From the Basement

July 18, 2010

Desiring God/Desiring Publication

There’s a set of questions that have been tangled up in my mind lately, and they go something like this:

Is publication a godly goal? Is publication the eventual end game of all this writing? What happens if I don’t get published? Is it even okay to desire publication?

I’ve been reading Desiring God by John Piper, and I highly recommend it. He argues that the pursuit of pleasure is absolutely essential to the Christian life; that anything done without that joy is not edifying to others or glorifying to God, that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him (I am oversimplifying his thesis here, so bear with me). Over the last few days, the readings on love, joy, and giving have been blowing my mind, and today, I was struck by how applicable some of his discussions were to this issue of Calling.

One issue Piper deals with is the contention that pleasure and virtue are mutually exclusive – that as believers, we cannot (should not) seek pleasure or reward in our actions (he, of course, argues that we can and we should). To me, publication is one of many writing “rewards.” You see the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon connection game that my brain played in about five seconds?

Let’s take a few steps back and start small. Let’s forget publication for a few minutes and talk about the relationship between action and reward, and the supposed binary between virtuous acts/pleasurable acts. Can a virtuous act be pleasurable?

To expound on that question, should an act be virtuous in and of itself, without reward? I’ve never understood the phrase “writing for the sake of writing.” At its heart is a worldly wisdom which says that for an act to be virtuous, we shouldn’t seek a reward. If it comes, okay, but we should not expect one. To that assertion, everything in me says, what a load of bollocks! I don’t write simply to put words on a page anymore than a painter paints so that he can brush some red stuff against a canvas. I write so that people will read, and what’s more, I find writing to be an intrinsically enjoyable pursuit. Is it still virtuous?

In 1941, C.S. Lewis basically A-bombed the idea that pleasure and virtue are irreconcilable in Christianity. He preached, “I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires [our pleasures] not too strong, but too weak.”

John Piper further expurgates this notion of virtue/pleasure as a binary with his thesis that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. Piper writes: “If love is the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of other people, and if God loves such joyful givers, then this joy in giving is a Christian duty, and the effort not to pursue it is sin” (104, italics mine).

I write because I am pursuing joy, because it is the most powerful way in which I experience God. I hold no illusions about giving back to God; there’s nothing I can give that He hasn’t first given me. Thus, writing has to be a primarily hedonistic pursuit, even though others are reading my work. It would be wrong for me to write out of duty – to say I am writing for your edification and not my own, to abandon any pleasure in the act. Joy comes from above, and so if I am joyless, then my work is empty, and it is not going to edify you at all. Piper uses the analogy of marriage: how awful would it be for him to bring his wife roses on their anniversary if he were motivated by duty and not by love. And so it is with God: we are to worship because of an overflow of love rather than because it is our “duty.” Piper reminds us that yes, God loves a cheerful giver!

It is right – it is pure – to seek joy and pleasure in the act and to invite others to come and experience the joy as well. Thus, my joy is your joy, and your joy is my joy. There is a natural culmination, a natural reward of such overflowing abundance.

There are those who may say that it is wrong to desire public joy in the fruits of your labor, as it were. That it is unvirtuous or ungodly to expect reward in an act of love or calling. To them, Piper offers the words of C.S. Lewis, who writes:

We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not…. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.

The proper consummation, or reward, of writing is readership. It is not wrong to desire to reach people, to hope that others are edified by your work, for their enjoyment and edification may be seen as the consummation of the act. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul exhorts believers to use their gifts for the edification of the church, of the body. Indeed, he places the public expression of gifts over private in terms of edification – that it is better to edify the body rather than yourself alone (for in edifying the body, you are edifying yourself).

Enter my desire for publication – and this is where things get tricky. The desire for publication, for readers, may well be satisfied by sending essays to friends in email form or by blogging – and I’ve done both. Given our discussion of joy and public edification, readership in any form may be interpreted as Lewis’ ‘consummation.’

And yet in me there is both a contentment and a discontentment. There is pleasure in what I have, but there is the intense desire to pursue more of that pleasure.

This is the relationship we are to have with God, yes? Piper talks about it; Lewis does, too. There is in the believer a beautiful tension – holy contentment and holy discontentment working in tandem to till the heart, to work the soil for the Maker’s glory. My utmost for His highest, as it were.

On a good day, this is where I am with God: basking in his love, yet desperate to learn more. This is also where I like to be in my relationship – content with my beloved, yet yearning for greater depth and intimacy with him. And so it is with my writing. I am content with what I do, but I desire greater skill, greater knowledge, and – frankly – greater impact.

So where is the line? Does “impact” mean more readers? I’ll be honest – I often think it does. Does “impact” mean getting paid for my writing? – again, I often think it does. And there’s the rub.

It strikes me that the idea of getting paid to do what you love is a worldly goal. This is not to say that it is never a spiritual outcome; there are plenty of doctors, craftsmen, and writers whose callings have become intertwined with financial security. Piper and Lewis, for example.

But there is a danger when we start seeing money/worldly success as the end game, when we perceive that if there is not that success, then we have not fulfilled or obeyed our calling, or – worse – that the calling is not important. Too often, I fall into the trap of thinking something like this: I’m not published, so my writing isn’t touching anyone.

Which is, of course, total crap. I’ve only to look at my own life for examples of the contrary. One friend is a marvelously gifted actress, and the fact that she isn’t on Broadway (yet) does not mean that her talent and joy are not being shared with her audiences. It does not mean that she’s not walking in her calling. It does not mean that God is not bringing fruit – quite the contrary.

When the endgame becomes worldly success – getting paid to do what you love, as it were – it dilutes the joy in the act. It dilutes my present contentment, and it confuses my definition of “more impact.” When concern for money or security creeps in, holy discontent becomes sin.

John Piper says, “The ‘eagerness’ of ministry should not come from the extrinsic reward of money, but from the intrinsic reward of seeing God’s grace flow through you to others’” (109).

Is that reward enough for you today? Is it enough for me? We must be careful, lest our desire for the gift eclipse our yearning for the Giver.

Paul said that we act for the joy set before us. Are we acting for that joy? Are we hoping for that joy? Are we expecting that joy? One of my girlfriends likes to say, “Expect good things.” And indeed, that is the promise that is made – not easy things, not secure things, but pure things, good gifts from our perfect Father. Joy. Love. Encouragement. Relationship. Mercy. Forgiveness. Hope. Purpose.

Those are reasons to praise.

Those are reasons to write.

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July 14, 2010

The Light in the Tension

I haven’t been posting regularly due to a two-week excursion in which I visited various family and friends in four different states. Five modes of transportation, one great lake, and countless cups of coffee later, I’m a little tired but mostly rejuvenated.

Curiously, though, I’m not feeling rejuvenated in my writing. This is a really strange sensation. I wrote a lot at the first lake I visited (the “From the Lake” post), but after that… not much. I write longhand on yellow legal tablets, so I spent a lot of time typing up those notes, but aside from that – nada.

I attended church this last Sunday with my boyfriend’s family (the last stop on the trip). During the sermon, the pastor briefly discussed what he called “the tension between promise and fulfillment.” Those of you who have been reading can certainly understand why this phrase appeals to me; you’ve read my thoughts and prayers as I learn to negotiate the teeter-totter that is unemployment/contentment. But over the last two weeks, I’ve shared that information with a lot of people and, honestly, I’m a little burned out. I’ve spent so much time explaining that I’m focusing on my writing that I’m… err… not focusing on my writing.

These conversations have stoked the fire that is expectation. Expectation is one of those double-edged swords – on the one hand, it’s good to have goals, expectations, hopes, and dreams. But on the other hand, those expectations can turn into little monsters, things that make us cower in the corner because they seem too big. And I’m going to quote Nelson Mandela, who quoted Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.

Sometimes, I’m as afraid of the work it will take to achieve as I am of total failure. It’s the tension between promise and fulfillment. For example, I know I will finish the novel I’m writing. This is a promise I’ve made to myself that will be fulfilled. But sometimes (like right now), I’m like a deer in the headlights, scared stiff in the middle of the road. My own expectations have spiraled out of control, and as a result they’ve halted my progress, halted my running.

This seems to happen when I forget the foundation of the promise. The foundation is the knowledge that writing is a gift from God. The foundation is knowing that He didn’t give me a gift and a calling only to leave me out in a barren wasteland. When I am centered on him and him alone, and not on myself and worries about success and reaching people and whatnot – in that, there is peace and security and love. There is no fear when we are walking in the light.

Marianne Williamson continues:

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.

In Philippians 2, Paul says that we shine like “stars in the universe” in the midst of darkness and depravity. And Jesus calls us the “light of the world.” When we are walking in him, we are walking in the light.

His light in us is the gospel: his love, his mercy, his graciousness, his forgiveness, his faithfulness. And that light is manifested in many ways: relationships, words, actions. Through writing. Through acting. Through dancing. Through singing. Through… (your gifting here).

As the childhood song goes, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” The song exhorts us as children to not hide our light, or to let Satan “pff!” it out. What a powerful message this is for adult believers. Don’t hide your light – don’t be ashamed of the gospel or of the form ministry takes in your life. And above all, do not be discouraged. As Angela Thomas writes in Do You Think I’m Beautiful?:

In case you have missed it, there is a battle going on. The battle is for your soul. And if your soul belongs to God, Satan will go after your heart and your mind and your passion. You will still make heaven, but eventually he will turn up the fire and try to scorch your dreams, your enthusiasm, and your very life. …. As long as you and I are hauling that stuff around, Satan wins. And I’m so tired of him winning. (180)

Matthew 5:16 says, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Lately, my light has been dim. The beautiful thing is, all we need to do is look to the Lord for comfort, renewal, joy, love, peace. We can sing praises over our barren places and watch our Redeemer tenderly and faithfully work that land. What was (or is) barren can be fertile. What feels dry can be watered, renewed. What once was dim can shine anew.

In the tension between promise and fulfillment, there is light.

April 23, 2010

Happiness vs. Contentment

Filed under: Choices,Faith — jeannablue @ 2:37 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

So often, we hear “I’m just not happy” as an excuse, whether for leaving a relationship, a job, an obligation, a family. While a continued lack of happiness may be indicative of an issue in your life, happiness is an emotion that is impossible to sustain 24/7. Contentment, however, is something that can be sustained, primarily because it comes directly from the Creator.

There is a reason why the Bible does not often talk about happiness but rather joy and contentment. To be sure, happiness is a good emotion! We may be extraordinarily happy when witnessing the work of the Lord, be it through a sunset or a newborn baby. I know that I am happy when I see a loved one after a time apart. Happiness abounds when friends unite for good conversation and laughter. But happiness cannot be continuously sustained, and consequently, it cannot sustain us.

And this makes sense: happiness is a uniquely temporal, earthly emotion, I think – an honest one, a good one, one that can be wrapped up in joy and contentment, but one that is altogether divorced from joy and contentment.

I’m mentioning joy and contentment together, but I really want to focus on contentment because it is such a different animal than happiness or even joy. In Philippians 4:11, Paul says, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.”

Contentment happens in all situations, good and bad. You can be content in the face of anything. You cannot be happy in the face of anything. At least, most people find it difficult to be happy in every situation.

Happiness and contentment are different in the ways they play out in our lives. Personally, contentment is a lot harder. Happiness is an emotion often induced by action – be it laughter, good conversation, or going down a zipline over volcanoes in Guatemala. Contentment, on the flip side, is similar to peace in that it’s not initially an action. We can choose to be content or to accept the peace of the Lord, but it’s not something we can strive for.

Contentment is something we rest in and accept. Happiness is the result of something we do. Do you see the difference?

Contentment comes through resting in the everlasting arms of our comforter, our lover, Jesus Christ. Are you resting in His arms? Or are you striving against them?

Christ gives us so many reasons to trust Him, so many reasons to rest in Him. The beautiful promises of our awesome God abound throughout the Old and New Testaments. The following are a random assortment of promises spoken by Jesus in the some of the Gospels…

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

“The very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore: you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:30-31

“If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free…. If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed!” John 8:31, 36

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10

“I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by my own…. My sheep hear My voice… and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” John 10:14, 27-28 (italics mine)

“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 17:33

Do you hear the voice of your beautiful Savior? His very words promise knowledge of His truth, an abundant life, gifts that are good in His sight. He promises that He has overcome the world – for us. He sets us free from the confines of worry and pain, anxiety and a troubled heart… who the Son sets free is free indeed!

One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is when Jesus tells us that He is the good shepherd and that we are His sheep. It is so humbling. I have no idea why He chooses us, but I am so very grateful that He does! What awesome gifts He gives us! What a blessing it is to be able to rest. In a troubled world filled with turmoil and tension, we as the beloved of Christ are offered rest… it is a free gift to any who believe in Him.

“I know My sheep, and am known by my own…. Neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand…”

That is why we can be content. Paul has learned in all things to be content – through shipwreck and snakebite and illness and prison and being jeered at and tormented… and this verse goes a long way in explaining why He is content. He knows his Savior, and his Saviors knows him, and Paul is able to rest in that. In the face of everything else, Paul knows that Jesus is right there with him. Paul was not alone, and we are not alone, either.

We are known by our Savior. You are known by Him. I am known by Him. Even when we do not acknowledge Him, He knows us. He loves us. He is the good shepherd who goes in search of His lost sheep.

Happiness comes and goes, and it is certainly fun, but I pray that it is not the litmus test that we measure our lives by. It is so inconstant, so reliant on our own selves and those around us. Contentment, though, is a guarantee from the one who put the stars in the sky. Contentment enables us to respond in faith to every situation. It is also perspective – contentment in the Lord gives us a good perspective on our lives.

Contentment = peace. No striving. No anxiety. No worry. Just an utter trust in our Lord and Savior. He is our Deliverer – He always delivers on His promises. His love never fails.

In all things, indeed, I am learning to be content. Lord, let that be so.

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