I make lists. Lots of them. On neon sticky notes, yellow legal pads, the back of grocery receipts, even my hands. I like seeing all my to-dos laid out, scheduled, and crossed off with a flourish when accomplished. Lists keep me productive and organized; they help me process my world and articulate my priorities.
And lately, they've revealed that I have a lot of things backwards.
Like many recent college grads, I've left the structure of weekly reading assignments and essay due dates to find that "real life" is a gigantic open space in which next steps aren't always clear or easily approached. My to-do list is a glaring reminder of all that hasn't happened yet, and I've let "Obtain gainful employment" continually knock "Pursue an engaged relationship with my Creator" to the realm of lesser concerns—that secondary "To Get to if Time Allows" list. I've become so wrapped up in polishing my résumé into a sparkling one-page summation of my existence, in appearing good on paper to others, that those have become the words I hang on to.
I do this a lot. I draw up a list of things that will measure my worth, and the more I strive to define myself according to this list, the harder it becomes to hear better words, to see what is really life-giving, not just life-occupying.
And when this happens, I don't talk to God much, ashamed that once again I've sought my identity elsewhere. Not only do I get stuck on a not-so-merry-go-round of worry and self-doubt, I become hesitant, even fearful, to approach God's Word.
I've been gone so long, I think. I feel like I'm cheating when I return.
So I don't. I let the mentality of the prodigal son's older brother—the one who felt that the father's grace was unfair and inappropriate—direct my thinking. I see my brokenness and panic, knowing it's just the tip of the iceberg, that behind it is another list of all the ways I don't measure up.
I've always been a "good kid," with nary a rebellious bone in her body, but in terms of getting daunted by my failures and determining that God's love isn't sufficient to rescue or to provide, I'm a repeat offender—easily immobilized by the lie that God operates the same way I do, and ever distrusting of his truth.
The truth is that even though I avoid his love, God finds me anyway. In Lamentations, a book of grief, Jeremiah writes that the Lord's "mercies begin afresh each morning." That's how God gets me to look at him again. I see anew that despite my attempts to hide or push him out till I've "fixed myself," I've been taken care of. I made it to work on time despite waking up 30 minutes late. I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. A song on the radio captured my heartache and prayed it for me.
It's little stuff, but it breaks through. God reassures me through his daily mercies that my brokenness doesn't disqualify me from his love. He doesn't keep a list of my failures. He doesn't abandon me for not living up to expectations.
These realizations usually hit when I'm driving. My car is where I'm the most honest, where talking somehow comes easier as I watch the landscape pass. And after I've prayed and cried a lot (I'm sure I've concerned many a passing driver with my weeping), I hear it. Not a distinct voice, but words that rest on my heart: I know. I never left, even when you didn't know how to come to me.
When I get there, a fantastic mess, offering my list of failures, God makes me put the pen down. He points me to his words instead, which are always better than mine.
This week it was Psalm 116:7: "Let my soul be at rest again, for the LORD has been good to me." It was the indication of recurrence that caught me. I wondered if the writer of those words needed as much reminding as I do of God's goodness, if he was, like me, a perpetual prodigal child continually denying God's capacity to fill his soul and be his reality.
One of our household sayings is, "We all have something to work on." These days I feel as though I have a lot of somethings. It overwhelms me often. I freak out, shut down. But I can feel with each return that God is working to accomplish something in me. "Abide in Christ" is becoming my big something, the foremost item on an ironic to-do list, one that God is continually revamping to make it less of a list and more of a life.