November 18, 2013 by mattwilcoxen
The Christian faith can wound you deeply. In fact, a Christian can be the most miserable person in the world. 1 Peter 1:8 says, speaking of Christian experience, “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” It takes a person who has known the joy of the gospel to be truly miserable when they are without it.
I have been thinking a lot about joy recently, wondering why I have been feeling like life is such hard work. I thought back to a time when I was truly joyful: the couple years when I was an undergraduate theology student and a part-time barista. My ambitions were incredibly localized, and had almost nothing to do with being better than anyone else at anything. I wanted to learn and I had ample time to do so. I was not concerned with the quantity of my learning, or how I could commodify it–I just did it out of love. I read and studied voraciously, into the wee hours of the night. I recall no worry about how I compared to my peers, and no concern whatsoever whether I was qualified.
I also had my most personally fulfilling job as a barista. When I was a barista, I only cared about giving my customer the best latte or cappuccino possible: perfectly pulled shots, velvety milk, and served with a smile. I loved making sure that the shop was in tip-top shape so that people felt welcome when they came in. My co-workers were my flock. I prayed for them while I worked alongside them, I shared what the love of Jesus had done in my life, and I listened eagerly to them as they thought through their faith or the lack thereof. That job made me really happy, in spite of the $7.50/hr wage.
I’m not romanticizing this period in my life; it was really that good. I was just a disciple of Jesus Christ. Of course, I know that one has to “grow up”. But I wonder if I really did grow up. My life since that point has been ok, but often been tainted by stress and worry, and almost all of it has centered around achievement and future career prospects. I don’t know how it happened. I mean, I know it was there all along in some fashion–but how did it take over? I felt an extreme compulsion to achieve. I felt like I had wasted so much of my life previously. “If only my parents had actually encouraged me to study or play an instrument…” “If I had only done better…” “If I had only taken the SATs more seriously…” “If I had only gone to a better university to start with…” “I should have gone to a better seminary…” “I should have networked more…” “I should done this differently at my first job…” And so I have continued to try to make up for all these “what ifs…” It was like I was on a treadmill of regret, and the pace was gradually picking up.
I have achieved some things along the way, and I hope to complete this PhD at some point in the near future. I’ve held down jobs, gained experience, made some money. But I was actually focused on these things so much that I lost a great deal of the joy that should have been mine in the midst of them. I was sick. To speak in the terms of St. Augustine, I was trying to enjoy things that I should have been using. I was curving in on myself. And to the extent that the focus turned to achieving something, making a career, being something–my energy was lost. My curiosity waned. My joyfulness suffered. I became afraid of failing. I started to feel old. I had tasted real joy, and this wasn’t it.
I’m going to be turning 30 in a few months. I’m sorry if this post reeks of a self-indulgent, early-onset mid-life crisis. I hope it’s not that. It’s just my manifesto. I’ve been attempting to rediscover that Christian joy I had in making a latte: praising the Lord in just being a human person, self-unaware, engrossed in the task, and trying to delight my neighbor with something good. I want to learn to study again out of interest in the intrinsic worth of the subject matter, rather than because I have to know it for some reason. I’ve been trying to give up all thought of where I might be in five, ten, twenty, or thirty years. (I am obviously so American–who taught me to think that way, anyways?!) I want to be here now as a voice of praise to God, and a voice of witness and kindness to those around me.
I have to keep fighting the nagging thoughts that I cannot remain in this type of Christian joy that is only ambitious to love God in the present. I keep singing songs, and reminding myself that Jesus said we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Little children aren’t perfect, but they don’t care about being “the greatest,” or having power, or building up a list of achievements. They just are; they just do.