A young inmate walked up to me the last time I preached in a prison. He told me what mental illnesses he had been diagnosed with, but the explanation was not necessary. His eyes told the whole story.
He said he really appreciated my sermon, and that he was comforted hearing me talk about my life-long experiences with hallucinations and depression. At the end of the conversation, as he was shaking my hand to leave, he said, “I guess I need to remember whenever I have a problem, just give it to God, right?”
I was too stunned to respond.
“Just give it to God.” Just. Give it to God…just…
I thought to myself, “He has such a long road ahead of him. He has no idea.”
Look, I certainly agree with giving it to God. That’s what I do with my own problems. That’s what I do with my own pain. I give it to God. The problem is the word, “just”.
“Just cheer up.” OK fine, but that’s not going to get anyone out of a depression.
“Just talk to your family.” When your family is abusive, I’m not sure that’s going to work.
“Just leave him, then!” Even ignoring economic considerations, I don’t think it’s emotionally possible for anyone to “just” leave a long-term relationship.
Just do this, just do that. “Just give it to God” is just a slogan. It’s just an inspirational quote. And an inspirational quote with the word “just” in it just isn’t going to cut it when someone cuts this guy off on the freeway. It definitely won’t be enough when he gets in his fifteenth argument in a single hour with his ex-girlfriend. And it will fail him catastrophically when he finds himself alone and lonely, not even realizing that he has decided to use drugs again because it’s easier to get that quick high than it is to face the possibility of yet another human rejection.
I remember vividly a deeply troubled teen-aged woman who used to come to my father’s church. One day she said, “God just wants us to do our best.” My father said something that was theologically sound, “Yeah but what’s our best?” It was a statement about grace, and I knew what he meant, but I felt in my gut then that it was the wrong response. Now I know it is the wrong response. So let me try to respond to her statement about doing our best.
Look, if anyone was going to adopt a slogan in their life, here is the slogan I would recommend: “Always do your best.” But that slogan isn’t going to work when you are having an argument with your abusive boyfriend. And it certainly isn’t going to work if you are the abusive boyfriend.
Slogans just don’t work. If you can explain it in a sentence, it’s not going to be enough.
Now this might work. Always do your best means ALWAYS do your best. In other words, always think your best. Always drive your best. Always work your best. Always speak your best. Every moment, every second, every experience, every interaction, always do your best.
When some asshole cuts you off on the freeway, think your best. When your ex brings up an argument from 5 years ago, speak your best. (And then maybe walk out the door your best.)
Always do your best means ALWAYS. But see, that whole explanation is not a slogan, is it? And the emphasis is on the word “always.” “Always” doing something is a long, long ways from “just” doing something.
See, with all due respect to corporate America, there’s no such thing as “just” doing anything. You can’t “just” give it to God. You can’t “just” cheer up. You can’t “just” think more positively. You can’t “just” work hard to become successful. You can’t “just” leave an abusive relationship.
Progress is made minute by minute, one day (or one hour or one second) at a time. If you want to get better, no matter what “better” means to you, it has to happen experience by experience, moment by moment, interaction by interaction. You’ve gotten stuck in ruts, and breaking out of those ruts takes constant, disciplined practice.
You not only have to forge new paths, you have to get used to walking them.
You have to walk them so many times that they become habitual. You have to walk them so many times that you create new ruts. And then, some day, you may have to abandon the same habits that at one time saved your life.
So you are going to have to do your best in every single argument you have. You have to do your best every time someone looks down on you, laughs at you, gossips about you. You have to do your best every time you wake up in the morning and the floor is cold.
And you have to accept that you cannot control results and that you will not always know how to do the right thing. Your best will often not be good enough, not by any standard, and you have to accept that too. You have to accept it moment by moment, day by day, experience by experience.
One of the vows a pastor is often required to take: “I promise to not give false hope.”
I still think about that inmate, the young man with the frightened eyes. And I wish I had given him a better response. I cannot go back in time and say it to him, so I will say it here.
“Just giving it to God is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life. Not because it’s hard to give your pain to God. That’s easy. The hard part is letting go of the old ways of doing things. But God knows, and you know, that you are genuinely trying.”