“Trust me. There is no formula for most things that are not math.” (Daniel Pinkwater)
godly husband + passionate wife = great marriage
great marriage + good parenting = well-behaved child
well-behaved child + right school and strong youth group = wise-choice making teen
wise-choice making teen + strong college = successful adult
successful adult + other successful adult = godly husband + passionate wife
And the formula goes round and round. Or does it?
When I was just a wee bit younger (okay, like 30 years ago, but I’m not that old, right?!), I believed wholeheartedly in the formula above. Why wouldn’t I? It’s perfect. Just do it all right, make all the right, godly choices and life goes the way it should. After all, isn’t that what I’ve heard my whole life from preachers and family and professors and authors and friends and even from my own head? Things like: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in step with the wicked…whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1) “We proved to ourselves that when you do things right, good things happen.” (Tom Sawyer) And my new favorite:
To say it again: just do it all right, make all the right, godly choices and life goes the way it should.
What happens then?
Somewhere along the line of that cute little formula, the “right” side of the equal sign fails to happen. Sometimes it goes like this:
godly husband + passionate wife = messy divorce
great marriage + good parenting – child with Oppositional Defiance Disorder
well-behaved child + right school and strong youth group = teen substance abuser
wise-choice making teens + strong college = struggling-to-find-or-keep-a-job adult
successful adult + other successful adult = distant husband + depressed wife
For many years, I counted on the formula. When it didn’t seem to be working, I just tried harder. “It must be something I’m doing wrong,” I thought. “Maybe I don’t have the equation right.” After all, there is a way to guarantee a great marriage, well-behaved children, wise-choice making teens, and successful adults, right? I read “10 Step” books. I made long prayer lists on color-coded index cards. I went to seminars and then led them. My formula-living was not limited to the above scenarios. Much of my life was permeated by this black-and-white thinking.
Until the formulas stopped working. Good people got divorced. My kids weren’t all that well-behaved at times. Many teens, including my own, made “not-so-wise” choices and some of my children’s friends struggled with addiction. Well-educated people had a hard time finding a job. Many lost their jobs. Successful people were anxious and depressed, including me. Ugh.
My idea of how the world worked came crashing down. I didn’t know what to think. Anxiety took over. Hopeless thoughts came much more than I wanted them to. I kept trying harder. It just got worse. Finally, I came completely unraveled. UNRAVELED. My carefully-built-rubber-band-ball-of-how-life-works began snapping. If not this, then what? What do I do now? How do I live? UNRAVELED.
BUT, (and I love these “buts” of life) what seemed like a tunnel without a light became just what God used for a whole new “RE-RAVELING” as Rachel Held Evans refers to it: a very different way of looking at people and relationships and what matters. I began to live in more truth and with that truth came some slow steps toward freedom.
Once the formulas were stripped away, I was invited into relationship, both with God and with others. At first, this uncertain place seemed like a curse. It would take lots more time and wisdom and there wouldn’t be simple answers. It would be complicated, messy. But as I embarked on this different journey with much trepidation, I found that it just might be a gift, and a good one at that. The truth is that life is messy and no amount of “doing the right thing” ensures complete safety and success. This might sound harsh and hopeless at first glance, but it is actually helpful and freeing. Instead of viewing life as a problem to be solved, I began to see it as a mysterious adventure to be enjoyed (kind of like action thriller enjoyment, which is kind of scary and fun all at the same time). Instead of seeking certainty, I began to pursue wisely-placed trust, trust in a wild God, One I can’t control, but One who is completely good and utterly safe. I am steadily (actually it seems to be in fits and starts) finding that as trust is developed, love thrives. And this is what I truly want. Chasing certainty is slavery; carefully-placed trust in a God who loves us is freedom.
My relationship with others slowly began to change as well. Instead of having an agenda (the sum of the equation), I began to believe that I could just BE with others, no matter where they land on the spectrum of life. This is hard for me. I really struggle with this. I have an agenda for everyone. I think I know best. I want you to change for the better. And I believe I know how you should get there. It doesn’t come from the best place. It’s because I think I am better and know better. I like a little bit (I mean a lot) of control. UGH. But as I’ve turned the tables, and the truth is told, I don’t want to be anybody else’s agenda or project. Instead of “here is what I think you should do, be, act like, etc., I love when others say, “I’m with you,” and that’s the end of it. I don’t want to feel like I’m going to the principal’s office when I am with someone. No one wants that. It creates defensiveness and hiding. However, when someone is just WITH ME in my beautiful, messy life, this unconditional love opens the door for vulnerability and trust. Change is much more likely to happen in this safe space. As Bob Goff says in his book, Love Does, this kind of “love operates more like sign language than being spoken outright.” I need more of this in my life, both ways.
The best thing for us (and our world) is to love God and love others. Formulas are not love. And to boot, they don’t work. Loving God is trusting Him, especially when things don’t go as planned. It is a trust that is wisely placed. IT BRINGS US FREEDOM. Agendas are also not love. Loving others is being with them, especially when they are not where we think they should be or want them to be. That’s a love that’s unconditional and safe. IT BRINGS THEM FREEDOM.
I am glad my rubber band ball came UNRAVELED. I am also very thankful I am on the path to RE-RAVELING. I don’t know about you, but I want to keep living in and from these places, creating safe spaces for both myself and others, filled with vulnerability, trust, love and freedom. In the end, St. Paul was so right when he wrote, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Let’s do what counts together!
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