What if you keep all the rules and life still doesn’t turn out well for you? What if you make all the right choices and things still suck? Or what if you get everything you dreamed of and it feels empty? I worry that we have made promises we can’t keep; and that in the process we haven’t promised nearly enough. And I worry that I have bought into both sides of that bankrupt equation.
We Were Promised Too Much
I’ve been wondering lately if the struggle of faith for me and many in my generation isn’t centered around the fact that we were promised that if we followed the rules, life would turn out well for us. By ‘rules’ I mean everything from religious imperatives to social expectations: everything from “Don’t sleep with your girlfriend until you’re married because the Bible says so” to “You have to do well in school so you can get into a good college”. But when that turned out to be deceptive – either because A) we could never follow the rules anyway, and yet life still appears to turn out ok (maybe not great, but survivable); or B) because we did follow the rules (mostly) and things still didn’t turn out well (we went to a good college, got a degree, and that ‘great job’ never materialized; we didn’t party, didn’t buy into the hook-up culture, and yet God’s perfect spouse that we were promised hasn’t come along) – either way, we are left feeling empty and ripped off somehow.
We Were Promised Too Little
At the same time, what we’ve been promised doesn’t really hold our attention. A good job, a nice family, a comfortable life. Even if we manage to get all of that, we’re bound to experience a bit of post-purchase cognitive dissonance (my favorite phrase from college economics – it means ‘buyer’s remorse’). Because the third option is that we buy into those promises and they turn out to be true. What if keeping the rules does lead to the good life that’s been promised? What then? I think we discover that we’ve been sold an empty box…we went all-in for something we were told was worth it, when we should have held out for something better.
And so we have this nagging feeling that we’ve been duped. Maybe God failed us – I think some of us feel that way. Maybe the rules weren’t all that important, and even if they are; why bother following them because what they offer doesn’t sound appealing. We have to change the terms of the conversation.
A Better Promise
My generation and the ones coming after us are often labeled as self-absorbed narcissists. And maybe that’s true, though I suspect that we aren’t that different from previous generations…we just have better tools for flaunting our self-love and receiving attention from all over the world. The call of Jesus to the self-absorbed in my generation is the same as it’s always been: Come die with me for the sake of others.
What Jesus promises is that we find life by losing our life for his sake. He promises a narrow and hard road. He promises sacrifice: his life for ours, sure, but also our lives for others. He promises the free gift of the water of life. Not rules that lead to a better life, but a free gift that is life itself.