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viewpoint

Forming citizens of heaven

| Monday, September 14, 2015

As I gazed out of my office window last week, I saw campus sidewalks filled with a sea of suits and skirts. For a split second I thought to myself, “Who died?” only to realize that Notre Dame was not preparing for some large-scale funeral but the semiannual Career Fair here on campus.

This brought me back to my own experience and conversations I have been privileged to have with undergraduates trying to discern their future.

I have seen some of the same struggles that I felt back then now mirrored back at me. Most present is the pressure that comes with figuring out the next steps.

This pressure, on one hand, can stem from a fear of pain or disappointment, the idea that a future decision may not bring with it the happiness that we desire and deserve.

On another hand, this pressure can stem from a fear of commitment, a fear of missing out on a better opportunity. What if we make a decision and a better opportunity comes along?

Good or bad, these are very real feelings that signify deeper desires. Fundamentally, we want our lives to have meaning. We want to touch and experience all that life has to offer. We want to experience goodness; we want to have fulfilling responsibilities; we want to have people that we can love. We want, in the end, to know that we matter.

Understandably, we have high goals. But I think our preoccupation with these goals causes us to overlook another side of the equation, one with critical implications for our decision-making in the present.

That is, we forget to be gentle with ourselves. We forget to acknowledge that the path to happiness and meaning is not often a straight shot.

If you’ve ever done a puzzle, you know sometimes it’s possible to find pieces that fit together on the first try. Other times, two other pieces just can’t seem to find a home.

With these trickier pieces, sometimes we have to use a different strategy. We can, for example, use a process of elimination. We work to assemble different, more obvious parts of the puzzle to then narrow the field of available pieces and increase our chances of success.

Bit by bit, we learn from trial and error. And the pattern of assembly that once appeared difficult or impossible in the beginning begins to look much more manageable.

I think this puzzle analogy can speak to us in our experience. We want to know what our lives should look like, but we so often need to use trial and error to get there.

Of course, the consequences that come from assembling puzzles look a bit different than the trial and error of our lives. And, there’s often more at stake than simple frustration or disappointment if something isn’t quite the “right fit” or if something unexpected makes the assembly of our life’s “pieces” difficult.

In this light, Reinhold Niebuhr writes, “Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.”

I think too often in decision-making we forget God’s promise to us in faith: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” We forget that our faith promises a God of transfiguration, one who is always able, no matter the decision, to help us work and deal with the pieces. To be more precise, while our lives may look, at first glance, like scattered, disparate pieces of a puzzle, God’s promise tells us our lives are each important parts of his loving plan.

With this knowledge, we can allow ourselves the freedom to not remain paralyzed by the future, but to make decisions, confident that God will use each of them for the transfiguration of the world.

Faith demands that we take some of the pressure off each and every one of our decisions. It demands a radical trust not solely in our ourselves and our decisions, but God’s desire to love and make something out of us.

This demands we look at “right” and “wrong” decisions in new terms. One “unsuccessful attempt” to make sense of life’s pieces may not be wrong, just an opportunity to be strengthened for what God wants to show us is right.

Perhaps we must accept that the right decision is one we’re not entirely sure of. Perhaps the right decision might not proceed according to our convenience, the fulfillment of our dreams and wishes in our time, but God’s dreams and wishes for us in his time.

After all, God’s concern is not always fundamentally our convenience, but our salvation. He will use whatever method, time frame and cost to open our eyes to him, to form us into citizens for heaven.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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