As twenty-first century American humans, many of us live life as if it were a challenge set out by the universe to attain happiness by taking it with our own strength. We try to manipulate our lives into what we imagine will bring us joy. In the end, the thing that brings happiness is response to life, and indeed, responding is our most important function as humans.
Regardless of whether the universe was created by God, life is something that has been given to us. It is quite an agreeable situation. We didn't somehow merit life, or use our strength or cleverness to pull it out of the cosmos. And yet we live on an oasis of comfort and beauty in the midst of a universe that would seem to an outside observer knowing only the laws of physics completely inhospitable. By nature's own initiative, the liquid that we need to survive is literally suspended in the sky above us and periodically pours down all around us. Not only does this water grow plants and quench thirst, but when it is up in the sky, nature indulges its creativity by making the clouds take on titanic shapes that twice a day provide a magnificent canvas for the sun's orange and violet brushstrokes. Your only responsibility is to respond to this; you need not and cannot work to make it happen.
|Clouds I've seen in Colorado, ...|
|... in California (the smog helps),...|
|... and in the pure cold air of Wyoming.|
So, we've all been given this quite agreeable situation called life. Let's say that you even go and make the most of your life. You go to college and fall in love with and marry an amazing young woman. Before you know it, she's pregnant, and then you find out that you are going to have twins! Although it is a great blessing, this is certainly a lot to handle at 22. But then, a year and a half after your kids are born, it all comes down. You have a seizure that brings you to the brink of death, and you find out that your previously relatively benign brain tumor will require risky surgery, chemo, and radiation therapy. You can't drive or carry your kids down the stairs because of the risk of seizure. And, here is the supremely poignant fact: it is likely that you will not get to live long enough to see your kids grow all the way up. This is exactly what happened to my cousin, Ryan. He cannot manipulate his life into something easy; all he can do is respond.
Perhaps this lack of control means we should focus on responding better instead of achieving more. When something goes wrong, do you respond with courage and integrity? Perhaps more importantly, when something goes right, do you give it the joyous celebration it deserves, or just move on to seek more? Some of the most important things in life depend primarily on response. Consider marriage as an example. I haven't lived long enough to know this for sure, but it seems to me that a successful marriage does not depend so much on finding the perfect partner as it does on how husband and wife respond to each other once they are joined.
A Christian's life is also all about response. When the gospel is presented in the Bible (e.g. John 3:16, Ephesians 2, Colossians 1:21-22, Romans 5:15-17, 1 Peter 1:3), it is not an explanation of how a person may attain salvation for him- or herself, but rather a story of how God acted on our behalf, based on no merit or action of our own. We could not seek Him apart from his reaching out. All we are left to do is respond in faith. In my experience, this pattern of action by God and response by me continues into the sanctification phase (when He changes me, rather than only taking away my sins) of my journey with God. He causes or allows something to happen in my life that begins to change my heart, and I have the chance to respond. I can either embrace the change that he has begun, a course that is sometimes scary, unpleasant, or humbling, or I can resist and trust myself, which is often what I want to do. It is terrifying to jump off the cliff towards sanctification and place your unqualified trust in God without a full explanation. But that response is, I think, one of the deepest experiences in a Christian's life.
If you asked Ryan how he was doing before his surgery, he would respond "good". He would not mean "considering the circumstances, we are holding it together", or "I want you to think we are really strong for being able to deal with this", or even "I don't want you go keep asking me or worrying about me". Instead he actually meant that he and his wife are satisfied with what is going on. They are weary and confused, but they have joy because they believe that the very One who decreed that the clouds should be hung in the sky has promised that all things work for the good of those who love Him. Ryan told me that all of the really good things in his life, like his wife and kids, have not come from his own work, but from Providence. Because of this, he doesn't lean on his own understanding, but trusts that, as Proverbs 3 says, his path will be guided.
And that, I think, is a good response.