As Thoreau told us over a century and a half ago, most men live lives of quiet desperation.
I will expand that and say that most men live as practical agnostics.
Sure, we know our worship songs. We read our Bibles. We pray. We may even have our systematic theology right. Our spiritual lives are organized and tidy, clean and white. God is nice, comfortable, and able to be explained with just a few impersonal attributes and a gospel track. YHWH, the One who appeared to Moses in a burning bush, called out to Samuel in the dark of night, and defeated death by dying has been put in a box by his believers, and the box has been pushed to the back of the closet — or perhaps beyond the blue to that far off place called heaven.
And there is a reason for this. I think, deep down, the reason is because we are genuinely scared of what might happen if we truly began to live with him. The comfortable ways of life that keep us safe and protect us from true intimacy, vulnerability, and love are all too important to us; better to hide behind a fig leave and wallow in our own sin, shame, and isolation than to be exposed in all our nakedness and come to be healed through intimacy with God, others, and ourselves. It is a holy grace to be exposed — for only when we are done with the hiding may we find the love and rest we were looking for all along.
To put it bluntly, the yeast of the Pharisees is alive and well — but plenty of us are not. Choked out by the American Dream. By religiosity. By doubts. By questions. By sin. By shame. The list goes on and on, but what we know is that despite Jesus’s offer of Life, we feel like we have one foot in the grave — and our hearts are next. Of course, by “we” I mean “me.”
There is irony in it all. As N.T. Wright says in his book Simply Christian,
“Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world […] That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.”
We must decide for ourselves what it is we are truly after. Just as Jesus asks the sick man sitting by the pool in Bethesda, “do you want to get well?,” I believe he asks us the same. In other words, “do you want to step in to true life? Do you want to be freed from the weight of your burdens? Do you want to be known, to be loved? Do you want your heart to be healed? Do you want to say ‘no’ to the cynicism and pessimism of this world, to have joy?”
The man in Bethesda had been sitting there for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years. No doubt there was a part of him who enjoyed the self-pity, the wallowing, and the begging. As long as he stayed sick, he had every excuse to slowly rot in his own pain. To choose death and darkness time and time again. So when Jesus asks him, in John 5:6, “Do you want to get well?,” I believe he meant it.
In another passage of Scripture, God addresses the prophet Jeremiah, who is tempted to give up on a life fueled by the Lord and instead settle for the mediocrity and predictability of the world around him. To become one of those countless men, as Thoreau says, who lives a life of quiet desperation.
“So, Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this footrace with men,
what makes you think you can race against horses?”
— Jeremiah 12:5, The Message
In his book, Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson meditates on this verse and offers his commentary:
“Life is difficult, Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? Are you going to retreat when you find that there is more to life than finding three meals a day and a dry place to sleep at night? Are you going to run home the minute you find that the mass of men and women are more interested in keeping their feet warm than in living at risk to the glory of God? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence.
It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of The Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling. I called you to a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit. If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah? Do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses?
[…Jeremiah] weighed the options. He counted the cost. He tossed and turned in hesitation. The response when it came was not verbal but biographical. His life became his answer, ‘I’ll run with the horses.'”
As someone who is no stranger to apathy, I find it easy to shuffle along with the crowd. To settle for the haziness of spoon-fed religion and pragmatism. To accept the world and my life as it is, and not expect much from myself, much less from God. To refuse God’s offer to heal my heart and restore me to wholeness, all the while complaining about my pain, grief, and isolation. The life of quiet desperation, of pharisaic religiosity, and of shuffling with the crowd is a much easier choice than choosing to engage daily with the Wild and Free One. Easier, but certainly not better. Sustainable, but not life-giving. Predictable, but not joyful.
There is risk in opening up our hearts, in choosing to love and to be loved. But the reward far outweighs the cost. And when we finally do choose to step into God’s new world that is breaking in to the present, we will realize that the cost was always the death of all that keeps us separated from the love and life we were always made to live.
I am learning to continually ask myself this question, “what do I want?” Do I want the outlandish, beautiful, disturbing, true, and freeing Good News of Jesus, to live a life fueled by his love and Spirit? Or do I want to settle for sustainability and predictability, doubts and depression, isolation and apathy?
If any of us, especially myself, are to step into the wild and free intimacy and life offered to us in Jesus, we must repent from the quiet desperation that we cling to and embrace the unknown of a life with God. At the end of my life, I want this to be said of me, “His life became his answer, ‘I’ll run with the horses'” (Peterson, Run With the Horses).