The Poetic Sovereignty of an Unbalanced Life

When I was a sophomore English major at Cedarville University, I so desperately wanted to live a balanced life. I believed that maybe, with the right advice, I could become an early bird, create and stick to a schedule, pray more, become a runner, and find time for my hobbies. In pursuit of advice, I made lunch plans with the poetry professor I considered an icon. Nellie — she insisted on us calling her by her first name — was the powerful, magical kind of weird. She baked her own homemade bread every day, read theology texts alongside modernist poetry, built her own library and kitchen table from reclaimed wood with her husband, hosted her creative writing classes for elaborate dinners, and did all of this while raising a three year old and a six month old. She shepherded her writing workshops in an eccentric, Socratic way, leading us on ideological rabbit trails that demanded a confrontation of our presuppositions. Nellie lambasted reality TV in one breath and discussed the implications of sin entering the world through the act of eating in the next. She lived holistically and joyfully — I believed she’d struck Leonard Cohen’s secret chord, and lived a life that resonated a perfect sense of harmony. I wanted that.

Nellie canceled lunch plans the first time because her kids were sick, the second time because a pipe exploded in her kitchen, and the third time, her kids were sick again — but vomiting. The fourth time, she was sick. Finally, the fifth time, we met in the upstairs section of the cafeteria, near a window that streamed sunlight. Sniffling a little from the vestiges of a nasty cold, she laid down her plate and asked me about my semester.

I leaned the conversation towards striving for balance. I said something like, “How do we achieve a sense of balance? I try so hard to do all of these things that are good things, and I can’t do them all.” Instantly, I felt a little pathetic and immature.

Her eyebrows quirked together and she tilted her head to the side, stalling a bite of sweet potato on her fork. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know that we can always balance our lives. Jesus didn’t live a balanced life.”

At that moment, something clicked in my brain and a window unlocked and opened, shedding sunlight on a new perspective of Jesus Christ I had not considered before. Jesus lived an apparently quiet, mundane life until about the age of thirty. The God-man worked, rested, slept, read, attended synagogue, respected holidays, feasts, and traditions, and overall submissively lived a life governed by observing balanced rituals. Then his Father asked him to begin his ministry, and Jesus submissively disrupted his life.

After John baptized Jesus, the “Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” to be tempted by Satan, and Jesus did not eat for forty days and forty nights (Mark 1:12, Matthew 4:1-2 ESV). After about thirty years of relatively unremarkable living, the Father thrust His Son into a circumstance of extremes: physical and spiritual warfare that should have destroyed his physical body and worn down his mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities. After fighting the temptation and Satan’s rhetoric, Jesus began his ministry, which was no less extreme. Jesus traveled constantly, preached continually, and performed miracles regularly. He had no home, little to no time to himself, and enemies threatened to kill him. In this season, Jesus did not live a balanced life by any measure. External and internal pressures beat down his body and mind every day; it’s noted that Jesus expressed occasional exhaustion, wept, and, in the garden of Gethsemane, experienced hematohidrosis — a medical phenomenon in which an individual sweats blood as a response to acute mental distress.

Jesus did not live a balanced life, and that is the life the Father willed for him. If we are carrying on the ministry of Jesus, it follows that the Father may also ask us to live through seasons of extreme circumstances. There seems to be a preoccupation in mainstream Christian culture with arriving at a perfect balance of work, play, rest, education and so on and so on and so on, and it also seems that this ideal of balance becomes a measure of spiritual maturity — if a person can achieve equilibrium in the tumult of 2019, that person must be a mature and deeply-rooted Christ-follower. This desire to achieve and maintain stability is a fallacy not supported by the life of Jesus, who suffered excruciating emotional and physical pain as a result of the Father’s de-stabilizing of his life.

I am not trying to say that an unstable life is always a Biblically-consistent life. We should not allow ourselves to neglect the care of our bodies, our minds, our souls, and our relationships because of our life circumstances. I am not trying to provide an excuse for anyone to validate choices that purposefully de-stabilize life.

But, there are periods of life in which the Lord will demand more of us than we believe we can humanly give, and it’s crucial to understand that our lack of control over our circumstances is not necessarily always a result of human mistakes and sin. The Father can and will pour divine grace over our unstable lives and transform the overwhelming circumstances in ways we cannot expect. When I think back on that lunch with Nellie, I realize that season of her life must have drained her. I won’t pretend to know the mind of God, but I believe that draining helped push her into a new season, and the grace and wisdom with which she drank her cup of suffering taught my heart to trust the gentle sovereignty of the Father. Nellie overflowed with wonder because she accepted that the Lord willed to disrupt her life and trusted that good would come of it. I, for one, soaked that wonder up and carried that legacy into my times of crisis.

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