The Freedom of Becoming a Realist

Life, suffering, and failure have a way of transforming you from an idealist to a realist—from thinking that you’re strong to reminding you that you’re weak.

When I was 25, I believed I could change the world. At 42, I have come to the realization that I cannot change my wife, my church, or my kids, to say nothing of the world. Try as I might, I have not been able to manufacture outcomes the way I thought I could, either in my own life or other people’s. Unfulfilled dreams, ongoing relational tension, the loss of friendships, a hard marriage, rebellious teenagers, the death of loved ones, remaining sinful patterns—whatever it is for you—live long enough, lose enough, suffer enough, and the idealism of youth fades, leaving behind the reality of life in a broken world as a broken person. Life has had a way of proving to me that I’m not on the constantly-moving-forward escalator of progress I thought I was on when I was twenty-five.

A while back, I received an email from a friend inquiring about my understanding between the relationship of ongoing sin in the life of a Christian and sanctification (Christian growth). He said he understood that Christians continue to be sinful, but the question he asked me was whether I thought Christians continue to be staticallysinful. I told him that I hadn’t considered the categories of statically or non-statically sinful because, while those categories may be moderately helpful in a theoretical discussion, they are categories that don’t correspond to life as it is actually lived. For instance, it becomes pretty subjective as to what is static and what isn’t static. I have improved over the years in some ways but I also see areas in my life that seem better or worse given the day, the circumstances, the season of life, etc. Some things I’ve “licked” (although I’m typically proud of those things so that becomes a “new” problem) and others, I’m sure, will plague me the rest of my life with more or less success depending on a variety of situations, moods, people I’m dealing with, and so on. I told him that the category which speaks to the reality of life as it is actually lived is Martin Luther’sSimul iustus et peccator (Christians are both justified and sinner simultaneously)–a category that the Apostle Paul gives existential voice to in Romans 7.

I think most people can probably relate better to what my life has actually looked like: Try and fail. Fail then try. Try and succeed. Succeed then fail. Two steps forward. One step back. One step forward. Three steps back. Every year, I get better at some things, worse at others. Some areas remain stubbornly static. To complicate matters even more, when I honestly acknowledge the ways I’ve gotten worse, it’s actually a sign that I may be getting better. And when I become proud of the ways I’ve gotten better, it’s actually a sign that I’ve gotten worse. And ’round and ’round we go.

If this sounds like a depressing sentiment, it isn’t meant to be one. Quite the opposite. In fact, as my friend Mike Horton says, “The hype of a radical calling to change the world can creep into every area of our life and make us tired, depressed, and mean.” If I am grateful for anything about these past 17 years, it’s for the way God has wrecked my idealism about myself and the world and replaced it with a realism about the extent of His grace and love, which is much bigger than I had ever imagined. Indeed, the smaller you get—the smaller life makes you—the easier it is to see the grandeur of grace.

So, while I am far more incapable than I may have initially thought, God is infinitely more capable than I ever hoped.


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