When you get old, one of two things is likely to happen. Permit me to qualify this bald statement (and baldness is, I suppose, also a possibility for getting old) before I even quite proffer it: I am projecting out a bit, I am making assumptions about the aging process that I expect to be true, but as I am not quite old or bald just yet, I cannot say with absolute certainty. Still, as I get older and older, as we all do, it seems to me that what I am about to assert is truer and truer, or at least more and more likely to prove to be true. But what precisely is my assertion?
It is simply this: you will either look back on your life with admiration for what you’ve accomplished or you will look back on your life with appreciation of what God has accomplished through you. Put in more human terms, you will either vaunt how you blazed a successful career, garnering the respect of others for your vast accomplishments, or conversely you will wish to be known merely as someone who chiefly cared about others, whose professional “success” or hobbies (e.g., having been a literary dilettante, animal lover, opera buff, sports enthusiast or even an epicure) pale in comparison to your attention to the lives of those around you. In other words, you will either feel proud of yourself or, instead, grateful for what God has done in your life, not in some mystical or deeply religious fashion but rather borne out of an outlook of humble gratitude and thankfulness.
Now it is probably not that simple, someone might argue, and they might well be right. But I’m not talking about all the nuances here, nor am I suggesting that a professionally prolific person can’t be positively winsome or thoughtful. Rather, I’m suggesting that when one looks—rather I should say you look back—on your life, you will either be in Camp A, in which you deem great the things you feel that God has done or Camp B, in which you are proud of the things you more or less feel you did yourself. If you see God’s hand in the professional accomplishments, well, that would put you in Camp A. But if you feel, as I think most people do, “Hey, look at what I did! It takes a lot of hard work to amass this kind of record,” or something like that, you are heading for, if you’re not already in, Camp B.
Now Camp B might be, I think, where many people want to be anyhow. They feel that they have every right to be proud. I have a friend like that. He tells me that God is the best story that anyone ever made up and that religion’s basic function is to control people. As he soliloquizes on this topic (and he does so quite often), he regularly pits science against a paper-tiger form of religion, and he makes sure that that tiger is vanquished before, of course, anyone might get in a word in edgewise. In fact, I think he engages in a strange kind of scientific conspiracy theory. He thinks that religion and those who “peddle” it are out to debunk science. He is rightfully proud of his accomplishments—he moved up in his company to the second or third highest level—and headed off into retirement with a giant nest egg, so he tells me.
Well, in his defense, there are many a peddler of religion these days—that can’t be disputed. One only need turn on the television to find a disingenuously grinning televangelist who, with teeth agleam, will gladly take your money “to sustain his ministry,” I recently heard one say; “we only stay on the air through the donations of the faithful.” He did not say, “… by the grace of God” or “… by the favor of the Almighty” but “… by the donations of viewers like you.” Not like me, I’m afraid. I sent him no money. I suspect, the ever-needy televangelist might just be in Camp B, with an even finer camp lot than the proud friend of the previous paragraph, and not even realize it.
Now getting back to your retirement home, which turns out to be a campground. You can be a happy camper, I suppose, in either Camp A or Camp B, so I am not writing about which is the happier camp. I am not suggesting that the proud person is miserable. Quite the contrary: he or she might well be happier than someone from Camp A, who sees very little benefit to what they have done in this life, feels that they did not glorify God the way they should have. I was speaking to an A-camper just yesterday who humbly (but unwisely, I think) was comparing himself to another Christian who had adopted children and, my friend said, “sacrificed time, talent, and treasure to do so” (though one can’t really sacrifice talent—one just uses it—and I can aver that he has used his). He felt, by comparison, he had done very little for humanity. I assured him that it was merely a matter of harkening to the unique calling each one of us has, and not everyone is called to adopt children.
Now a resident of the B-camp is not likely to experience this kind of melancholy, however misplaced it may have been for my friend from Camp A. Camper B is likely to compare himself favorably to that person, to say, “Well, that’s nice, but I did X, Y, or Z.” Indeed, I’ve known many a B-camper, and I’ll wager so have you, and that is precisely what he or she will say to you in common conversation. More worryingly, that is also what he or she is likely to say to himself as he reflects on his life sitting on his folding chair in Camp B. And, downright frighteningly, this is likely to be the speech he is preparing to present before God upon death: “Look, God, at all my fine works. Haven’t I been quite a good person?”
Yet Camper A knows this is a sorry plea and a mean hope, even though every true camper in the A-camp also recognizes that he himself has personally accomplished so very little. But he or she also knows God has made the little bit that has been done, even if it hasn’t been impeccable and the evidence of lasting success is not perfectly manifest in it, count, and more than count. Not by our sweat but by His very blood and tears, God, whom we rightly call Immanuel, has made it honorable, dignified, worthwhile, and beyond worthwhile: God has made it worthy of His kingdom.
And that is where I will stop, for I have not yet tottered into my retirement campground just yet. I expect that I have still a few years to go before that day comes. But when it does, save me a slender lot in Campground A where I can look back on God’s dignifying of my lackluster “best effort,” His straightening of my ways, His righting of my wrongs. Hope to see you there.