We’ve all had bad days, and certainly bad moments. Times when we wish we could turn the clock back and have a re-do. Certainly this applies to moments we did not perform a task as we would have liked, but more importantly it applies to the judgments we’ve made, the words we’ve said, and the ways we’ve handled a situation. In one biblical letter to an ancient church, the Apostle Paul describes life by the Spirit and life by the flesh. The former involves virtues like love and patience and kindness; the latter describes vices like anger, selfishness, and envy. The former tends to build up relationships; the latter leaves them in a mess. And when we see the mess we’ve made when we’ve lived life by the flesh, a re-do is what we often find ourselves wishing for.
Lately, I have been considering whether there is a pattern to those time when life by the Spirit seems sadly lacking and I find myself in the 'flesh-lands.' I have come up with three. I am sure there are more, but these are what stand out now.
First, I find that if I am impatient or easily angered or take something way more personally than I ought, it is almost always at a time when I am tired. That is not an excuse, that is just a reality. I’d like to think I can will myself to be just as kind and peace-loving when I am running on half a tank as when the tank is full, but that is more wishful thinking than my experience. The truth of the matter is that ugly is much more likely to come pouring out at the end of the day or when I have not gotten a good night’s sleep. I suppose there is some deeply spiritual solution to this problem, but I tend to think the best fix is simply to make sure I get enough rest and measure my load. I’ve always been taken by Paul’s words “not to think more highly than you ought, but to think with sober discernment (Rom 12:3), and for me a big part of that discernment is to shut it down. Do I really need to stay up and watch the end of the game? Do I really need to get that one more thing done for work or around the house? Sometimes the point of departure in an instance of impatience actually occurred the night before when I didn’t hit the pillow at a decent hour.
Second, I have found that life in the Spirit is far less likely to be on display if I have not set my disposition properly. We’ve all had those days when we’ve just felt grumpy and irritated, even if we’ve gotten a good night’s sleep before. For me this kind of dour disposition shows up when either one of two things is missing: a sense of gratitude or a smile. Think about it. Get an unexpected bonus at work and chances are you will give the waitress a lot more slack than if you feel like you’ve been overlooked for a promotion. See something that makes you smile, and the whole world gets a little brighter. The problem is if we wait for something great to happen to make us grateful or something particularly endearing to make us smile, we will simply find ourselves stuck in places that don’t engender the goodness and joy and kindness that makes relationships really work. So, here is what I am trying to do. I am trying to smile more. That might seem as simplistic as getting to bed earlier, but for me this simple exercise seems to get the gratitude flowing and make me much less likely to want a re-do down the road.
Finally, and perhaps this is the most important, I have found that when I depart into the flesh-lands, and especially when I linger there too long, it is almost always because I have attached something to my self-worth that doesn’t really belong there. Take, for example, when I lose my cool on the tennis court. I am sure many times the reason self-control is lacking is because I want people to think I am a good tennis player and I am not playing the part. In other words, I am doing nothing less than attaching my ability as a tennis player to my value as a person. Or consider the times when my kids did something “embarrassing” in public, and I gave them a stern look or a harsh word. Was it really that they deserved it, or was it because I somehow attached my own self-worth to their behavior? I can’t imagine how many people want a re-do after getting smashed or cutting a shady deal or sleeping with a near stranger let alone cutting down the ones they love, when all this could have been avoided if they hadn’t in the moment attached their self-worth with entering the ‘flesh-lands’.
As I said when I began, I am presenting you with my points of departure—those patterns which seem to put me at danger of going places I don’t really want to go and hurting people I don’t really want to hurt. Perhaps these aren’t your places of departure. Maybe you have others. But I tend to think we do well to be aware of them. Not that we will ever avoid wanting re-dos from time to time, but a few less along the road of life would certainly be nice. And those who have to live and work around us would probably say an "Amen" to that!
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.