But even prior to this challenge I have struggled with listening to Christian activists speak about their journeys and their perspectives. This is not because they are wrong, or uninspiring, or bad people. On the contrary the vast majority are beautiful, compelling, godly people.
But at a few points this year I have found myself secretly wanting them to share a specific kind of message. They will often speak about their theology, their most impressive stories of activism, living radically and following Jesus, or their well-articulated views on particular issues of the day…
…These things are important and valuable!…
… but I am often left feeling that these people are superhuman, and as a result I feel like I could never do what they do.
The truth is that what I really want to hear from these people is a message about failure, and losing hope. I want to hear a message entitled “The things that have gone wrong”, or “The things I have messed up”, or even “When I don’t feel like giving a shit anymore.”
(I don’t imagine I will hear that last one any time soon…)
Maybe it’s that I want to get past the celebritism of Christian activist circles and see who these people really are. Maybe I want people I respect to seem a little more human, and not so much like they have everything together. Maybe I want to learn from their failures and heartbreaks.
Maybe it’s just me and my insecurities.
Whatever my motives might be, I sense that I am not the only one who feels this way. I think that people want to hear the stories of hard times so that they can be encouraged that others go through the same deserts, valleys and battlefields that they do.
For the remainder of this post I want to share some of my struggles in attempting to live the radical life of discipleship that I believe Jesus calls us to. Hopefully you will identify with some, feel a weight lifted off as you realise that you are not alone, and begin to feel the permission to be open to talk about these things so that together we can try to overcome.
1. Wanting to fit in
I don’t know about you, but the more I become like Jesus, the more I find myself looking less like those around me. This is good of course, but there is still a part of me that wants to fit in with others, and it can feel very alienating in those times when you don’t. Deep down I want people to like me, not the opposite.
2. Loving comfort and security
By global (and even Australian) standards I am well off, both financially and socially. I am a beneficiary of the dominant culture of consumption and wealth accumulation in our world today. I am comfortable. I lack for nothing. There is a part of me that desperately wants to cast such security off, but another part that desperately does not want to let it go. It is easy for me to trust in my relative wealth, finding security in it even though I am not called to this kind of trust.
I suppose this is very similar to point 1. When I turn on the TV, or listen to the radio, or read Facebook posts I can feel very lonely when I reflect on the perspectives and concerns of most people around me. Often it seems nobody is willing to work to make the world better. This is a completely false conclusion, of course, but perhaps you will identify with these feelings. It can often feel like you are striving and working and giving your all for nothing as change can seem so painfully slow.
4. Desire to be important
The reality is that in the kingdom of God the people who nobody knows are just as important as anyone else. Yes, we all remember the names of the leaders and the speakers, but these people are nothing without the countless and nameless faces who work tirelessly to see social causes come to fruition. Knowing this I still have desires to be one of those well-known people. I still desire to be important, to feel like I have made a difference in the world. I often wonder how much of this is pure ego, or worse, idolatry…
No matter how much I do not want to be like this, I constantly find myself wishing I had the same opportunities and positions as other people. Whether it be a particular speaking/writing/teaching/etc. opportunity, a position of prominence, or even a depth of knowledge on a particular subject. I am daily finding myself coveting the things that others possess.
This is obviously a struggle that is present within most of the others I am listing, though it is worthy of its own mention. It seems that daily I am confronted with my own limitations, and my response is often to become insecure, doubting who I am and what I do. There is always someone who is more talented, more intelligent and more respected, and often I feel I am not skilled, smart or likeable enough to be a part of changing the world. One part of me knows this is foolish (for so many reasons!), but it is a feeling and a thought that I struggle with constantly.
Activism and discipleship take time. In fact they take a long time. One of the biggest challenges is to be content with slow, incremental changes and growth. Often I want to change the world NOW!, and I want people to become mature NOW! But this is a problem in me whereby I take on values such as efficiency, certainty and productivity over patience, endurance and care.
8. Wanting to please God
I want God to like me. Grace is forgotten as I strive to serve him in the ways I believe he calls us to. This service is important, yes, but we should not undertake it because we want God to love us more. Too often I forget this and fall into the trap of walking the path of discipleship to please God rather than walking the path of discipleship to love God.
Community is hard. When it is good, it’s good, but when it is bad, it’s terrible. Everything in community, the good and bad, is amplified. Yes, it is true that other people can be jerks, and they can be wrong, but what is more often the case is that in community I learn about my own shortcomings as a person. I learn I can be selfish. I learn I can be authoritative. I learn I can be mean and insensitive and self-righteous.
Because doing activism requires so much patience it is easy to become discouraged, particularly when nothing changes for a long time. All those hateful articles on the internet that oppose your cause bring you down. All those conversations with those “less enlightened than you” (I use this phrase ironically) deflate you. All those campaigns that seem to lead nowhere leave you feeling like you have nothing left to give. As a Christian I know taking the time to pray is the best way to retain my passion, but in those moments of discouragement often the last thing I want to do is pray…
I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to have to bear the burden of missing the mark. I don’t want to have to face the crushing reality that I could not finish what I set out to do, whether big or small. “What if this sermon/lecture(/blog) doesn’t hit the mark?” “What if I spend a lot of money and nobody comes?” “What if we start this project and it doesn’t change anything/anyone?” “What if I pour my life into this person and they relapse/remain unchanged/betray me?” I know that failing in life is necessary in order to learn and develop, but often I just want to set the bar so low that I can guarantee success (whatever that might be).
I am a massive hypocrite. I feel the weight of my hypocrisy all the time; I teach people how to follow Jesus and live as a kingdom person and then fail at it minutes later. How can I be a teacher in the kingdom of God when I am such a messed up person? I know the evil inside me and it isn’t pretty. I protest for peace and then hate someone in my heart. I combat climate change and then I go and live way above what could be called “simplicity”. I represent refugees and then exclude others in my world. I criticise capitalism and then spend my money on something frivolous and unnecessary. Yes friends, I am full of evil.
This list could go on, but you would probably get sick of reading it.
In case you hadn’t noticed I have not included any solutions to these struggles, nor have I added a heartwarming anecdote for each to show how I am overcoming (and how you can, too!)
The truth is that I don’t necessarily have such a solution or heartwarming story, that I struggle with these things constantly, and that in life there is not always a pithy Christian one-liner to make things OK.
I confess these things for two reasons; the first is so that I can publicly acknowledge my own sin and shortcomings, and that I may seek forgiveness; the second is so that others may feel that they are not alone in struggling with such issues.
Perhaps you have some struggles you want to share and discuss. Hopefully together we can journey on this difficult road of discipleship called “the Way”, struggling together with our sins, failings and shortcomings, trying to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, and holding each other up as we do.
Matt Anslow is the National Young Adults Coordinator for TEAR Australia, an Australian movement of Christians responding to poverty, and is also working toward a PhD in New Testament theology. He blogs at life.remixed.net, and you can find him on Facebook and Twitter.