Fact: in a few months I shall celebrate the birthday which puts me nearer thirty than twenty. I view this fact calmly, having long ago learned the inevitability of birthdays, however much you want time to stand still. Besides, right now, I don’t think I want time to stand still: this moment of last-minute planning for lessons I’ve never taught before, this feeling of being, in some ways, the puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit, no matter which way you turn it. I don’t mind this moment, but I don’t want to live in it forever.
Even so, observation of my peers tells me that the accepted mode of welcoming a twenty-sixth birthday, for single people, is with gloom, denial, and over-indulgence in sweets in the hopes of burying the panic of having lived more than a quarter of a century without finding the place in the puzzle where you belong. These are Christian people, the once-were-lost-but-now-are-found people; why don’t we feel found?
One reason, I suggest, is that we aren’t married. This does not have to be a horrible thing, and we aren’t necessarily to blame for our singleness. Still, the fact stands that married people have a slightly better idea what they’re about. Being married gives a purpose to even a mindless job, because you’re doing the job for someone else, working toward a family. That may not be entirely satisfactory; it may not be enough purpose, but it’s always something to fall back on. A single person working a mindless job works the mindless job why? For money? For him or herself? To keep him or herself fed and clothed and entertained? It feels abysmally selfish, and we want to be unselfish and purposeful, don’t we?
The apostle Paul says it’s better to be single than to be married, because single people can be about the things of God. (He also, of course, says it’s better to be married than to burn.) It is possible to be purposeful without being married. But we don’t know, really, how to be about the things of God. What is God’s work? How do we do it? So we throw ourselves into anything that seems purposeful: we patronize arts which promote causes, eat food grown organically and without slave labor, wear second-hand and hand-made clothing, pursue fitness.
We work boring jobs, maybe, or are unemployed, but on Saturday mornings we run 5ks for charity; we spend afternoons drinking free-trade coffee in coffee shops, reading books by or about people who changed the world or at least changed their own lives; we go in the evenings to concerts by bands that sing about injustice and donate to injustice and sell their albums on vinyl because people like old things and old sounds better. We go on Sundays to church, of course, because we are Christians. Ideally it’s a newer, non-traditional church, because traditional churches don’t seem to be purposeful enough anymore; church traditions are boring (in spite of our general patronage of all things “vintage”); and, frankly, traditional churches make us feel more like odd puzzle pieces because they’re oriented toward families, and we. aren’t. families. So we go to the newer church with its new vision and purpose and feel energized and visionary and purposeful. But after all of that, we go home and feel we’re wasting our lives — and we’ve read that we shouldn’t — and we don’t know what to do about it.
Do I know what to do about it? Not necessarily. But I know that certain things are true, if we are in Christ, and that those things should keep us from despairing on twenty-sixth birthdays.
1. The work of God is to believe in Him (John 6:28, 29). Those who believe in Him tend to do other things; but trying to do other things without the believing doesn’t work very well. Believing in Him means believing that He doesn’t need us to do things to accomplish His purposes; He can accomplish them even in spite of us. Believing in Him means believing that, just perhaps, He is accomplishing His purposes precisely by our feeling like odd puzzle pieces right now. Which leads me to the next thing:
2. We are more than the sum of our feelings. Y’all, this is huge. We’re the generation that grew up on Disney movies that told us to follow our hearts, and the truth is that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). So your heart tells you your life is valueless, tells you you need to do huge things all the time, tells you nobody loves you, tells you may as well just give up and act like the loser you actually are? Your heart, Christ’s beloved one, is wrong. The God of the universe made Himself nothing, took human form, and died an ignominious death to purchase your life: will you contend with the Almighty who calls you valuable, who calls you beloved, who loved you when you were dead, making it obvious that huge things are not required for you to earn His love? Maybe you feel like a loser, but you are, in fact, a precious child of the King of kings: walk in the world as what you are, not as what you feel.
3. We don’t have to know anything else. In fact, it may be better if we don’t have the answers. Paul chose “to know nothing . . . except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He knew Christ “in weakness and in fear and much trembling,” without “plausible words of wisdom,” so that our faith might rest “on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:2-5). So you’re weak, and you’re afraid, and you don’t have answers for the people who seem always to be asking you to defend the meaning of your existence? Quite possibly, that is exactly where you are supposed to be. Because God takes weak, fearful, trembling, ineloquent sinners-saved-by-grace and uses them to show His power to a world which is at war with Him.
Living purposefully isn’t about music and food and clothes and races for causes and people and cures (though those may play a part). It isn’t about being married. It is about being Christ’s. Being Christ’s at the boring job as well as the exciting job. Being Christ’s on the days when you feel lost as well as on the days when you feel loved. Being Christ’s before you turn twenty-six and after you turn twenty-six. Because if Christ is pleased to have you live more than a quarter of a century without finding the place where you belong in the puzzle, there is no need to panic. You are His piece; it is His puzzle. “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecc. 3:11). Trust Him for that. On birthdays, and all other days, too.