Quick Thoughts on Comparison, and the Angst of Growing Up Slowly

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Kierkegaard is not mentioned at all, but “angst”, so obvious photo, right?

I have always struggled with impatience and no slight bit of angst connected with it.

After getting the call to ministry in college, there were a couple of popular pastors I used to podcast religiously each week. Alongside my own pastor, these guys had kind of nailed the dream for me.

They had vibrant churches that ministered the gospel to non-believers. They were preaching to thousands. They were writing popular books. On the whole, if I could have picked my path, they seemed to have carved it out pretty well.

The fact that I was still in college, hadn’t been to seminary, and had virtually no experience or disciplined talent for preaching or teaching, made that path to the promised land seem endless. Not preaching now made it like I would never preach then. Even worse, knowing I couldn’t preach now, even if given the chance, added insult to injury.

Ten years later, for different reasons and in different ways, both have tanked as ministers and teachers. Which is to say the models or paths we choose for ourselves at twenty may not be the ones we actually need.

One of the most difficult lessons we learn growing up is that we can’t actually be our heroes. Indeed, often our heroes couldn’t really be our heroes either.

I was reminded of all this recently as I sat reading a book by one of my favorite authors—another “hero” who (thankfully) has traveled a very different trajectory. As I sat there reading, delighting in the work, I was filled once again with that same impatience, that frustration and angst that comes with knowing I simply could not pull this off right now.

Not in my finest moments could I write with the wisdom, the maturity, style, and assurance of someone twice my age. I know this. And if I stop and think for more than twenty seconds, I understand that my impatience is foolish.

The problem is that I need the patience of a sixty-year-old to cope with being thirty.

Of course, it is at times like these that I’m grateful I have an advisor who happens to possess that sort of patience and wisdom. We were chatting about all of this and he gently called my attention to a number of spiritual realities I wasn’t properly attending: the slowness of spiritual growth, God’s way of wisdom, grace—the big stuff.

I suppose part of what makes all of this even worse, though, is the constant comparison game that we’re all tempted to play. In grad school it looks like sizing up your classmates’ CVs (articles published, lectures given, etc). In blogging, it’s publications, book deals, and so forth.

It’s damnably easy to begin looking around, finding all the accomplished people you know, heaping them up on one side of the scale, and then finding yourself wanting in comparison. Just as others are likely doing when they look at you.

One chap pointed out online that the one-talent servant isn’t supposed to be producing what the five-talent servant should.

In a different context, Paul tells the church in Rome that believers shouldn’t be too concerned about thinking too highly of themselves. God has given all different gifts and so they should learn to use them as best they can for the whole body (Romans 12:6).

At the end of John 21, Jesus tells Peter how he’s going to die. Peter looks over at John and says, “But what about that guy?”

Jesus responds, “If I will that he stays until I return, what is it to you? You follow me!”

Even though you might be the five-talent servant compared to the next person over, I think quite a bit of the painful part of growing up is learning to be a faithful, one-talent servant who patiently follows Jesus at the particular pace he has appointed.

It is not my pace, but, then again, I have learned enough over the years to know that is not a bad thing.

In the end, the Teacher has seen the heart of it: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Eccl 3:11)

Soli Deo Gloria

The Unbearable Burden of Uniqueness

Life can be lonely and painful at times. It’s even worse when you’re ‘unique’. Paul David Tripp explains the way feeling like that special snowflake can go bad and keep our relationships perennially casual; impotent as sources of comfort and change:

Another reason we keep things casual is that we buy the lie that we are unique and struggle in ways that no one else does. We get tricked by people’s public personas and forget that behind closed doors they live real lives just like us. We forget that life for everyone is fraught with disappointment and difficulty, suffering and struggle, trials and temptation. No one is from a perfect family, no one has a perfect job, no one has perfect relationships, and no one does the right thing all the time. Yet we are reluctant to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, let alone to others. We don’t want to face what our struggles reveal about the true condition of our hearts. —Instruments in The Redeemer’s Hands, pg. 164

unique2While it’s true that your story is specifically your story, it’s also true that it’s a human story, an Adam and Eve story. Your hopes, fears, scars, emotional paralysis, history of hurt, sin, betrayals, judgments, anxieties, and pains have quirks and twists peculiar to you, but they also participate in the general character of life east of Eden. You are not fundamentally alone in your experiences and it is only very human narcissism that tells us that our burdens are essentially unshareable, and our woes unredeemable.

The Pride of Unique Despair

I remember when this point flooded my mind with light in college. It was a particularly angsty time for me; school, girls, church, and the looming question “What am I going to do with my life?” I think that’s a given for most 20-year-old guys. In any case, I had just met my future, life-long friend, Kierkegaard and was reading through The Sickness Unto Death–probably my favorite of the pseudonymous works–and he was tracing the labyrinthine ways sin can distort our understanding of ourselves. In a particularly eye-opening section, he points out that pride can take many forms, even the devious negative pride of thinking you’re beyond God’s help. It’s not that you’re so great you don’t need it, it’s that you’re so miserable you can’t receive it. It’s the narcissism of thinking that no one understands–not even God. I had been trapped in a form of pride so subtle it took a long-dead Dane using abstruse, post-Hegelian language to expose my folly–to prise open my eyes and reveal the dark comfort I took in being uniquely pained, beyond God’s comfort and the understanding of my fellow man. Oh, to be twenty again (shudders).

Contrary to my youthful, turmoil-filled estimation, the basic theological and practical reality is that, in fact, people do understand. Maybe not each particular person knows your particular pain–the multifarious permutations of human tragedy and depravity are endless. Still, someone does. Someone else has wept as you’ve wept, struggled as you’ve struggled, and failed as spectacularly, maybe even more so, as you. The good news is that you’re not unique. You don’t have to grieve alone or heal alone.  

Jesus, the High Priest and Our Brother

The author of Hebrews points out two ways this is particularly true for the Christian:

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering…Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to  to make a sacrifice of atonement for all the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

(2:10, 14-18)

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (4:15)

1. Jesus has gone through it alongside of us. In the Incarnation, the Son became our brother, our high priest, by taking on flesh and enduring all that we’ve endured, except without sin. (And even then, that doesn’t mean he didn’t know the weight of temptation–in order to resist it, he had to bear it’s full weight.) Jesus knows our pain. Jesus knows our suffering. He knows our struggles. He took it on by becoming our brother, being human alongside of us, tasting the full range of human experiences and loss, even to the point of death, so that he could overcome it. Bottom-line is the Son of God knows what it’s like. He understands. You’re not alone. What’s more, he went through it all to fix it. Whatever shame, guilt, or fear you have, Jesus took it to the cross and rose again, leaving your sins in the tomb never to be seen again.

2. Jesus gave us brothers and sisters. Jesus became our brother in order to “bring many sons to glory.” He didn’t just save you from your sin and misery, but a company, a whole world-wide family of fallen, feeble, being-redeemed people for you to walk alongside of in the church. Your local church is full of ‘unique’ people just like you. People with deep scars that Jesus is healing, broken hearts that Jesus is mending, histories of slavery that Jesus is redeeming, and lonely silences that Jesus is speaking into. It’s kind of like I told one of my students the other day, “Everybody here has a story just like yours. It’s just the details that are different.” And the miracle of grace is that God wants to use those stories, all the broken twists and turns, to speak grace into the lives of his children by His Spirit.

Break the Silence

Coming back Tripp’s quote, the point is you have every reason to break the silence. Don’t believe the narcissistic lie that you’re alone in your pain and sin–you’re not. Take courage, humble yourself, and transform a merely casual relationship into a truly personal one by reaching out to somebody. Let someone in on your anger issue. Talk to someone about the family trauma that’s tearing you up inside. Share your work troubles. Finally admit to the absolute terror you experience whenever you think about your future. Invite someone to know where you’re really at. It’s only when we confess what’s truly going on in our hearts and lives that someone can speak a word of grace and comfort and the healing can truly begin.

The long and the short of it is you don’t have to carry the unbearable burden of uniqueness. The Gospel means that you can be saved just like everyone else.

Soli Deo Gloria