake or you’ll get fat!) Yeah, it’s pretty terrible. When you succumb to distraction and procrastination, not only is your final product bad but you feel bad the whole way through. (Example part 2: You either eat the cake and feel guilty, or you don’t eat the cake and feel neutral.) On the other hand, the more success you have over time at work or discipline (in order to avoid feeling guilty), the more distant your motivation becomes. The longer and more consistent your success, the more you might feel okay dropping your effort level – It’s not great, but I’ve been pretty good so far. (Example part 3: I haven’t eaten cake in a long time. I could probably get away with eating these ten donuts!) If your resolve and will-power are anything like mine, it takes a pretty deep slide into dysfunction before you start feeling bad enough to get your act together again.
About a year and a half ago God was very generous with me and showed me a very wonderful alternative to this pattern. Instead of using the sting of failure to prod me to action, God showed me that – because of what Jesus has done – I am free to be who God wants me to be. In other words, I have a supernatural answer to all of the stuff that gets in between where I am and where I know I’m supposed to be. Temptation? Jesus conquered that. Guilt for past failures? No need to dwell on it; it’s atoned for. Insecurity? God either gave me the skills to succeed or he didn’t – my part is just to try. I am free to live – unencumbered, absolved of responsibility, cared for by someone who is far greater.
This was a really great discovery for me. For my entire adolescent and young adult life, I’ve felt somewhat burdened by my not-yet-realized potential. I know that God has blessed me and has things planned for me, but I was often frustrated whenever that I felt like my lack of motivation in effect squandered those blessings. Even thinking about the possibility of failure gave me the anticipation of guilt, which usually meant I just tried not to think about the stuff I had to do (see: “self-fulfilling prophecy”). But now I’m free! Okay – now let’s see if we can put this in practice.
Several months ago I made it most of the way through the audiobook version of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield is a tremendously successful novelist (Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire) and knows a thing or two about perseverance and creativity. I, on the other hand, do not. Pressfield’s idea in The War of Art is that in order to live out our God-given (he doesn’t get beyond “higher power”) creative impulse, we must overcome “resistance” – i.e. whatever is holding us back.
This all fits pretty nicely with the Reformed concept of calling. God has given us all a particular life mission (or missions) that we are capable of achieving when we let God use us. But that’s a lot easier said than done, isn’t it? Because of the Fall, sin and brokenness block us from obedience and faithfulness. You can think of “resistance” as a part of our sinful nature or – from the perspective of spiritual warfare – a force of evil (the image of an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other isn’t terribly wrong). Pressfield’s solution to overcoming the obstacles of distraction, competing values, discouragement, etc. is to treat them as an external force to be studied, broken down into piece, tackled, and defeated.
Resistance is a really helpful way to imagine whatever holds us back from living in obedience to God’s calling for our lives. I know that God wants me to take care of my body. I know that I can spend a mere 30 minutes this morning working out and make incremental progress toward fitness. But then I feel the resistance: Oh, but it’s inconvenient. You can skip today and do it tomorrow. Look! A bird! Thanks to Pressfield and Jesus (mostly Jesus) I can stare that Resistance right in the face and apply any number of scripture passages (Resist the devil and he will flee from you, For freedom you have been set free, great cloud of witnesses). I can pray for supernatural help. I can reach out for help in the form of accountability or encouragement from the people God has put in my life (“Leslie, convince me to go to the gym, please.”).
Take a moment to think about the stuff that God is calling you to do. (Don’t worry about trying to prioritize one calling over another, e.g. work vs. family, Just think about the stuff that you feel like God has put you on this planet to do).
Now think about the internal and external forces that hold you back.
Call them Resistance, pick up your sling a la David the lowly shepherd, and go kill the Resistance Giant. Jesus came and made life possible for us – now and forever. We are free now.