This is not a place filled with constant happiness and joy. There is some of that here—“in the presence of the Lord,” sacred text claims (Psa. 16:11) and in the sheer sweet spots of life, like good eats, friends and family (Acts 14:17). But there are lots of places—dark nights of the soul (using St. John of the Cross’ language)—where our souls hit thorns and thistles and dwell in the dark—unaware of the active presence or work of God and dwelling in the winters of the human experience. It is here that life seems flat, mundane, and even hopeless. I call these “land-of-the-suck” days and they show up more frequently than I care to admit. The old chorus my church used to sing when I was a kid: “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before,” turned out to be a ruse.
Yet, there is something hopeful in what isn’t. The psalmist acknowledged that he lived in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). I think he’s describing a bleak, needy place that defines what could be called the unprocessed life. I say, “unprocessed” because if we take those “dry and weary” days and process them, we will be surprised by joy. How so?
First, we should expect life to have some suck to it—a “groan” to it. Paul claimed this world has been made subject to a “groan” because of the presence of sin (Rom. 8:22) and he claims that same groan is in us (v. 23). We should not be surprised that we have days that are just plain “groan-y.” The message of Ecclesiastes is that if you have all the money, beauty, sex, stuff, success, etc., you could ever imagine, life would still feel empty. “Vanity of vanity,” the writer cries in despair. What if that’s true? If so, it would either cause one to deny it and run after more anyway (which is a rather effective way to scramble through life—in the delusion that more really is more). Or else one could face this reality, lower his/her expectations and think, “I need more than what is afforded me here in this place,” which opens the possibility for tapping into another place—the place of God’s grace.
Which leads to the second possible way to process life: letting the days of our lives be framed by the eternal. Here’s how I think that works. On my best “suck” days, I embrace the suck. I intentionally focus on the fact that part of the human experience includes the suck and I open my heart in prayer and lament saying:
God, I don’t like my life in times like this. Nothing seems right. You seem to have me in the dark. I need something more. This place—this space I’m in at this moment feels like a “dry and weary land where there is no water.” And I feel dry and weary. I ache. I thirst for more than what is here. And I have no idea if you can help me or if I want your help. But please come to my aid—even if it’s to help me want your help. Because it is here that I usually leap into sinful behavior. It is here where I usually become most unloving and jacked up with self-protection. It is here where I run from you because it seems like you can’t scratch the places where I itch. But it is also here that I remember I was created for more than what is here—that I am a citizen of another place. Lord, help me embrace the ache because when I embrace the ache, I embrace the reality of my need for you. Help me embrace the suck because it reminds me that there is nothing on this earth that can satisfy the deepest longing of the soul.
On my worst “suck” days, where I DON’T process my life like this, I go prodigal. I fall. Those days are full of regretful and embarrassing choices that make me a burden to those closest to me and fragment my soul making the suck worse. Like the Prodigal in Jesus’ story, I end up in the pigsty eating pig food until I come to my senses later. The good news is whenever I do come to my senses; Father is waiting for me to return home. That’s cool. He is more faithful to wait for me when I fail and celebrate me when I return than I am faithful to go prodigal. But when I ponder this pattern I can’t help but think what a consummate waste of time the whole prodigal journey was! Why not just embrace the suck instead of run from it into more suck?
I wish I knew the answer to that. Though I have not yet cracked the code on this and still have days where the suck is not effectively processed by me, one thing I’ve decided to do (borrowing from Paul): Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14). I’ve figured this out: the difference between a winner prodigal and a loser prodigal in spiritual parlance is a winner goes home one more time than s/he leaves home, and a loser leaves home one more time than s/he returns home. One more time. Whether or not I ever get really good at this, I have decided to always go home that one more time.