When I was in high school, I played tennis. I have so many great memories of playing with friends, whether it would be during practice, group lessons, or weeknights for fun. I also had a private coach with whom I took lessons multiple times a week, which was a lot of work but also a lot of fun. One lesson in particular stands out to me even now. I had developed a pretty consistent shot but wanted to take it to the next level. More specifically, I wanted to improve the power and speed of my forehand shot. I eagerly flexed my arm, and not forgetting to keep my eye on the ball, swung hard with my racket as the ball came near. But when I tried to hit the ball with my super strength, ultra-fast swing (I called it my “true potential” shot), most of the time I didn’t get the result I wanted. The ball often flew out of bounds or straight into the net. And when the ball did make it in, I knew that it was totally not my doing and was mostly luck. My coach saw this and quickly addressed the issue. As he held my arm to adjust my swing in slow-mo, he and I both could feel how rigid my arm was.
“See how your arm is flexed right now? Stop doing that.”
(Shakes my arm until it’s flapping around and loose)
“When your arm is tight, it doesn’t work. Your swing actually gets slower. Relax your arm. Your swing will be faster and you’ll hit the ball better.”
At first, it took some time to wrap my head around the idea that putting strength into my arm wouldn’t give me a stronger forehand shot. But the reason soon became clear: the power of my groundstrokes didn’t come from my arm! The power came from the speed of the swing, and the speed of the swing came from the rotation of the body (and many other things factor in, but we would be getting off-topic). The real source of the power, the speed of my rotation and swing, was only being hampered by my rigid arm.
Typically, I’ve heard lessons end here. Some of you already may have noticed where this was going. It goes something like this:
What is your source of power? Yourself or God? If the answer is the former, you need to realize that your strength will not get you very far. You need to let go of whatever it is that you are struggling with, and God will work His plan. His strength, not yours.
If only it were that easy. “Letting go” isn’t as simple as turning on a switch in our heads so that we can live differently. And something else that complicates this even more is that throughout our lives, we have been told to do our best in all things. We celebrate diligence, and for good reason. Without it, the greatest human achievements – flight, development of vaccines and antibiotics, musical composition, architecture, art, and so much more – would not have been possible. Many parts of the Bible also praise good, honest work. In Genesis, the very first book of the Bible, God puts Adam to work as the keeper of the Garden of Eden before the world is marred by sin. There’s something sacred about using our strength, talents, and resources to produce good work; it resonates at a deep level with being human.
And so, on the one hand I’m told not to rely on my capabilities, but on the other hand I’m told to work diligently and strive for excellence. I never really was able to merge such seemingly different inputs, so my default has been to do the latter until I make it. I would do my best with the occasional prayer. When things turned out well, I thanked God for His help, for giving me the power to do a good job. When things didn’t turn out well, I would work on the issue until it resolved. Maybe sprinkling a bit more prayer on the way, because things hadn’t worked out the way I thought they would. Then when things resolved, I would thank God for His help, for giving me the power to navigate the issue. (If the issue didn’t resolve even after I put in a lot of effort and prayer, then that would be what I call a “crisis.” – more on this later)
By and large this approach has worked for me. It was an approach to life that fit my love for control and satisfied the call for diligence. But lately I have felt that my diligence, preference for control, and belief that I am a capable human being are double-edged. They are beneficial but toxic. Truthful but deceptive.
In my last post, I wrote about a significant personal crisis in which I found my family circumstance and my faith at odds with each other. Thankfully, my struggles led me to a place where I no longer find those things to be incompatible. Since then, I’ve been able to resume my life without all the bitterness, anger, but also interestingly enough, without God. Even though I knew that God had everything to do with bringing me to a better place, I felt as though all my needs were satisfied when my crisis was finally over. The next time I would be talking to God would be the next time I hit a crisis that I couldn’t handle by myself. How completely backwards it was! The idea of treating God as a mere crutch for my life’s obstacles was repulsive, yet attractive. To go right ahead and live as though His voice were unnecessary in my life after just having been so angry and disillusioned by the fact that I couldn’t hear God’s voice, after just having been rescued from that swamp of resentment – the idea was so spineless. But it would be so convenient, not having to answer to anybody but me. Besides, couldn’t it have been that my family crisis simply had been resolved with time?
Sure enough, I found myself trying to wipe away God’s fingerprints in other areas of life. Months before, Annie and I had prayed to find a good community of believers in Spain. But after the prayer was answered, a part of me said “of course, in a big city like Madrid there had to be at least one community that we felt was the right one.” Moreover, before arriving in Spain there were so many things that could have gone quite badly, including (but certainly not limited to) the visa process and our housing situation in Spain. But once again, after everything was sorted out without much problem, a part of me couldn’t help but think that, well, of course that should have happened. That was supposed to happen. Things were bound to go right in the end.
I could explain all this by saying that I’m an ungrateful person, but I think there’s something more to it than that. Somewhere deep down, I believe I’m fully capable of learning and diligently working towards a successful life. I believe I can make the right choices to be an intelligent, loving person who can make a difference in the lives around me. I can be someone who cares for the poor, seeks racial and gender equality, and promotes peace and mutual respect. I can be someone who loves diversity and celebrates community. There’s a part of me that believes I can be all these things without God. And we do see people who are successful, noble, and wise without believing in God.
The desire to work diligently and produce good results is not a bad thing. Simply put, it’s a great thing that I wish I had more of and that the world had more of. It is wonderful to see the fruits of the thoughtfully prepared lesson plan, the meticulously rehearsed performance, and the carefully planned community project. It’s not hard to see how or why we come to rely on our hands and minds. It is so easy to silently step into the belief that my agency is enough to bring about all the change I need to see. And I think this self-reliance, having unexpectedly grown from what was such a good thing, quietly took hold of me and began rewriting all that God had done into all that I had done.
The somewhat sad thing is that I already experienced the part where I knew I don’t have everything under control. Crises, as I mentioned before, are the times when even my best intentions and efforts fail. I see most clearly during crises that within the confines of my structures, plans, and predictions, not many things are really under control. It’s when I see that life is filled with grays rather than black and whites. But none of us like crises. So when I am in the midst of one, my top priority is to get out as fast as I can. I’m so bent on escaping the crisis that I miss the part where I realize, oh yeah, not everything is under control. Maybe, even with all my diligence and capabilities, I’m not the one orchestrating the good that comes out of my hands. But strangely, when I exit the chaos, I manage to convince myself that I really had control that whole time and will continue to do so.
So how can I keep perspective? Going back to tennis, the funny thing is, now that I’m no longer regularly playing, I go through the same cycle every time I occasionally pick it back up to play with friends. I start with superhuman strength in my swings, see that the balls are flying nowhere, remember the lesson from my coach, and eventually relax my swings so I can hit better and manage to make tennis an enjoyable experience for the person I’m playing with. Perhaps I can let those times I had absolutely no control be reminders of a lesson, instead of letting them be another thing in the past that I’m just waiting to forget. And though I’m tempted to tell myself not to celebrate my own capabilities, to do so would be going towards another extreme; diffidence is just as damaging as arrogance and is a whole another story. No, I don’t think the solution is to downplay myself or anyone else for that matter. I hope that God will give me the maturity to see the world less and less in a black and white manner. I hope that He will give me the courage to wrestle with the gray areas of life, because that’s where the real world is. Because that’s where my best won’t yield easy answers, and therein I might find my humility and dependence on God.