Life moves fast. Too fast.
The feeling started when we pulled out our annual Christmas pictures going back to when we got married. It’s only seven pictures but they talk—newlyweds, moving out of our home, children appearing and getting big, an international move, more children. What happened?
Call me glum, but every January I feel confronted by my mortality. I survived to another January. But that only happens so many times and then you don’t. At some point I’ll enter my last year on earth. And then long after I’m gone and forgotten new years will begin without me. And the longing of my heart is that I just want to have lived well. I want to be the “tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:3). I want to live out the fact that “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Prov. 4:18). And every January I find myself staring out again into the chasm of rapidly vanishing years and wondering to myself if that’s really the direction my life is headed.
The idea of a summum bonum is of course very old. I’m hardly the first to ask myself what the successful life looks like. But if any of us managed to get there we would be the tiny exception. The melancholy reality is that the number of people that actually get life right is incredibly small. Every day I make hundreds of decisions; little by little those decisions define me and my future. Some mistakes are recoverable; most aren’t.
That doesn’t mean if you’ve slipped up there is no hope. We have all made mistakes we wish we could reverse, and the biblical response is to step forward to the things we can change going forward. Amazingly, even our past failures can be a shining testimony to the power of God and the hope of the gospel (1 Cor 6:11).
Of course only one person has ever completely gotten life right; no one else ever came close. Nor is it as though anyone earns God’s blessing by checking the right boxes and following all the rules, thereby gauranteeing themselves a trouble-free, healthy suburban life with cool kids. It doesn’t work like that.
All the same, the passages that call us to want this mean something and they’re there for a reason. They tell me at least three things.
1) The blessed life doesn’t just happen.
Everybody wants the good results. It’s like the guy who told a concert pianist he always wished he could play like that too. “No you don’t. If you did you’d be on stage. You want the results but you didn’t want to practice so you aren’t here.” If you do nothing you inherit the wind. The only people that live life right are the ones who were determined to get there whatever it took. I want that. But do I want it enough to do what they did to get there?
If you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” (Proverbs 2:3–5)
2) How to define success.
The American dream story used to be the poor kid that read everything he could, educating himself until by sheer hard work he succeeded. The new version is the 17 year old with a laptop that dropped out of Harvard to found a tech company. These stories are seductive, programming us on what it means to succeed, and it seeps into our thinking about everything. The guy with the big church is obviously more successful than the small town pastor.
But real success is a lot simpler than that. It’s taking what God puts in front of you and doing it well. It’s not living someone else’s life or reaching a higher percentile. It’s being what you were supposed to be and pleasing the One who called you to do it. The rest can die with the next changing fashion in success stories.
3) The most joyful life is the obedient one.
The Bible isn’t against joy. Actually it commends it. Love life to the fullest? Enjoy your days on earth? This isn’t just Disney thinking. It’s the Bible.
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:7–9).
That may seem counter to the quite biblical emphasis on self-discipline and self-control. The idea seems to be that there is no better way to live life than obedience to what God has said. Think of His guidelines not as rules that hold us in but guardrails and signposts pointing us away from self-destruction. Obedience doesn’t gaurantee ease and freedom from pain in a broken world. But it is the path of greatest joy, culminating in the climax of joys forever. God, the inventer of joy, gives us brief tastes on His beautiful planet, pointing upward to fullness of joy forevermore.
The reality is that 2016 will happen whether we think purposefully about our lives or not. The majority of humans just exist, thinking about the next major purchase or fearing the next possible trial. Don’t do that. Purpose to succeed in 2016 by following the path God has already set before you. Make 2016 better than the year before.
“But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” (Proverbs 4:18)