Our new neighbors are throwing us a welcome-to-the-neighborhood party.
Three hours in and I’m pinching myself a little, because everyone seems so kind and generous and, well, welcoming. But as the numbers start to thin, the most elderly man at the party steps forward and voices a complaint. He points out a problem: across the street, there is a small roundabout and, in recent months, the contractor who used to mow it has suddenly stopped doing so. The weeds are growing wild—it’s probably covered in poison ivy and poison oak—and it’s become a bit of an eyesore.
I figure this is where things will get real.
We’ll all start complaining about the state of the town or the person who quit doing their job, or we’ll debate whose property it is closest to and thus who should be responsible for mowing it. But mostly, I figure, after a lovely afternoon of conversation and community, we’re going to end it by complaining about the problems in the world. Instead, this gentleman stands among us and suggests, “I’m thinking we can all work together to take care of it.”
Now I’m pinching myself a lot.
Because it reminds me of the most common question I get asked in interviews: “What is the difference between the good life and the redemptive life?”
The Land of Milk and Honey
In the ancient scriptures, the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt, only to enter into a different kind of slavery: a long search for the good life. The Promised Land. The land of milk and honey. For forty years they wander the desert looking for it. Their leader, Moses, never makes it, dying on the doorstep of the Promised Land.
We’re all like Moses.
We’re all dying on the doorstep of the good life.
We’ve been sold a bill of goods. We’ve been told the whole point of this one-chance life is to find the good life. We’ve been told if we do all the right things, make all the right moves, utter all the right words, associate with all the right people, wear the right clothes, buy the right phone, go to the right schools, get the right job, live in the right neighborhood, invest in the right funds, attend the right church, vote for the right candidate, and select the right insurance company, we will arrive.
But here’s the big problem with the good life:
It does not and cannot exist.
The Promised Land always fails on its promise—the carrot of perfection and comfort and control and security always dangles just a little bit out of reach. Something always breaks. Mess always happens. Weeds grow wild in our lives and the people who were supposed to make them go away will eventually fail to make them do so. So, the effort to live the good life always devolves into complaint about what is broken and a lament about who should be fixing it.
But the redemptive life.
The redemptive life doesn’t say much at all.
It just rolls up its sleeves and goes about transforming the mess.
Something Worth Writing About
The gentleman offers to call a local agency, in order to locate power lines and ensure we can safely plant something deeply in the ground. Someone offers to eliminate the weeds. Two young men happily volunteer to run the heavy machinery. A family agrees to donate plants. Another family agrees to be in charge of ongoing maintenance and weeding. Everyone readily offers to play a role in redeeming this little piece of ground.
The whole thing takes about five minutes.
Someone looks at me and asks me how I want to contribute. I half-jokingly offer to write about the project and publicize it. The other half of me—the serious half—does go home and write about it. Because when a group of people quit searching for the Promised Land and decide to redeem the land they’re on?
Well, it’s worth writing about.
Dying So We Might Live
I don’t know about you but, most days, my life looks way more like a plot of weeds than a land of milk and honey. I’m constantly tempted to wonder what I’m doing wrong and what I should be doing differently. And then my ego rushes in to protect me from all my self-doubt, and it starts pointing fingers and complaining about everything and everyone standing in my way.
As if they’re the reason for my weeds.
But the truth is, weeds happen. Pain and sorrow and loss and grief and disappointment and bad luck and bad cards and bad news. We’re not here to eliminate the weeds for good; we’re here to do the good work of redeeming them.
Many of us spend our lives slowly dying at the edge of the good life. What if, instead, we chose to die to the good life? Today. And tomorrow. A thousand deaths—every morning when we wake up and the old temptation to search for the good life awakens with us. Could we die to it again today? And might we then, instead, roll up our sleeves and start redeeming the ground we’re on?
The redemptive life. It may not be the life we want. But it is the life we need.
And the good news is, it actually exists.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.