I remember my self-doubt when I decided to begin keeping this blog as a sort of narrator of things I was painting: could I actually sustain painting enough to write here more than once or twice each week? (It was just two years ago that I really even started.) Would I actually be able to offer a fleshed-out story behind every painting I made? Was I 'good' enough to see and make the connections between what was happening in my life and what I was painting at the time? Would the universe really continue to reveal itself to me as beautifully and whimsically as it did in the beginning of my journey- forever?
I'm pleasantly surprised to say yes: somehow my instinct to trust my voice- and, more importantly, my ability to listen- has led to a great deal of writing, a gift I've always wanted to use for some good and inspiring purpose.
And it also never seems to fail that the law of attraction seems rather constantly present in my life, so much so that sometimes I'll paint an idea I've been mediating on lately, and the following hours of my life will prove to be saturated with it.
Yesterday was my day off from work, so I got busy organizing some art-related appointments, running around to a few shops to drop off work and then heading into a coffee shop to write about a painting I just finished a few days ago, containing a verse about freedom. Freedom, being free, is an idea I had previously grappled with all my life, looking for happiness and inner peace and expecting a sense of freedom to be the result of finding it.
A shift in my thinking began when I committedly decided to 'become a Christian,' although I don't like to say that with such cookie cutter words. I feel like it sort of implies that I made some kind of 24-hour decision to 'follow Jesus,' which couldn't be further from the truth. Becoming a Christian is like becoming anything else. It takes a long time. And it's very counter-intuitive, the idea of willful surrender to God. Being Christian is being the daily embodiment of that thing everybody likes to talk about doing but no one actually likes to do: let go. Don't attach. Live free.
There are stages. I had no control over the length of the process of becoming one- and it's still happening now; I am still, and hope to always be, becoming. Growing. Learning more. Seeking. This certainly wasn't some religion I picked for my convenience, or because I had heard it called a 'truth.' Being a Christian in this world is a combination of miraculous and inexplicably fulfilling, and horribly inconvenient and marginalizing. But I'll get to that later.
I wasn't looking for God at all (not to my knowledge, anyway). Actually, if anything, I was running from Him- if He even existed. I was hanging out with people who had no need for God, and I was getting along just fine myself. Moving along, looking for my happiness and self-contentment, occasionally finding, losing, and then finding it again. Because that, I assumed, was how life just had to happen.
It's been in undoing this thinking that I've uncovered a lot of the themes I write about every day, that I wouldn't have been able to see in my prior life when I had no faith, no hope, or no Creator. Wisdom develops when we do this- hopefully to the extent that we eventually no longer need opinions. I don't have an opinion of God, just an awareness of His hand everywhere.
Which means I can't conversationally make a case for or against Him, I can only hope to live with the free spirit He gives so deeply embedded in who I am that there is no other explanation. It's sort of like how the best evidence that, for example, I am a painter is not that I know a lot about painting, but that I paint. The best evidence for Christ is not that a Christian knows the Bible or goes to church on Sunday, but that a Christian is Christ-like.
Humble. Self-less. Loving. Giving. Completely ego-less. Wise. Diligent. Obedient. Conformed to God. And, counter-intuitively, not seeking their own happiness. Seeking God. There is a choice involved in realizing the emotional, spiritual, and psychological missteps that arise from thinking we can ourselves provide (or have another person do it for us) the completion of who we are. We were made to know our maker, and a certain, miraculous, inexplicable inner peace that surpasses anything else we could imagine is only a byproduct of seeking Christ.
So that's what I planned on doing yesterday: fleshing out what these ideas mean to me in practice, daily. My idea was actually to apply them to this article in the New York Times that I saw someone share on Facebook the other day: it is about modern love, about our generation's belief that casual sexuality, not setting boundaries, and not defining terms will free us, somehow keep us above the pain of losing people or being in relationships where nothing is really at stake.
About how we've become so culturally programmed- by movies, television, music, etc.- to think we can avoid commitment, and so avoid being hurt; to think that the end of relationships can be cause for celebration or even sweet revenge. We think we can be cool, casual, and invulnerable because our minds can actually decide to override our hearts, our souls, and our core wants on a deep, internal level.
We think we understand ourselves very well. Although one thing I've learned from talking to people at their darkest, when 'everything has fallen apart' or 'nothing feels like its right or working,' is that it seems we really don't.
Almost 'falling victim' to the world and the opinions of the people around us- personally, academically, culturally, popularly; the list of influence goes on- we sort of wind up losing touch with our most pure selves and desires- and then assuming we can make our way back to them with the same thinking we were using as when we let them slip away. That's what I meant about the 'happiness cycle' I mentioned earlier: this assumption that it's normal to go moving along in life, looking for happiness and self-contentment and occasionally finding, losing, and then finding it again.
It is normal, or it could be normal, but it doesn't have to be. You can have 'as much inner peace as you're able to work out at any given moment,' or you can have 'as much inner peace as you're willing to receive eternally.' That's what being Christian is about to me, and I had rarely ever heard that's part of the point of Jesus before I found out for myself. This isn't a prideful, self-dependence thing. This is a wisdom and intuition, a tuning in to God, thing.
C.S. Lewis says it well: 'aim at Heaven and you'll get Heaven- and earth thrown in. Aim at earth, and you'll get neither.' When we seek Christ first, we eventually begin to gain a deeper understanding of the sense you can probably already detect within you, that you seem to be homesick for a place you've never been, and in dire need of a peace, an inner-contentment you've never fully felt from whatever this world offers. Seek what a broken world offers, and that's what you'll get; but seek what the Lord offers, and you'll get everything you never knew you were missing.
Something bigger than you will begin to happen within you.
When we grow in this kind of wisdom, we see that it actually takes commitment to make us free, that- particularly in relationships- to reap what we sow implies that we have to actually commit to the act of sowing. Floating half-heartedly from person to person, relationship to relationship; not really investing or believing in anything in particular, as this article's author gets at, doesn't make us free.
A lot of the time, it actually makes us crazy. It hurts us a lot: we've all been in relationships where the fact that nothing about it is 'committal' or 'serious' or 'labeled' seems to work- until it's over, and there's pain, hurt, resentment, and broken trust for anything that comes along in the future.
Maybe we then repeat the same mistakes because, even though it didn't work the last time, we just don't want to be hurt again.
There seems to be something about commitment (not attachment, not wanting, not clinging) that is the only chance we have for satisfying, gratifying, deep love and contentment- and we live in a world which tells us virtually the exact opposite
"I'm told my generation will be remembered for our callous commitments and rudimentary romances. We hook up. We sext. We swipe right. All the while, we avoid labels and try to bury our emotions. We aren't supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway. But a void is created when we refrain from telling it like it is, from allowing ourselves to feel how we feel. And in that unoccupied space, we're dangerously free to create our own realities."
We are dangerously free to create our own realities- which means we're also wildly free to choose God's. We know we didn't create this universe and we don't ultimately control anything that goes on in it. We certainly don't know how to satisfy the void and the meaninglessness of it all, outside of temporary fixes or philosophies or religions, or attempts to manage them.
There's something about our makeup that rationality, logic, theory, intelligence, and opinions can't satisfy. Freedom in Christ means we know we're not here to manage life. We're not here to apply our own fixes and temporary solutions. We're here to know God, and when we start to diligently do that, we meet a freedom we could never imagine or explain because it's so much bigger than we- even the most creative of us- could ever, ever conceive of.
It sounds pretty outdated and a little nuts to say. It sounds like a real waste of your everyday time, to know Jesus first. It sounds like it would be easier to just belong to a generation who hooks up, sexts, and swipes right; who avoids labels and buries their emotions, than to belong to God.
That's another part of faith: figuring out to whom you belong. It is about your worth. It is about whether or not you know that earthly circumstances don't define your spirit- and whether or not you can eliminate the pride in your thinking that says it's up to you to save yourself.
That's been one of the hardest parts. But that is willful submission to God. That is letting go.
As I entered the coffee shop to begin writing yesterday, I was distracted by a young man reading a book I have long been meaning to read, Love Does. It's a collection of stories and anecdotes about how to discover the deep incredibleness and wonder of this life while we live in this ordinary, mundane world. The author is a Pepperdine University Professor of Law and one of the coolest, most interestingly-spoken Christians I've ever read.
I asked the gentleman how long he'd been reading it, and we got to talking, eventually taking our coffees and sitting down for an hour, chatting about pretty much everything I wanted to write about that day. About living in a world as a person who truly believes in the spiritual sacredness of people in actions, not just words or theory; about seeing love all over a world which seems to daily be breaking its own heart.
About choosing God when it's so much easier to choose anything else; about respecting not only ourselves but others so deeply and inherently that the way of our generation- noncommittal; self-knowing, but not God-honoring; so full of intelligence but so lacking in wisdom- makes you seem (particularly for him, as he was still in college) like an outsider and a minority.
And you are. Letting God work in you more than you let the influence of the world work in you does mean this: you'll be different. Your life will be a combination of miraculous and inexplicably fulfilling, and horribly inconvenient and marginalizing. You'll have to wait a lot more than a person who is satisfied with the world. You'll have to struggle and be lonely, and you will have to be misunderstood.
Of course, you'll also see miracles all around you everyday. You'll be well-equipped and gifted; you'll see something and someone beyond just 'the universe' putting the right things and the right people in your path at the right times. You'll be accountable. You'll be unmoved by the cyclical, up-and-down patterns of finding peace and fulfillment that the world offers. You'll have some wisdom which you can use to live everyday, even and especially in the arena of modern love. Your life will feel like it's going somewhere- namely up, not around in circles.
Your heart will never have to break ever again, and the reason is not because you're invulnerably protecting it, but because you can see how it's the pulse of your whole entire life. It doesn't need to hide. There isn't any shame. There is freedom.
It's been my experience that whenever Christians meet each other, they talk about the experience of how: how'd you figure it out, what's your story with Jesus, when did you come to faith. What happened to you. It's kind of funny, but it's also very real and important and always so interesting to hear: if your faith is the center, the anchor, of your life, where you get your fundamental understanding of yourself and your world, it's inherently going to be connected to your self-understanding, to your story.
I know my story started, really- my fullest, freest, realest, most authentic life- once I started entertaining the idea that there was maybe a God and that He maybe knew me better than I knew myself. A lot of great love starts like that.
So we talked about it. I told him that two years ago I went to Peru as, more or less, an intellectual agnostic who just wanted to volunteer. At the time, I liked spiritual ideas; I read the Tao te Ching, two books by Ram Dass, and part of the Vedanta when I was there, but Jesus didn't really make any sense to me and I thought Christian philosophy seemed too sweet or simple-minded.
Which seems so crazy now, but it's part of my story. I never thought to look for God. But what I always wind up realizing when I talk to people about faith is that it doesn't matter whether you're looking for God, because God is looking for you.
My trip to Peru was entirely secular, but something happened there. And something continued to happen when I got home. I had declined getting a Masters degree in Science Writing from MIT after college, where I studied science writing with the hopes of promoting scientific literacy either through writing or a job with a lab or agency. My brain was full of logical ideas about what life is about. Art, honestly, was not something I found (or maybe allowed myself to find) very valuable because it wasn't very socially viable or applicable. I kind of new I liked to paint but I didn't think I could really do anything about it. It was- it is- the unknown path.
But it's more heart-felt and heart-driven than anything I've ever done. And when I got back from Peru, there were a lot of pieces- people, habits, hobbies, personal guilt traps- that I felt I couldn't let myself fall back into, and a large part of navigating through all that was the personal seeking of the presence of God I felt very strongly while I was away.
The dependence on my self started to fade, and there is a certain amount of creative thinking and humility that needs to replace it to understand who God is and what He has done for us in Christ. I felt very called, convictedly, in a new direction where my security and knowledge was, obviously, not the endgame: a bigger, more genuinely fulfilling life started to happen.
So that was part of my story that I told, that I don't know if I found God so much as He found me. It just felt like walls started breaking down and clarity started coming in. I began reading the Bible and going to church, listening and seeking on my own- and at first it wasn't like I became a Christian, it was like I became myself.
I wasn't outwardly very vocal and no one would know a thing now, even, if I didn't write or paint or creatively express myself.
"That's not how it usually happens," he said.
"And you just decided in your mid-twenties you would go to church too? That's not usually how that happens either."
"So what do you do now?"
"I paint. And I know. That's not usually how it happens."
There are a lot of things, when I look back, that make my life different from the next person's. Everybody can say that, and part of finding God is encouraging them to do so. There are certain things- loves, feelings, emotions, the means of detecting more- that we all carry. If all of those things were done in the name not of self-glorification but in the humility of Love itself, then God would seem a more pleasant reality.
Suffering would be revealed to more people not as a means of the world and its people trying to wound us, but as a means of calling us home. Sometimes God allows pain because we need to learn how much life hurts for a very specific reason: we've driven Him out of it. But once we find Him, suffering is nothing to combat anymore: it's something to go through with your hand in His. It isn't weakness, but strength.
Strength, fun, adventure, and a life that's actually filled with miracles and chance conversations and deep connections on levels we know we need not fear go. In God we have to ask ourselves: do we belong to the world, or do we belong to the Creator of the world? Do we get our worth from what has been done to us, or what has been done for us?
Where is our most ultimate source of freedom?
"Every day God invites us on the same kind of adventure. It's not a trip where He sends us a rigid itinerary- He simply invites us. God asks what it is He's made us to love, what it is that captures our attention, what feeds that deep indescribable need of our souls to experience the richness of the world He made.
And then, leaning over us, He whispers, "Let's go do that together."
― Bob Goff, Love Does
And that's how love does: it doesn't force us into anything, but it allows us- calls us worthy, calls us brilliant, calls us enough- to bloom ourselves.