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  • Writer's picturemattlillicrap

Persevering In Messiness

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

Corona-liturgies and Counter-liturgies part 1

“…we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character hope. And hope does not put us to shame…” Romans 5:3-5

What do you do when you are confronted by mess? Whether it’s the physical mess that comes with living a busy life, or the relational messiness of living with others. Especially when you can’t get out to see other others much at the moment!

It seems to me that one of our habitual responses to messiness is to filter it. We turn away from it, work hard not to let it show, keep it under the surface.

I was talking to a friend the other day and we were both reflecting on the way that habit has become something of a burden in lockdown life. It particularly struck us that we have both felt the pressure to be thriving—and more than that, to be seen to be thriving.

Any crisis tends to emphasise certain pressures, and the Covid pandemic has been no different. It’s as though the sponges of our hearts are being squeezed in a new way, showing us again what’s inside. It isn’t always pleasant

At any time, our society is one which encourages us to display ‘filtered’ versions of ourselves. We’re given the opportunity to curate and present careful, social media-worthy self-images. 10 years ago, the term ‘selfie’ hadn’t even been added to the dictionary. Now there are people who take literally hundreds of selfies before carefully selecting the perfect shot, adding the right filter, and offering it up to the world for consumption. For the rest of us with less time on our hands a couple of shots of what we’re up to will do. But the filters are still added. #livingmylife

It seems to me that #lockdownlife rachets up that pressure even more. There’s pressure to be living out an instagram-worthy lockdown. Our lives are supposed to be blossoming, shown by the beautiful pictures we take of our home-baked artisanal sourdough loaves, our increasingly healthy bodies given by our fantastic new fitness regime, or the idyllic gardens we’re lovingly creating and enjoying under perfect blue, pollution-free skies. We’re supposed to be taking up new hobbies and celebrating the results of our newly acquired wood-whittling skills, or painting, or our freshly-minted musical prowess.

Meanwhile, the pressure is on families too. If you have children, I wonder if your experience has been similar to mine? We’re sent mountains of schoolwork to be completed by our children (brilliantly, of course) and uploaded onto apps or blogs, while they also produce award-worthy mini-videos to be shared with friends and family, There’ll be songs, animations, family-friendly satire, or depictions of the general utopia of family life. Maybe we could even go viral…

What are the motivations driving that? Most obviously, we want to display ourselves. We want to show the world that we’re not just coping but flourishing independently.

But look behind social media and I wonder if there’s a Christian version of this. In conversations over the past few weeks it has struck me just how long it often takes before we feel like we’ve given one another permission to be honest. ‘Actually, d’you know what? I’m finding this pretty hard.’

Why is that? I wonder if it’s partly because we’re applying a right theology wrongly…

Let me explain. We know that it’s wonderfully true for those who trust in Christ, that God will use any tough time we might go through, whether personally or corporately, for our good and his glory. He will make us more like Jesus as we share in the sufferings of Christ. Fiery trials come and he’ll refine our faith which is of more value than precious gold.

As we cling to that truth, there’s a danger that we succumb to the idea that we should therefore be able to know and show how that is playing out in our lives.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s fantastic to look and see what God is doing in and through us at any time, let alone in tough times. It’s wonderful to share encouragements with one another and turn those to praise for what God is achieving. And often as God works his grace in our lives, he wonderfully gives us more grace to see some of what he’s doing.

But there are other times when he doesn’t show us what he’s doing. At those time we need to cling to the truth that he is always doing something good for his glory even when we don’t know what that is.

Our trouble comes if we’ve subconsciously convinced ourselves that we need to display all that God is doing, because if we can’t then how can we be sure he’s doing anything at all? That’s a recipe for despair, not hope.

But what does Paul say in Romans 5? “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character...”

We should be careful not to short-circuit the steps in that chain. If we assume that we should be able to know all that God is doing in us at the very time of trial, then when we read Romans 5:3 we’re expecting, “suffering produces character.” We feel we should be able to point immediately to all the ways that God is shaping us to be more like Jesus.

But that isn’t what Paul says! The first step from suffering to character is perseverance. Which means that, in trials, the first important thing that we do by God’s grace is simply to keep going.

When we were chatting, my friend put it really well: “There’s a lot of pressure going around to do lockdown well – educationally, creatively, relationally, spiritually. These are meant well, but for some of us just emerging intact will be glorious victory and evidence of God’s mercy.”

Exactly. Suffering produces perseverance. It’s that perseverance which refines our character to give us that hope which will not put us to shame. Why? Paul already answered that in the verse before; because it is “the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).

Let that sink in. Rather than all the pressure to put ourselves on display as we independently thrive, the biblical call in Christ is to keep going in his grace. Get our heads down, hang on to him and keep trusting. As we do, our characters are shaped, our hope is realised, and God is put on display in all his glory.


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So how should that inform our habits?

Instead of trying to filter the mess out we can relax. We can take the opportunity to re-form our habits. Think of the moment when family life has descended into a series of squabbles. What do you usually do? Turn away and retreat? Desperately try and regain control?

Or what about the time you log into social media and you’re confronted with a friends’ picture of their beautiful artisanal breakfast after their perfect workout, while you’re still in your pyjamas craving chocolate. Do you roll your eyes in disgust? Despair at your failure to be flourishing so obviously?

There’s the opportunity.

Instead, we can resolve to see our mess and turn to the Lord. We can ask for his grace to simply keep going and rejoice when we see that happening.

Perseverance produces character…

And that’s why it’s worth pressing onwards to glory!

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