“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
There is an enormous area of marine trash in the Pacific Ocean – mostly plastics – that is commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Waste material that finds its way into the Pacific gets caught up in a system of circular ocean currents known as an ocean gyre that draws matter towards its center. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers about eight million square miles (roughly twice the size of the United States), and contains an immeasurable amount of debris. Picture a water bottle dropped into the ocean off the coast of Oregon and starting an epic journey circling the Pacific all the while being slowly drawn into the Patch by an invisible ocean gyre. Day after day, the bottle silently drifts along with no discernable movement other than the gradual and inevitable pull of the current. Eventually storms and waves batter and break the bottle into smaller and smaller pieces, which continue their voyage – all just bobbing along without hope of escape.
This image of a little bottle floating along a path of least resistance is a pretty good metaphor for those of us who at times feel like they are drifting through life. By “drifting” I am referring to a certain mental state characterized by a decreased interest in matters of importance to the kingdom of God. Not full-blown depression as such but simply a diminished excitement and focus on purposeful Christian living. A feeling not unlike Solomon’s despondent opening words in Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:1). I write as someone who knows the feeling firsthand. Oh there are times when my energies are focused and directed, when I am fully engaged in the pursuit of some goal or another. But often I feel something akin to that empty bottle – aimlessly drifting without a sail or rudder in a vast ocean. And my fear is that while I am drifting an invisible spiritual gyre is slowly and inexorably drawing me into something like a soupy mire of trash. This affliction has become more acute in retirement when the demands of “making a living” decrease and diversions increase. But in truth, my inner man has always had a tendency towards laziness, what in an early time would have been called sloth.
The amazing thing is that an ocean gyre actually exerts a very weak force on objects in its field. This is no riptide that would cut us off at our feet and suck us into deep waters. No, this is a subtle current that imperceptibly tugs at us. Yet, a “drift tide” is no less dangerous than a riptide when it comes to our spiritual life. In some ways it is more dangerous because it pulls us in without the warning signs of more recognizable vices. For me, this is a most serious malady – potentially the greatest impediment towards the pursuit of virtue and life in the kingdom of God. NT Wright describes the process well when he says, “The difference between vices and virtues is this: Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice. But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.” (YouTube discussion about After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters).
For those who are in their prime, still working, perhaps caring for children or elderly parents, involved at church or other volunteer activities, drifting must seem like a far country – a malady perhaps of the gentry and those with abundant resources, but certainly not for anyone working hard under the daily pressures of living. Yet for those afflicted, the feeling can be overwhelming – like a sea fog rolling in at night that erases all familiar landmarks upon first light. A soul without bearings – like one set adrift. It is for those Christians so affected that I offer three thoughts. Alas, these are not a remedy, for I have none. Nor are any of them a mainsail of sorts for breaking free of this spiritual gyre. They are possibly, however, a small jib sail sensitive to a slight change in the wind that can nudge us towards a new bearing.
The first is physical exercise. Over the years, exercise has, for me, been an elixir that can elevate my feelings and motivate me to the pursuit of other activities. I first discovered this when I was experiencing wide mood swings in my late twenties. I started road running for my physical health and almost immediately found my mental state improving. There are undoubtedly studies that validate this, and I wonder why exercise is seldom mentioned in discussions about Christian living and the pursuit of virtue. Occasionally we hear about the care of the body as a spiritual duty because it is a gift from God. But for the most part, we Christians choose to avoid framing this as an imperative of the spiritual life. It’s true that not much is recorded in Scripture regarding exercise, although Paul acknowledges that it has some usefulness, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8) But for the most part he only refers to exercise metaphorically when he compares running a race to our spiritual journey. (For example, 1 Cor. 9:24). I suspect exercise is not mentioned in the Bible because most people in those days lived a hardscrabble existence, which provided all the physical exercise they needed. Our reticence as Christians today to discuss health and fitness is no doubt rooted in the legitimate desire not to shame anyone, which though understandable is unfortunate insofar as our physical wellbeing is a major contributor to our emotional health.
The second is quality relationships. It is well known that social involvement is a critical predictor of mental and physical well-being. A 2016 Pew Research Center study of the ways religion influences the lives of Americans found that “people who are highly religious are more engaged with their extended families, more likely to volunteer, more involved in their communities and generally happier with the way things are going in their lives.” This, of course, is directly in line with the call of the gospel to be connected with one another. I have personally gained much by regular weekly meetings with other Christian men. And while not an antidote to drift, it can be a wonderful encouragement towards purposeful living.
The third is focusing on others. What I find particularly distressing about drifting is thinking about how difficult it must be to live with someone who is thus afflicted, particularly when the person drifting is me! One only needs to contrast this with the attractiveness of a person who has purpose and meaning in their life and is filled with the joy of living. And so, I am greatly challenged when I contemplate whether I am pursuing the kind of life that others, particularly my wife, find appealing. Or am I simply grinding my way through life, clinging to my existence like someone digging his fingernails into an imaginary chalkboard?
As helpful as physical exercise, quality relationships, and focus on others are, still I have a tendency to drift. I honestly don’t believe the solution lies solely within my own efforts; I simply cannot overcome this by picking myself up by my own bootstraps. So where does the help come from? In the words of the Psalmist, “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:2) He is the One who “lifts me out of the mire.” (Psalm 40:2) This is a theme repeated throughout Scripture – namely that help comes from the Lord. Though I am tired, He is awake. Though I am weak, He is strong. Though I am drifting, He is steadfast. In one of the great passages of the Bible, indeed all of literature, we read – “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)
PS Please note that the title of my blog is now Pursuit Of Virtue (pursuitofvirtue.org). I made this change to better reflect the direction of my posts, and because I believe that pursuing virtue is precisely how we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. The pursuit of virtue is indeed a life worthy of the calling we have received.