If I just get that job. If I just get that title. If I just get that relationship. If I just get out of that job. If I just get out of that relationship — then my life would be different. Then I would be better off. Then I would have the comfort and security and validation I need to live the life I want.
As humans we connect our circumstances to our happiness. We can’t help it. As a minister, you would think I wouldn’t just know this truth, but I would be so aware of it so that I was inoculated against its effects. You would think that I would have seen the detrimental effects of trying to find your significance in things that won’t bring you the happiness you think they will.
Yet there I was, last November, grim, depressed, filled with gloom, emptiness, and despair. Why? There was no external trauma, no immediate pressing problems of life bearing down on me. I had, in fact, just received my PhD in computational linguistics of historical theology a few weeks earlier after a successful defense of my dissertation. Eight years of work, countless hours of preparation, using every last second of free time while working full-time in college ministry and planting Redeemer Lincoln Square had finally paid off. The congratulatory praise was all around me, and yet I felt hollowed out, like someone had used one of those cantaloupe scoopers (that I have no space for in my New York City kitchen) on my insides. What had happened?
Unknowingly, I had done the very thing I teach, and preach, and speak against every week. I had placed my significance, I had put my hopes and value into a “thing.” The “thing” for me was the PhD that was going to vindicate and legitimize my personhood. I had been chasing it for eight long years and during those years, the true meaning behind its usefulness gradually became unfocused. Receiving that degree became an identity marker for me — or at least I had allowed it to become so. Now people would have to take me seriously as Michael Keller, not as Michael Keller. If I got that degree I would finally receive the respect I felt I so fully deserved.
Imagine my disappointment when, after the ceremonies were over, and the diploma was in hand but I was still the same person. Same old Mike. Same character flaws, desires and needs. Ironically it took me days, even weeks to figure out what was bothering me. It happens to me frequently, there is a nagging sensation that something is off, something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it. I moped around, worried my wife, grouched at my children, and was heading towards a serious depression.
C.S. Lewis was right — when you think the solution to your malaise is a new romantic partner, or a new house, or a new job to quell the inner sense of emptiness, you are chasing the wrong answers to the right question. The right question is “What will fill that neediness in me that will last?” My answer of more work, career success, and increased professional status had not worked. That answer will never work. Yes, you can delude yourself for years — for me, eight years — but it will never work.
What will be enough? What will fill you? The answer is both simple and hard at the same time. Simple, just take the words of Romans 8:1 — that there is “Now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and hold that statement as more true than any other statement in your life.
Now the hard part — doing that over and over and over again in all areas of your life. It will mean living your life through that statement. That means putting to death hopes and dreams and desires that you think will bring about “no condemnation” when really they won’t. It also means saying yes to things that the world might not think is that great, but which are the pillars of an unshakeable life. Like spending time in prayer, time reading the Bible, remembering God’s promises, remembering what he has done, and doing it with others.
I knew and believed that there is “now no condemnation” for me in Jesus intellectually, but I had not made it functionally real. Don’t be like me. Don’t let years go by not realizing what your functional trust is really in. Look in and around your life — asking each part — “Are you what I really need? Are you what I’m hoping in?”
As Lewis concludes, if the answer is that nothing in this world seems to satisfy you completely or assuage that sense of neediness, then it must be something outside of this world. I have been a Christian since my college years, but I am just beginning to learn what it means that “Jesus is all I need.”