Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wanting to want to

This past week, we lost a wonderful friend and mentor, Bob Martin. Some of you may have known him. For those who didn't, I'll try to sum up this amazing man in a few sentences before going on to share something I learned from him.

Bob was the most genuinely humble person I've ever known. Despite being a highly educated theology professor, he allowed no one to call him by anything but his first name. He cared for people actively and insightfully, especially for people who might easily be passed over. He made you feel like you were doing him a favor by letting him minister to you. He had many successful ministries as a preacher and professor, but his greatest legacy was the personal faith that he exhibited and the beautiful relationship he had with Mary Lou, his wife of 59 years.

Bob retired from teaching in his late 70's, but he never retired from ministry. Even after their retirement, Bob and Mary Lou helped revive a small rural church and supported many missionaries, including us. They repeatedly invited us to come and stay with them in North Carolina, and I am ever so glad we had the chance to do that last winter. Staying in their home was like being in a different dimension; every activity, from cooking green beans to watching the nightly news, seemed bathed in grace, and I felt like I was walking with living legends.

I only took one class with Bob at Johnson Bible College, a three-week summer school course on the Gospel of John that met every morning from 8-11. I don't remember much of anything that Bob said about the book of John; it was his rabbit trails that were the most memorable. Out of all the things I've heard or read on the theology unanswered prayer, none has impacted me more deeply or been recalled so frequently as the story Bob told about the death of his four-year-old granddaughter after a long battle with aplastic anemia. You can talk theology all you want, but there is nothing that strengthens the faith like seeing someone who has been through a valley and can be completely honest about what they don't understand, yet their faith is still strong.

But I can only say so much about what another person's struggle has meant to me, so I'll move on to share one more simple but deep lesson I learned in Bob's class, one that I had always felt to be true but was never able to articulate. Bob once told us that he was convinced that the problem of not living up to the standards that God has set for the Christian life is not an issue of people wanting to live a holy life but not being able to. Rather, the problem is that our desire to love God more, to serve more faithfully, or to live more purely, is not truly a desire to do these things, but a desire to be the kind of person who wants to do these things.

"I want to want to do the right thing," Bob said, "but I if I could ever get past the point where I want to want to, and arrive at the point where I truly want to, then I believe that I would."

The simple honesty of that statement has always astounded me. Because isn't that exactly what it's like when we struggle with sin or with apathy in our relationship with God? I find myself praying things like, "God, keep me from doing this again," or "Help me to love you more." And the very reason that I pray these things is because I know I do not really want to stop sinning; if I really wanted to, if I felt that the benefits of living a holy life were superior to the benefits of sinning, I probably would have stopped already. And passion for God increases with the natural progression of faith as we go through trials and let go of our own control over our lives, but who really wants to go through that process when we could just pray directly for the end result?

One time when this was especially relevant for me was during those confusing years when I was scoping out the missionary idea. I am SO not the kind of person who becomes a missionary. I hate the outdoors, and I have practically zero experience with personal evangelism. But God planted the thought in my head, and I felt obligated to give it a fair hearing. I was pretty sure what it was all about, though; I kind of thought it was an Abraham thing. You know how Abraham had his knife out and was ready to shiv Isaac, but God sent that angel to say, "Ok! You passed! I can tell you're serious. Now put the knife down." Well, I figured this was what God had in mind for me. If I could just get to the point where I could honestly say that I was ready to go on the mission field, I knew God would say, "Wonderful! Since you're so willing to give up everything and follow me, here's a surprise: you can stay exactly where you are!"

The problem was that being willing meant being willing even if I didn't get that last minute reprieve, because God is excellent at calling people's bluffs. So I spent years going through the motions of being a missionary inquirer without actually wanting to be a missionary. But there must have been some grace at work along the way, because for once in my life, wanting to want to actually turned into wanting to. It's like how C.S. Lewis says that the best way to become a good person is by pretending to be a good person. Well, apparently the best way to develop a heart for missions is by pretending to have one.

Even after going on our internship in Tanzania, I still didn't truly want to go back. Months later, Tim and I were sitting in our cinder block apartment in Knoxville, trying to decide where to go from there. We knew that we didn't want to be staying in that apartment and living off of tips from Red Lobster forever, and it was time to choose between getting real jobs and buying a house or signing our lives away to PBT. And and that point I'm not sure I even wanted to want to. But we both knew one thing by this time, something I had inadvertently learned in my years of stringing recruiters along: we were born to do this. We could do something else, and maybe God would even accept it as a consolation effort, but we would always wonder what would have happened if we'd said yes.

So we sent Scott Graves an e-mail that he'd been waiting for for about five years, and we signed our lives away. And somehow from that point on, I experienced something new. I wanted to go. And it's a good thing, because I don't think I could get through the humbling experience of raising support or the rigor of grad school or the heart-break of preparing to leave my family on the fumes of wanting to want to.

I wish I knew if there was a cohesive point to all this. Maybe it's that we need to be honest about where we are on the wanting to want to vs. wanting to continuum, because there really is a possibility of getting from one side to the other, but it's so easy to deceive ourselves into thinking we're already at the point of truly wanting to. Maybe it's that we don't have to wait until we truly want to before stepping out of the boat, that faith can follow action, or that the action itself is the best kind of faith.

I'm not sure. It will be a long time before I have anything worth saying in a theology class, if ever. But one thing I learned from Bob is that you can put an idea out there for people even if you don't have all the answers. That sometimes we learn a lot just from hearing one another's thoughts and finding out that we have the same questions.


  1. that's a very interesting lesson to learn. the c.s. lewis quote reminds me of the book "a little princess" (which I will go to the grave insisting every person should read); even when sara didn't have all the luxuries she used to enjoy, she continued to pretend she was a princess and it showed in her attitude and selfless deeds. indeed, she was a princess just by pretending to be one.

  2. I used the Abraham comparison last week when a friend who is considering missions asked me how I manage thinking about moving, leaving, etc. How I do it is to not think about it often, which may not be the best coping mechanism. Admittedly I sometimes still only want to want to. We have to do this because we know we're made for it, like you said, and if we didn't we'd always wonder "what if." But if God let me off the hook right now--a negative way to see it--and said I passed and can go back to normal life as previously envisioned, I think I'd be totally fine with that.
    -Lori H.