At times it seems like the biggest question in life, taking a line from Kenny Rogers, is knowing when to hold ’em and knowing when to fold ’em.
I was driving today and turned on to one of our local Christian broadcasts, where the minister was extoling the virtues of perseverance. He used the story of the calling of Matthias to the Twelve after Judas’ death as an example of sticking around and waiting for the fruit of your labor to be ripe for the picking. He extended this to show how Christians need to keep going through rough times, to never give up, to endure at all costs. “God rewards those who endure”, I think he said.
I can see this applying in some situations, but there are other examples where I think it leads to harm. On the very same station later in the day I heard people (mostly wives) calling in to get advice on how to deal with unendurable situations. I never heard the counselors say “just keep going and you’ll make it” once. Granted, they never said “call it quits” either, but the call to change was apparent and clear. Patient endurance does not always win and is not always good.
Christ does call us to endure through difficulty and hardship. Indeed as followers we are expected to have hardship because of Christ, and we are frequently exhorted not to fall away because of that hardship. Endurance does count for a lot, but it isn’t everything. I think too often we can be short-sighted in our view, thinking that God called me to a certain path and that only by persevering and enduring on that path are we being faithful to God. Changing course is not an option, for that can be seen as weakness.
However I think God’s paths are often much more open than we think. For example, I may honestly and prayerfully believe that God has called me to be a missionary to India. Say that in that process of preparing to go to India I run in to a million different problems: lack of financial support, inability to get a visa, health problems, lost tickets, lost paperwork…let your imagination run wild. I can take all these things as obstacles that must be overcome on my path to becoming a missionary to India. But what if there is another message in these obstacles?
Maybe I am not ready yet. Maybe I’m not called to India. Maybe I’m wrong. If I am wrong, the worst thing I can do is push on to some goal that is simply my own invention.
However if I take the tack of “God called me to be a missionary”, then there is much more freedom in that calling. You can be called to India, or China, or Minneapolis, or the homeless shelter. And I think that this is more often how God presents our paths. The narrower your perception of what you think God wants you to do, the less freedom you have to deviate from that, and the more fear you have of deviating from it as well. You also stand more chance of persisting merely to persist, not because you feel that God is still in it. If you widen your call and become flexible in it, God’s ability to use you also increases.
To take a page from Thomas Merton’s life again, he definitely felt called to the monastic life and to life as a hermit. I think he felt called to Gethsemani. Yet I also get the impression that the specifics of that call were merely circumstancial. He could have been a hermit anywhere, and I don’t get the impression that there was something about where he was that was irrevocably tied to a particular call. He was flexible and looked for what God was calling him to do that day, not projecting a certain path that extended for years down the line. And reading his journals you can see that he struggled but also found that every day his calling was reinforced by his own experience and desire to simply be with God.
I think sometimes we try too hard to hold on to things that we were never meant to hold on to, losing track of the focus of the call to serve and live in God’s grace because we get so preoccupied with how that happens.