The Comfort of Not Being Our Own

“If You are What You Do and You Do Poorly, What Then? It’s Over; You’re Wiped Out.”

Jeb Ralston / 2.1.21

“I don’t know what I am doing with my life” has been a frequent internal refrain of mine these last few semesters of graduate school, and these words only seem to bounce off the walls of my mind with greater fear and self-loathing as graduation approaches. Perhaps it is the pandemic that has magnified the sense of aimlessness, the reduced job and academic opportunities, or maybe it is just that I have been cooped up in my apartment for too long. Whatever it is, there is a terrifying anxiety that accompanies the idea that, for a life to have worth, it must make itself worthwhile. And contrary to popular opinion, unhitching myself from societal or traditional expectations is not all that relieving when my own expectations can be just as crippling.

A few weeks ago, I was able to get my hands on a collection of homilies entitled Christ our Salvation, from the theologian John Webster. They were released posthumously in his honor. I am by no means an expert on Webster, but I have been slowly consuming his works over the last year or so, and one of the things I admire about Webster is his refusal to be content with the illusion that we can simply speak or think about God as if his back were turned on us. All we do, we do coram Deo; that is, before the face of God. Another quality I admire is his ability to preach the Gospel with the utmost sincerity while providing relief to those whose minds can spiral, as mine does, under the weight of their own expectations.

Each homily in this collection is filled with the deep conviction that at the core of Christian proclamation is the Gospel given to us. For Webster, we are not what we are by what we will to be, but rather we are what we are by what we have fundamentally received from God and have heard through his word.

In one homily entitled “Truth Known and Loved” (on Psalm 119:1-16) he calls this psalm “a tender exploration of what human life looks like when it is encountered and caught up by God and God’s presence.” In it he demonstrates that God’s law, when viewed on the other side of baptism, “is simply God setting before us the given shape, the order — the good order — of human life in and with God, who makes us and saves us.” This structure for life is not simply a “graceless obligation” but a gift.

Surely, this is a challenging thing for our modern minds, and Webster is quick to point that out. He insists that one of the greatest difficulties to this divine structure is the assumption in our culture “that we [have] no given nature. We’re what we make of ourselves, not what God makes of us or intends for us.” In other words, “As we make ourselves, so we are.” Or as the words in my head would have it, “I am what I do (or do not do) with my life.”

As I read these words, that refrain tossing around in my head came into greater focus, and this notion of doing something autonomously with “my life” revealed itself for what it is: a tyranny. The writer Anne Lamott once reflected, “If you are what you do and you do poorly, what then? It’s over; you’re wiped out. All those prophecies you heard in the dark have come true, and people can see the real you … a fraud.” The attempt to invent something of my life on my own imposes a crushing and debilitating weight, while the structure and life God gives are for our flourishing. As Webster puts it, “once we come to see that there is a shape to our lives that is not what we invent but what God gives to us, we can lay down the burden of having to make ourselves and become what we are: the creatures of the mercy of God.” There is a reprieve in knowing the best life for us is a life given to us and not one we must try to calculate and then frantically generate for ourselves.

Prayer is often a great combatant to the idea that “I am what I do (or do not do) with my life.” Instead, I’ve been trying to pray: “God help me to do what you would have me to do with the life you’ve given to me.” My own ambitions and desires are constantly at war with this desire to live the life already given to me by God in Jesus Christ. And Webster rightly shows that Psalm 119 is one long prayer to God asking for his help. As it says, “Do not utterly forsake me!” (v. 8). Rather than mustering our own pretend strength, we can admit our weakness, our own ineptitude, and our propensity to muck things up. As Webster writes, knowing that God’s listens, “we can pray to God’s Spirit that he will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: that he will quicken us, engage us, and make us alive.”

While reading through these homilies, I found myself returning to Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” is answered with the line, “That I am not my own but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” There is a comfort in not belonging to ourselves or having to pave out our own significance. The frantic squeezing of every last drop of a potentially good life is no longer necessary for one whose life has been fundamentally “displaced by Jesus Christ” (as Webster put it) and who simply holds out open hands to the good words of the Gospel.

In the dense and disorienting fog of modernity, I am thankful for Webster’s writings and that dazzling word of good news, for the reminder that my only comfort is that my life is mine no longer but belongs solely to Jesus Christ.

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6 responses to “The Comfort of Not Being Our Own”

  1. Luke Roland says:

    Very encouraging. Thank you Jeb!

  2. Chris K says:

    Thank you for this, it is a powerful and direct reminder, especially as a young adult in this season of COVID. I finished my post grad studies this past Spring and have struggled to find work since, so I definitely can relate. It is so easy for the struggles and failures of career expectations to distract from the enduring gifts of God which ultimately define our lives. Thank you again for taking the time to write and share this!

    • Jeb R says:

      Chris, this is a very strange season indeed. Grace to you and for all your endeavors right now and going forward. Thanks for reading!

  3. Savannah Morgan says:

    This was such an encouraging reminder! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Patience Whitten says:

    This is so encouraging to me, Jeb. I am one who is seemingly “settled” in my career and yet I still struggle with the question, “what am I going to do with my life?” Such a good reminder that my life, no matter where I am or what I am occupationally or situationally engaged in, belongs solely to Jesus Christ.

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