Well, you’ve read my catalogue of personal problems and you’re still with me!
Since this blog is boldly titled ‘living life to the full’ I suppose I ought to explain what I mean by it.
If you’ve read my previous posts (all three of them!) then you’ll know that my life has not exactly been a bed of roses. In addition to the poor health I described, I’ve also known personal betrayal, pain in various relationships, as well as depression.
God blessed me with a kind and loving husband, but the early years of our marriage came with illness, financial strain, and the usual adjustments that come from throwing two young and inexperienced sinners together in a small space! Add two children into the mix, along with a hefty dose of ill-health and anxiety and we find me, sitting on the side of my bed in tears, holding open the gospel of John.
I had just read the promise of Jesus, “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.”
I believed those words were meant for me, for anyone who called Jesus ‘Saviour’. So how come my life was anything but ‘full’? How come I sat here with a gaping emptiness in my heart? How come all the things I’d thought would make it full were actually draining me dry? A husband, a house, children … instead of joy all I felt was exhaustion and misery, and a cloying sense of walls closing about me.
“Jesus,” I sobbed. “I want that full life! I want it so much! Why hasn’t this promise been fulfilled in my life?”
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Perhaps right now this is you. Perhaps you wake in the morning with a desperate sense of claustrophobia. Perhaps you face illness, pain and exhaustion, or perhaps you are just struggling to adjust to the mundane life of a mother.
Perhaps you are considering walking away from it all.
God takes his time in answering our questions. He does it thoroughly, building up layers of understanding until we deeply grasp his intentions. He doesn’t offer light, blithe solutions.
I had to struggle for several years before I fully understood what Jesus was promising.
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Our society holds self-fulfilment as the ideal. We pursue comfort and personal happiness above all things. What we mean by ‘life to the full’ is the freedom to pursue our desires and feel personal satisfaction in achieving them, whatever those desires might be (a good career, a happy family life, a comfortable home …)
We find ourselves feeling depressed and anxious either when those desires are frustrated (we do not meet Mr Right, or we are unable to have children, or our career ambitions are thwarted); or when those desires do not meet up to our expectations (our partner does not fully meet our desire for companionship, or our children in fact drain us and leave us exhausted instead of giving us a reason to live, or our career fails or ends up not satisfying us as we’d hoped).
This was what happened to me. I believed that ‘life to the full’ for me was having a husband and children to care for. I believed that staying at home and raising children and keeping house would satisfy me (and there was some altruism in there also – I believed this would bless my husband and children).
I was very quickly put out of my delusion. My husband, instead of being always attentive to my needs and ready to listen to my thoughts, proved distant and detached. He was resistant to the idea of children for a while (not forever, but for longer than I wanted).
[In fairness to him, I should say that at this point he was recovering from a mysterious and painful illness picked up on a mission trip; he was out of work and depressed, and still reeling from the big changes of getting married and finding himself responsible for another human being.]
When we agreed to expand our little family, I was hit with ill health, and the children proved to be a drain on my resources, rather than the little sources of joy and fulfilment I’d anticipated. Far from fulfilling me, they emptied me, leaving me exhausted and disillusioned.
Again, I’m back to me sitting on the bed, asking Jesus what had happened to his promise.
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God began to answer my longing for ‘life to the full’. My friend lent me a book by a new Canadian author, ‘A Thousand Gifts’ by Ann Voskamp. I wept through the first few chapters as she described feelings of aloneness and despair. She was mother to six, and woke every morning with dread and depression. At last, another mother who felt as miserable and isolated as me! Another mother who had been let down in her longing for ‘life to the full’.
Astonishingly, this was one of the verses Ann quoted in her quest for peace and joy. She had walked the path that I was now on.
In beautiful language, Ann describes our condition as being ‘closed to grace’. We become blind to the gifts that God is showering all around us, and see only the lack, the hole, the absence.
She began to list God’s gifts to her, writing down any incidence of beauty or joy that she perceived, from rainbows in the washing up bubbles (they’re there – look next time you’re elbow deep in greasy water!) to sunshine falling on daffodils, to the laugher of her children.
She learned to count even difficult things as blessings, and I began to see that my piles of laundry and dishes were actually the result of God’s blessing. How many women in third world countries would love to have more than one set of clothes to wash; how many women would love to have more than one floor to clean; how many women around the world would give anything to be woken in the night by the cries of a child, but their baby either sleeps in a cold grave, or their womb and their arms remain empty.
Thankfulness was the key to my escape from depression. Instead of listing the things I considered burdensome and tiresome, I tried, instead, to notice the gifts. It was astonishing. The more I looked, the more I saw. I can’t say my heart sings at the thought of washing a pile of dishes now, but I have trained my heart (and it is a discipline) to look for joy. I might not enjoy washing the dishes, but I enjoy the time it gives me to think (my favourite activity!) or sing and pray; and I thank God while I do them that I have been able to feed my family, not just what they need, but delicious and healthy food.
It may sound unrealistic; and from my starting point it did. How can I thank God when I am in pain, and depressed? What is there to be thankful for?
I started with a ring of crocuses on the grass, lit by spring sunshine. With a cup of good coffee. With a hug from my son. It grew from there. The more I opened my heart and willed myself into thankfulness the more natural and obvious it became.
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There is another aspect to the full life, however.
Through the writing of C. S. Lewis, John Piper, and Tim Keller, as well as the preaching in our church, I began to see that often we do not receive the promise of Jesus because we are looking in the wrong place. We assume that ‘life to the full’ means my own personal fulfilment. And when our desires are not met, or the things we desire prove insubstantial, we are left empty and hopeless. Or we look somewhere else. So if our marriage lets us down, we reason that we married the wrong person. He is not the right man to fulfil me; I must marry another. Or my job is not satisfying me; I must have children as well, and a second car, and a bigger house, and a holiday, new clothes … we stuff our lives with things trying to fill that empty chasm which only gets bigger as fewer and fewer things satisfy.
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The book of Ecclesiastes puts it this way: God has ‘put eternity into the hearts of men’.
I think what the writer is trying to convey is that sense of emptiness we all live with. That sense that this world is not enough. Even the best of human relationships cannot possibly fully meet our every desire and need.
What is the answer?
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There is only one Being I know of who is infinite. Who is Love and goodness and justice and kindness, and who will love and give himself utterly for my joy.
There is eternity in our hearts, and it follows that eternity must fill it. We were made for God himself.
The thing is, Jesus will accept no rival. He is a jealous God – and this is not a negative thing. Would you be happy if your husband or wife thought nothing of admiring other men or women? Jealousy in a lover (as long as it is not possessive or selfish) is a wonderful thing. God is jealous of our hearts – he wants us to be utterly his.
And we love to fill our hands with things. I was grasping after marriage, housekeeping, children, health … anything other than Jesus to fill that gaping hole in my heart. As long as my hands were full, there was no way I could take his hand.
He was standing there, holding out his hands, waiting to offer me ‘life to the full’, himself … but I was too busy trying to hold onto the many other things I thought I could keep and be happy.
C. S. Lewis likens it to children refusing to come when called because they want to play in the mud; when their parent is offering them a day at the seaside.
Keller calls it ‘idolatry’ – worshiping lesser, created things, offering ourselves to them, when we should be offered utterly to God.
Whatever you call it, it makes us miserable.
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“Whoever wants to save their life will lose it; but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
This is how we receive ‘the full life’ that Jesus promised. We cannot receive it if our hands are already full of things, full of marriage, or children, or work, or ambition, or Self.
We must give these things up, let them go, so that we can receive all of Jesus.
What does this look like?
It means I make time to pray and listen to God through his word. It means through the day I speak to him, thanking him, praising him, looking for ways to serve him. I let go of the time I want to call mine, and take God instead.
It means I ask God what he wants me to do in any situation, not deciding for myself what I should do. I let go of the controls, and take God instead.
It means I look out for the interests of others as much as my own, even preferring other people to myself – so I ask my husband what will make him happy and try to do it; I ask myself what is best for my children and do that (even if it means I have to give up my one sit-down of the afternoon in order to teach them how to share nicely); it means that I make sure I have my heart and soul in order, and get enough rest so that I am ready to serve my family again in the morning. It means, sometimes, that I ask my husband if I can go and get a coffee by myself to recharge my batteries, because I’m starting to feel irritable and stir-crazy! I let go of myself, and take God instead.
It can be painful. It feels like loss, at times. I no longer have a tight, curvy body – well, the curves are there, but in all the wrong places! But I remember that someone once gave his body for me, and that gives me courage to smile in the mirror and give thanks. I have very little time to pursue my own interests any more. I have learned to tidy regularly (though I despise the chore), because my husband feels easily stressed by clutter. Clutter doesn’t bother me, but I’ve learned I’m learning to put his interests first.
Some things are harder to give up than others. I’ve begun to see that the fulfilment of parenting is less about the joy children bring (though that is undeniable, and heart-achingly sweet), but more in the practice of daily self-sacrifice, and daily opportunity to serve the good of someone other than myself. I fail often. I frequently forget, and find myself snapping over spilled drinks and mess and broken objects; but God is so patient with me, and so forgiving.
I am still often tired, and sometimes have pain, but the more I take time to notice God’s gifts, and the less I cling to trinkets and instead seek the real treasure of loving God and being loved by him, the more joy I know, and the lighter my burdens have become.
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