THIS BOTHERS ME
By JIM NICHOLS
I do not like the idea. I prefer to think and believe that my current self is the result of something within me. I prefer to believe that, as a child, I had a rather central future that, though I did not know about it in detail, simply unfolded as I grew older. Thus, as an adult, what you see and what I feel about myself are simply a revelation of what was always there. I wish I could believe that, but I do not consider it true.
If I give the idea a spiritual spin, it becomes more palatable to me, but I need to understand correctly. Jeremiah 29:11 is a well-known passage. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” This is an optimistic and wonderful promise and I claim it. However, the passage does not give any detail; it is a general promise of God’s attention to our life. Our choices are not pre-scripted. It is up to us to flesh out the specifics of our life (under God’s care) and develop spiritual habits that form us into Christ’s image.
To be more specific, we are shaped by our consistent choices and habits. I recently read a preacher admitting that he could not remember what he preached about three weeks earlier. Nor could he remember any specific music used in the service. He noted that he doubted that few of the congregants present would be able to remember either. Yet, he supposed (and I agree) those present would reply affirmatively if asked whether they were glad they had attended. It was an important part of their life to be present when worship services were available. For those of us who have a consistent pattern of attending such services, it is part of our life rhythm. We may wish that we could remember more of the details, but we believe it was important to us to be present in the worshiping community. To a certain extent, our simple presence is an opportunity for God to speak to us.
As an academic, I desire that what I read and learn become a memorable part of my future functioning. The truth is, however, that I remember only a small fraction of what I read and learn. What does influence my future is how God translates into my life something that someone has said or written. The translation may not be the actual initial transmission, but, instead, what God wanted me to hear.
For many years, I have been a part of a small singing group at a local hospice facility. Consistently, these patients near death seem genuinely moved by having an opportunity to sing or hear some of the great hymns of their past. No matter the quality of the music, these words and tunes are embedded in their spiritual histories by habitual activity. We are shaped by our consistent choices.
Individuals, including government officials, who consistently lie are shaped by those choices. Students who cheat on their work are shaped by those choices. Individuals addicted to pornography or drugs or alcohol have their lives molded by those choices. Clearly, although God desires a positive future and hope for each of us, the details are largely the results of our choices. Theologian Henri Nouwen said, “There are no times or places without choices.” God desires us to make positive choices so that we can realize His promised hope for each of us.
As I look at my life, I can see multiple instances where a choice or person was clearly an instrument of God for me. The communities I have found myself in have been foundational in molding me. My first community was my birth family. My mother, father, and sisters clearly composed the environment in which I grew and made choices. They also influenced each other.
An unexpected illustration of this occurred when my mother died at 52 years old. A few years later, my father met another woman (at a square dance) and they married. This second marriage was a lengthy one. Many people do not even have one successful marriage; my father had two.
An odd thing happened, however. As this second marriage unfolded positively, my father took on some different characteristics. He began to eat different types of food. He began to dress differently. He began to say “hell” and “damn” on occasion. My father never said “hell” or “damn.” It became clear to me that his marriage partner, at least to some extent, determined some qualities of my father’s person. When he was married to my mother, he had certain traits. When he was married to someone else, other traits appeared.
The whole situation caused me to realize how much I am the result of the influences (good, bad, or neutral) of others in my life. Apparently, I am more malleable that I want to admit. Yes, God does have a good future for me in His plan. However, that future is shaped by my communities and my choices and habits.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.