The Piety of Quitting

One vivid memory comes from my days as a Master’s student, when my professor walked into the room with such a look of serenity on his face. He told us that the president of the university had just replaced the chair of the religion department with someone whom I knew to be an unqualified hack. So why the serenity? He described it as confirmation. What reservations he had about leaving the university vanished with that move. A year later, he was at a new university out West, where he finished his career and recently retired. 

There is this saying that people plan, and God laughs. There is a point at which I think giving up is probably the most healthy thing we can do personally and spiritually. Maybe holding on to our expectations of what something might have been is a form of pride. We are told from the time we are children not to give up. And don’t get me wrong, I think tenacity is a good thing. I would like to think I have a lot of it, but maybe tenacity is another word for self-will. Or at least sometimes it can be. When I was a kid, I was told that God has a plan for me. I am not sure I would put things that way anymore. Actually, that is not true. I am absolutely sure I would not put things that way anymore. I believe our lives are a synergy. Holiness is a dance of the divine and the human. If Jesus Christ is what God means when God says, “human,” then this dance is the definition of humanity itself. But there is no question that in the dance of our lives, we do not lead. God does. God may not control us like a puppet master, but God does see what we cannot, and God indeed loves us more than we could possibly love ourselves. Like children, the things that we want are not always the things that we should have. But we do not know better.

I am reminded of a passage from the epistle of James.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

Muslims say that too. “If Allah wills it.” I have always liked that about Islam. I wish we Christians felt more comfortable saying those things to each other.

Thief on the Cross Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319

I am not a fatalist. I do not think God directs my life like a puppet master. Maybe God is more like a parent. I do not have plans for my child. I want what is best for my child, even if my child does not find that necessarily pleasant. I act in love toward my child, even when love creates discomfort, anger, and resentment. Maybe God does not exactly direct our lives so much as God forecloses on certain possibilities. “Okay. Now that’s over. Moving on.” In that case, I wonder if the disappointment we feel is really just a lack of faith, or maybe our desire to hold onto something we should release is an expression of our self-will and pride. Saying, “I give up,” may be the right thing to do.

Back to my professor, sometimes something shocking, but not surprising, can be God’s way of confirming something that we sort of knew all along, but we weren’t quite willing to admit. We humans like to clutch at things, even if those things are just not good for us. Perhaps we should learn see the foreclosure of some possibilities as an opportunity to learn to trust God in humility and love.

This is not me being a theological Pollyanna. Nor do I want to suggest I am espousing some Prosperity Gospel nonsense. There is what we want, and then there is what we do not yet realize should happen. God has a plan for me? Maybe that plan involves being fed to the lions or nailed to a cross. The plan does not have to be something I find pleasant. It just has to be something I can learn to accept as a means of grace. Thus disappointment over a loss will not necessarily lead to something better, but perhaps we can learn to embrace disappointment as an opportunity to learn to say, “Not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).



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