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 Difference Between a Man and a Man-Boy

gastonOkay, more honestly, this is about one difference between a man and a man-boy because I’m not sure what the difference is, but this title reads better as it is. Also, I don’t like the typical man-boy bashing that goes on because it’s mostly guilt/shame-driven and unhelpful, so forgive me if I wander into it here. That’s not my intent. One more caveat: all of this probably applies to women just as equally, so trade in the corresponding female terms if you’re a lady it’s basically about maturity in general.

Still, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to men lately because I work with a lot of boys who are about to become men, men who have recently been boys, and those caught in the awkward middle. What’s more, I’m 27 and like most of my millennial peers, still feel like a boy sometimes, even though I’ve achieved most of the adult male markers (married, job, etc), and probably could have bought liquor at 15 without being carded.

All that said, it has been my, likely not very original,  observation that one of the defining characteristics of modern boyhood, is that, whatever it is,”if I don’t want to do it, I’m not gonna do it.” So if it’s hard, or the kind of hard that I don’t find amusing, I simply will not exert myself to meet the challenge. This, if I had to nail it down, is close to the heart of manboyhood.

Is homework boring? Won’t do it. Is getting to class hard? I’ll just sleep. Is having a real conversation with a friend awkward? Let’s just play a game instead and hope the problem will go away. Is struggling to establish a real relationship difficult? Well, porn is easy. Does it look like I might have to study a regular subject to get a regular, average job, instead of the magical one I thought I deserved since I was fifteen? Mmm, no.

Expand this out in any direction and you’ll recognize the phenomenon. What makes this worse is the general fascination with “motivation” that clouds any discussion about actually doing things in the modern period. Ever since the Enlightenment, or, more probably, the Romantic period, we have this idea that unless we “feel” like doing something it’s false and unauthentic to do it. You especially hear this in the church, when people talk about not wanting to do something like a ‘hypocrite’.

I was just talking to my guys about this a few nights ago in relation to the spiritual life. A couple of my guys were confessing their struggle with actually getting up for church on Sunday, or reading their Bibles regularly. At that point, knowing exactly where they were coming from, I just told them, “Guys, college is the time when you learn to do hard things that you don’t want to do because you just have to do them. If you don’t learn this skill, you will fail as a husband, as a father, and you will tank your career.” (To their credit, they basically know this, and a lot of them put me to shame in this area…I really do love these guys.)

The reality is, in marriage, there will be a lot of times when you don’t want to do something, but in order to love your wife, you have to do it anyways. Taking out the trash. Mowing the lawn. Cleaning up your crap. Doing devotions. Having difficult conversations at late hours. The same thing is true of work. No matter what career you choose, there will be meetings you can’t stand, paperwork you hate, dry drudgery that makes you question the meaning of your whole life, but you have too do it anyways. I am not a father, but I’ve seen my brother-in-law Shawn with his newborn: 3 a.m. diaper-change. ‘Nuff said.

Here’s the thing, none of this is hypocrisy; there’s nothing inauthentic about doing a bunch of stuff you have to do when you don’t feel like it; this is just being a grown-up man. A hypocrite goes around talking how much he loves something that he hates, just to look good. A hypocrite puts a fake smile on his face and says words he doesn’t really mean, because he knows that will gain him praise and acceptance. This is not being a man, but a cardboard cut-out of a man.

One of the biggest symptoms of this outlook is being stuck in the “motivation” trap. To be clear, having the right motivation for doing something is important, but that is not the same thing as “feeling” like doing something. For the longest time I would find myself praying “God give me the motivation to do X.” Then I’d sit around and wait to feel like doing or not doing whatever it is, and wonder why God hadn’t come through. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to a student or a friend who’s said the same thing.

Thing is, it doesn’t work that way. Half the time, you just have to say, “God, I don’t feel like it, but I’m doing it anyways because I know it’s right. Please bless that”, and trust him to come through as you obey him. The example I always give has to do with marriage: it might be a date night with my wife but I’m tired and just want to stay home and watch TV to decompress after a long week. Making the decision to go through the trouble of getting ready, getting dressed, shaving (my neck–because neck beards are unacceptable), and getting in the car when I don’t really feel like it, surprisingly can lead towards actually feeling like it. The loving action stirs up my loving emotion so by the time we’re on the road, I’m actually excited for the night out with my wife.

A grown-up man (and as I noted before, a grown-up woman too) looks at Jesus going to the Cross, saying “Lord not my will but yours”, even though clearly he’d rather have not had nails the size of cigars shoved through his palms. He wasn’t doing what he wanted to do, but what he knew he had to do if he was going to fulfill his vocation, love his Bride, and bring many sons to glory. God wants to remake you into His image.

Since this is already kind of rambling, I’m reminded of a passage in chapter 8 of the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape warns Wormwood about the dangers of the ‘troughs’, the times when God seems absent to the Christian:

He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs– to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best…He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

All that to say, quit waiting around to do things you know you have to do until “you feel like it”. Yes, pray for the Spirit to empower you, to remind you of the truth of the Gospel, to set a flame in your heart for the tasks he has called you to. And then get on it whether you “feel like it”, or not. Growing up, and growing in faith, involves learning to trust and obey God in the troughs, just like Jesus.

And of course, there’s grace in this. You’re going to jack it up–I know I have–I know I do! But that’s one of the lovely things about grace: it’s space to get back up and try again.