In writing the book “Not so Overwhelmed: changing the world without wrecking your life” I’ve been struck by the presence of paradox in so many aspects of the spiritual life. As a Christian leader I’m focusing the book on spiritually minded people who want to do good in the world.
But here’s the question: Do you want to not be overwhelmed, or do you want to do good in the world? “Wanting to do good in the world” is often what puts us in situations where we feel overwhelmed. The solution for being overwhelmed might seem to be “cut back and do less” … but on the other hand, isn’t doing things to change the world our goal? Somehow we’ve got to deal with this tension: The Bible promises that followers of Jesus will have a “peace that passes understanding”, yet sometimes following God’s call into serving others brings more challenges, not less.
One of the dangers along the spiritual path is viewing God’s work in our lives primarily — and even exclusively — as a healing journey. Pushed to the extreme, this archetype can create the expectation that the purpose of God’s work in our lives is to make the hard things in our lives easier, to make the painful things go away. It doesn’t always work like this.
As I say later in the book, rather than make our lives easier, simpler, and more comfortable, sometimes following our calling and being open to God’s work our lives makes things harder and more complicated.
Author Belden Lane writes about the insights we can gain from ancient monks, nomads, and pilgrims living in the desert. This collected body of wisdom is often referred to as “desert spirituality.” Desert spirituality is focused on having a meaningful spiritual life even in the midst of challenges and hardship. Here’s what Lane writes:
“My fear is that much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. … It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its readers from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.
“One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”
The paradox here is that being followers of Jesus actually does make our lives better, easier, more full. We do experience the “peace that passes understanding.” At the same time, being followers of Jesus sometimes takes us into desert places, hard places. It helps us overcome overwhelm, and in contributes to overwhelm in its own way.
In her book Soul of a Pilgrim, modern mystic and “urban monk” Christine Valters Paintner writes: “Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wilderness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience….Developing the capacity to endure and remain open to difficult feelings is part of the movement toward spiritual maturity.”
This is not a tension that is ever resolved in this life. Following Jesus simplifies, but also complicates our lives. The work of God in our lives brings inner peace, even as this work also creates challenges of its own. Maybe the simplest — and most honest — promise we can make is this: Following Jesus will make our lives better, but not necessarily easier.