My wife and I spent part of Monday at the Ventura County Fair. The fair grounds are adjacent to Ventura Beach and about a half a mile from the Ventura Pier, so after a few hours touring exhibit halls, looking at farm animals, and watching a pig race, we took a walk on the beach. As we walked, we passed several homeless people. Some were asking for money, others were sleeping under the palm trees, and still others were conversing with their friends. I felt something I often feel when I see homeless people: envy. No, I don’t envy everything about their condition, and I know that my envy is based on a superficial understanding of their condition. I envy their apparent carefree attitude.
Here is what I imagine it’s like: They don’t have to report to work or worry about a superior’s evaluation. The clock doesn’t control their lives. It doesn’t matter what time of day or what day of the week it is. The tasks they need to accomplish are simple. They are not obsessed with building a career or pleasing clients or producing a product. They are not burdened with social, family, or professional responsibilities. The expectations of others do not trouble their minds. They don’t seem to be worried about their appearance. The prospect of success or failure doesn’t shadow every move they make. Most enviable of all, I imagine that they do not experience this little voice inside their minds that never stops whispering, “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something? Have you fulfilled your responsibilities? What have you forgotten? Couldn’t you accomplish more? Have you done anything today that matters?”
Of course, I don’t really want to be homeless, and I would not trade places with them. I have what most people consider the marks of success: financial security, a job I love, good friends, professional respect, a wonderful family, a nice house, and reliable cars. And I don’t want to give these things up, and I don’t want to be irresponsible. And yet—here is why I am envious of the homeless–I have to admit that I have not learned how to deal with that anxious voice I mentioned above. It doesn’t want me to relax. It sets unrealistic expectations, and it keeps moving the bar. No matter how much I do and no matter how well I do it, the little voice is never satisfied. It never says, “That’s enough for today.”
Does anyone else experience the oppressive little voice? I’ve tried to deal with it by reasoning with it. I tell it that it expects the impossible. No human being can do every good thing imaginable and do it all perfectly! You need to find a healthy balance between work and recreation. “Good enough” is good enough! Things don’t have to be perfect to be effective. As reasonable and persuasive as these arguments sound, they are not completely effective in stilling the little voice…because the little voice doesn’t get its thoughts from reason, so it doesn’t listen attentively to reason. The little voice always finds a way to evade reason. It can always reply, “How do you know when you’ve done enough? Where is the “balance” between work and relaxation? When is it good enough?”
If reason and common sense fail to still the little voice, perhaps reason informed by faith can succeed? As a Christian thinker I am driven to explore the resources of my faith to deal with this problem, and I believe I find help there. But first we have to consider whether faith may actually contribute to the problem. What I mean is this. I am totally convinced by Paul’s argument that because of God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ we are accepted by God on the basis of our empty-handed and humble faith in Jesus. As far as I am aware, I am not trying to be good enough to earn God’s love and forgiveness. I know this is impossible.
But I do believe I am obligated to use my life, my energy, opportunities, my talents, and my time to do God’s work in the world. And the little voice won’t let me believe I am actually doing a good job of this. Perhaps, the little voice doesn’t accept Paul’s teaching that we are saved by faith and not by the works of the law. Or, it may fear that if I begin to think I am doing enough and doing it well enough, I will become proud and self-righteous. Or, it may think that if I relax I will become lazy and presumptuous.
In the coming weeks and months, I want to explore the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament for help with this problem—my problem. Here are some ideas that may be relevant: (1) We are responsible to God only for the assignments he gives us, and God does not give impossible assignments. (2) We may need to stop trying to evaluate ourselves. Instead, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. We are not good judges of ourselves. (3) God does not depend on me (on us) to accomplish his will. God will not fail just because you forget something. (4) Don’t expect to see the final result and value of your work in this life. Leave that to God. (5) God gives us work to do on a daily basis. Don’t expect God to lay before you a detail plan for your life’s work. It’s amazing what new and unexpected opportunities arrive with no advanced notice!
Yes, I envy the homeless for the carefreeness. But their carefreeness seems to be the result of their abdication of all responsibility. And I don’t envy that. What I really want is a carefreeness based on trust in God’s grace and power, a carefreeness in work and recreation, in friendships, in the routine business of life, and above all in acts of love for others.