Day 1 of 10: Burnout's Guide to Being Human (Galatians 4)
“After 28 years as a Christian,” I say, “I finally feel like I’ve learned something about grace. That we are loved—just for being.”
I catch up with a former theology teacher every year or so, and in this moment he shifts into the sparring mode he once took on with his classes.
“That’s not grace, you know. Grace is the gift of God’s power to live as we were created to live,” Skip answers. It’s a thought that would have been inspiring to me back in college, but has come to feel like a trap.
“I’m just not sure I believe that anymore,” I admit.
“Go back and read Galatians again,” he says, and the conversation turns away from definitions once more.
Several days later I pull the book out, and it immediately becomes apparent to me that I don’t disagree with Skip’s definition at all. What’s changed is my belief about “the way we were created to live.” In fact, when I think about it, I can no longer even count how many times that belief has changed.
There were the childhood rules I once thought we were born to comply with. Then with a less strictly legalistic evangelicalism, I knew that if we could only practice wholehearted faith in God, participate in spiritual disciplines, and live in friendship with the poor, God would be required to make us happy and fix the world. Later, after my faith had become less of an “if this…then that” proposition, I learned about classism, racism, colonialism, militarism, and the destruction of the earth. Now I knew we were created to live in radically inclusive and egalitarian community, to live in solidarity with the marginalized, and to challenge the forces of empire.
In each phase, worthy pursuits presented themselves as “the way of Jesus.” But the shining visions of the future that first inspired me slowly turned into a piled-up list of rules, crushing me with the weight of obligations and despair at the impossibility of meeting them all.
Earlier in the year, before my mini-theology-debate, I’d been wracked with guilt about moving out of my low-income apartment complex, panicked that the church I’m helping to plant might not be living up to our ideals, and exhausted from writing almost exclusively about racism and classism since the 2016 election. I was working hard, but around every corner I still ran into something I’d failed to do.
I’d forgotten that Galatians doesn’t say we were meant to live as perfect beings who expend all our energy checking off the Right Things To Do. It says we were meant to live as children of God—children who don’t really accomplish much at all. Children who are loved, even for their imperfections. Children, whose role in life is to be, and learn, and grow, and change; who are expected to have limitations; who are received as gifts, not for what they do, but for who they are.
Too often I’ve received grace—the power to live as we were meant to live—as an invitation to burn through all my own resources in pursuit of some ideal I’ve made up for myself and then tagged as “God’s will.” Lately, I’m learning to receive grace as the power to live within my limitations; to accept God’s love for me exactly as I am, even if I never do another Good Work in my life; and to set down my Field Guide to Ethics so I can ask God how I—with my personality, my family, my body, my place—am meant to live.
Often when I’m feeling burned out, I avoid my Bible. That heavy book seems designed to condemn. The devotions in this series share a few scriptures where I’ve found grace and hope in those times. They neither push me to greater striving nor “excuse” me from accountability for my life, but show me a way beyond that dichotomy: a better way of understanding what it means to live up to my life, a better way of being human.