Help when reality seems a whole lot smaller than your dreams
A recurring vision for the future propelled me through college. Usually it involved dramatically rescuing someone — maybe handing out rice to gaunt refugees in Africa, while dust collected in my skirt.
My romantic, rock-star ideals were zip codes away from folding laundry during reruns, zapping leftovers, and all the post-collegiate humdrum stamping a big "NORMAL" on my life. I'd been willing to go anywhere for God. What was I doing smack in the middle of an apartment in Normalville, USA, where nobody knew my name? Even martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer found discrepancies between his perceptions as a student and actual ministry: "It is quite a remarkable experience for one to see work and life really coming together — a synthesis which we all looked for in our student days, but hardly managed to find.... It gives the work value and the worker an objectivity, a recognition of his own limitations, such as can only be gained in real life" (in Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson ).
When I'm bound by wishing I was making a difference, God seems to be longing for one of two conversations. He's shifting my eyes upward in faith and humility.
Faith. Looking at my life, I certainly didn't regret the people and blessings popping up like toast. God had been good to me right where I was at. But still, I mulled over my unremarkable reality: Am I living God's best plan for me — or did I settle? Am I a sellout?
Sometimes, life feels like it's in an infinite holding pattern, waiting on God. I've wondered, Is it my fault this life I dreamed hasn't happened?
Maybe you've found yourself here, baffled. Maybe you wanted to finish college, pursue graduate work or start your career rather than waiting tables. Maybe you only wanted to be married and have kids, yet you've got a ringless finger and boxes of recipes constantly adjusted for one.
You'd have chosen the other direction at the fork in the road...if only you'd seen the fork.
I believe commonplace — or unexpected — seasons hold an exquisite capacity to shape us. See James 1:4. I hit my own impasse while dating a guy who trumped the loftiest of my expectations and desires for a godly husband ... except he didn't share my passion (and education) to serve the poor overseas. Yet it seemed God was leading us toward marriage. Praying through my vague yearnings in the ministry I thought God had embedded in me, I wrestled. Was God preparing cross-cultural opportunities stateside? Were my dreams too narrow?
So at the fork, I chose one dream over another: marriage instead of missions — at least missions overseas. It's a fork that a lot of people wish they could choose from! But when routine caught up to me, selecting which ketchup to buy or accepting a job offer that had nothing to do with the impoverished, I had to "wait" all over again — indefinitely. Upturned were telltale questions: If I'm not making a big impact, or "suffering"for God, or living a unique and remarkable life, will I still be significant? I suppose some version of those questions niggle many of us about our unlived dreams, revealing what we perceive as truly valuable.
Thankfully, while rehearsing my path, I saw God wanted my husband and me to unearth His plan even more than we prayerfully hunted it. He gives wisdom generously as long as we trust that He will. See James 1:5-6. And when I neglect to seek God out perfectly, He's still working all things together for good. It's His purpose that keeps going. Not mine. See Proverbs 19:21.
When my big dreams did not become reality, it was humbling, even frustrating as God rewrote my definition of significance. The tender Carpenter "Tender Carpenter"is taken from Emily Dickinson's poem, "A Great Hope Fell.” was planing away curls of selfishness and pride.Still, as pastor Dave Harvey writes, "Humility, rightly understood, shouldn't be a fabric softener on our aspirations. When we become too humble to act, we've ceased being biblically humble. True humility doesn't kill our dreams; it provides a guardrail for them, ensuring that they remain on God's road and move in the direction of his glory" Rescuing Ambition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway ). Amy Carmichael wrote,
Sometimes when we read the words of those who have been more than conquerors, we feel almost despondent...But they won through step by step, by little bits of wills, little denials of self, little inward victories, by faithfulness in very little things...No one sees these little hidden steps...There is no sudden triumph. Quoted by Hansel, Tim. Holy Sweat. Word Books Publisher (1987), p. 130.
God used my dissatisfaction to push me into a life infused with the supernatural. Faith wasn't just required to live a hemisphere away. A "big" life isn't dependent on resume, marital status or some ethereal idea of rescuing as I had thought in college. "Big" is dependent on my God.
To the untrained eye, Jesus' life might have seemed as though God was "waiting" impossibly long. God kept Him quietly working as a carpenter until age 30. He was scheduled to end ministry precisely at age 33. The world was crippled, captive, poor. Dying. Yet God declared himself "well pleased" before Jesus' formal ministry. Even as a carpenter Jesus was anything but commonplace. He was presumably learning, creating furniture, becoming prepared and loving in ways decidedly uncommon. "Waiting" on God is active, purposeful.
My husband and I, too, continued to wait. We pushed outward, following God as a team in the aspirations He grew. Still, I almost fell out of bed late one night when my husband asked, "What would you think about pursuing missions overseas?"
For a year now we've lived in Uganda. I am as happy as a monkey with a mango. By the time God yanked my dream off the shelf, He'd revamped my thinking: Living radically full of faith and love in whatever God asked makes a "good and faithful servant." Becoming a missionary was a lateral move.
The Great Commission and the "good works He has prepared in advance" are not contingent upon place, occupation, personal capacity or physical ability. He doesn't hold me accountable for being a missionary when He's asked me to be a secretary, for living in Gabon when He's planted me in L.A. He calls me to run fully the race marked out for me. Martin Luther King declared,
If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.
Presently, my waiting has shifted. Children in Africa are starving right down the street, for crying out loud. Whatever I do feels unbearably small, a bandage against an onslaught of maladies. How will my faith respond?
God's called me to faithfulness, not success. The greatest victory of all time — the cross — once looked like ultimate defeat.
That cross means Christ will complete the good work He's begun, possessing ultimate authority over everything. Like Jesus' life and death, our eyes can be set not on what appears glorious even to Christians, but on God, who multiplies our "loaves and fishes" — even a few miles from our hometown.
Humility. My desire for impact is centered in making much of God; ambition can be redeemed like anything else for God's renown. But when I'm gut-level honest, my questions about my impact, my significance can subtly morph toward my kingdom, my greatness.
God inlaid our desires for lasting significance — desires which sin twists into illegitimacy. C.S. Lewis describes those desires masterfully:
Nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."... The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely ... the promise of glory ... becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last Sermon, "The Weight of Glory"(1942). (emphasis added).
The still-fleshly part of my longing sometimes asks, "I'm ready. Are You sure this is how You want to use me?" But
...if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? ... God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose.
Peter had similar sentiments, regarding John: "'Lord, what about this man?'" Following the same Jesus meant completely different paths for John and Peter — John, "Son of Thunder," who received the command "Behold, your mother!" Perhaps John wondered why, with all his vivacity, Jesus asked him to spend himself caring for an aging woman. Comparing our paths can get us into trouble.
After all, loving seems to be the act of significance in the Bible: "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."
The cross changes everything in my hunger for impact. If the Gospel's true, then laying down my life for my friend is where greatness lies. Christ's accomplishments through His sacrifice — not my accomplishments — define my significance. And purpose reverberates even through the smallest acts my King requests.
Copyright 2013 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.