The other day, it dawned on me just how short the line is between some doubt – even reasonable doubt – and outright despair. I came to appreciate that the only real difference between the casual thought that something small is not worth doing and desiring to give up altogether is only a matter of scale. Or to make an even more dramatic case, the line between occasional apathy and suicide is thinner than what we might like to believe. Total despair rarely comes on all of a sudden. It begins with a voice that consistently says, “Quit wasting your time. No one will care. This isn’t worth doing.” I believe that is the voice of the devil.
There are many paths the devil will take when tempting us away from trusting our Lord. Over the course of our life, we will be offered every one of them. The pleasures of the world will probably be the first, and most obvious, attempts to draw us from Jesus. Drink, drugs, and lust are tried and true methods to get us to idolize pleasure rather than to trust in God.
If those methods prove not to destroy us, our temptations might become more existential. That is, we begin to look at our life and ask questions about its nature. As we venture on something new or desire to experiment with a new business or ministry, the small beginnings can especially invite questions. Why keep doing this if no one else cares? Does my life make a difference? Where do I fit into the grand scheme of things? Why bother with such difficulties?
I’ve written before and believe it is true that these questions are accelerated in the age of social media. There is an extra pressure that we are missing out, that we are not as successful as we ought to be, often because we see only the best parts of our “friend’s” lives. That alternate, or augmented, reality can cause us to wonder why our reality is so drab when, in fact, our reality is just normal.
Our increased knowledge of the complexity and diversity of the world can also contribute to a feeling of smallness. In a world full of so many people, I am only one more! One wonders if our knowledge of the outside world was limited to our tribe or town or village if existential dread would visit us so often, or if we would be more content with our daily bread?
But man has likely always struggled with questions of importance or relevance, even before Facebook, because it is a prime temptation of the devil to get us to undervalue ourselves. The devil, you see, wants us to despair over the smallness of our life and to see us in a way different from how God sees us. “What difference does our life make?” This question is not representative of God’s point-of-view of us. But it is a remarkable form of temptation.
And it is a temptation we must resist as much as any other. You see, we can easily see what happens when others fail in their “simple” vocations of parenthood or laborer or politician, perhaps because they previously fell to the existentialist temptation of believing their “small” and “ordinary” lives do not matter. When a mother neglects or abuses her child, she is vilified, and rightfully so. When a police officer is crooked, he is a the worst kind of public servant. When a judge takes a bribe or a teacher ignores a student or a pastor neglects his parishioners, these are all obvious vocational sins and we would be right and quick in judging those who commit them. Seeing those failures in others is easy.
Yet, when we are tempted to fall into similar apathy about our callings (because it seems they don’t really make a difference), we aren’t as hard on ourselves. It matters when someone else fails, but we don’t have enough pride in our lives if we despair over their smallness. We can stop valuing our daily work as we ought to. The reality is that very few of us will change the world in a dramatic way, and by the way, those super-humans who do also struggle with this same temptation. Most of us will not cure cancer or build a business empire or become a media star. But if you have ever sat at the feet of a good teacher, were nurtured by a loving parent, served by an attentive salesman, or mentored by a hard-working boss, you know the importance of ordinary people doing ordinary things again and again. And you know the value of people who resist the temptation to despair over ordinary and “small” vocations.
This is a bit of an honest “confessional” for me, but I wanted to share it because I am rather certain it is a common temptation. To name it as such begins the work of shutting that voice up and carrying on with the work God has put on our plate, despair be damned. And it begins our return to the Lord with our whole hearts, trusting that we are his able vehicles working in his vineyard.