I turned 40 today. Life has been too frenetic for me to give this milestone the reflection it deserves. But I did set aside one afternoon to give turning 40 some concentrated attention.
When I turned 30, I wrote a series of posts on the “30 most important truths I’ve ever learned.” As I look back on the list, some of the formative influences of the time are quite clear. I was deep in pastoral ministry, and had not yet considered returning to graduate school, which would ultimately lead me towards an academic vocation. I’ve learned so much since then, lived in very different places, and belonged to diverse communities. But despite the advanced educational opportunities and varied life experiences of the past decade, I find the majority of the list written by my 30 year old self to still be quite resonant.
So, instead of coming up with an all-new list, or negotiating which items should be replaced, I will simply add 10 new things that I’ve been learning during the past decade, to bring the total up to match my age. I’ve also included the original 30 below, with some comments. Enjoy!
The new 10:
1. True freedom is not the absence of limitations but embracing the right limitations – limitations that are liberating and life-giving. All of the best things in my life (my faith, my marriage, my children) place limits on me, and they also set me free. Somebody told me that your 20s is about learning what you can’t do and your thirties what you can’t do (or shouldn’t do). I’ve found that helpful.
2. “Your interpretation is your life.” The world is an ocean of meaning, and my boat is very small. To grow in knowledge is to be confronted by the depths of my ignorance, the non-reductive complexity of human experience, and the wisdom of the God who holds it together. But I can’t postpone living, and my interpretation is my life.
3. I am not as strong, or as wise, or as good as I think I am. I don’t set limits as well as I think I do. I don’t love people as well as I wish I did. This is not an excuse for my failures, but a reminder of how small my faith, work, and ability is – especially they are taken on their own.
4. A life of faith (or virtue or beauty) is not an individual achievement, but a community project. I need friends who are not impressed by me, but who love me. And I need the church because the story it (imperfectly) proclaims, sings, and embodies, is not a faith I triumphantly hold. Rather, it holds me.
5. I need a discipled imagination. The imagination, the human faculty that explores what is possible and orients towards what is desirable. My imagination will either be shaped by cynicism, fear, and despair, or faith, love, and hope.
6. My work is words. At some point I realized that this is my vocation, the common thread that binds together so many things. Writing is like praying. I don’t often feel like doing it. The things that make me want to write/pray feel too big for my brain, and too heavy for my heart. But if I make space and show up, God shows up too, and in ways that I did not expect.
7. So much of a well-ordered life is making space for what is most important and showing up.
8. My children are the source of my great joy and great fear. When they are flourishing, it doesn’t matter if everything else is going poorly. When they are struggling, it doesn’t matter if everything else is going well. I will never feel like I pray for them fluently and frequently enough. God’s grace exceeds my weakness.
9. My wife is even more amazing than I thought. Having discovered a vocation and flourished in a new career, she is a force to be reckoned with. God’s grace is new every morning, and for me it is experienced most tangibly in her loyal love and presence
10. Though every man be found a liar, Jesus Christ would still be found true.
The original 30 (with some comments in italics):
1. There is a deeper layer of reality than what can be observed by science or the senses. This is why we need art, literature, music, poetry and theology.
2. There is a God who we can know. At the deepest level of this deeper layer is a personal God, who we can know, because God speaks – God reaches over the gap and communicates to us in ways we can understand.
3. God speaks most clearly through Jesus Christ. This is who God is. When I think about God, I must start and stay with Jesus. This means that I interpret everything in the Word and in the world through the filter of the rabbi from Nazareth, the crucified-and-risen Jesus Christ.
[These first three still resonate so deeply for me.]
4. Jesus loves me, this I know. He showed his love by dying for me and rising again.
[and now I would add, “ascending to heaven and sending the Holy Spirit.” But I suppose that “death and resurrection” is synecdoche for the whole work of Christ]
5. God is love. For God to be love, God must be triune. If God is triune, then relationship is at the very heart of the universe.
6. Authentic faith is relational. It’s not primarily about believing the right things or performing the right rituals but right relationships with God and others.
7. Religion is an enemy of the gospel. It makes me believe that I am accepted because of what I do, how good I am, or how I compare to those around me. This invariably leads either to arrogance (if I succeed) or despair (if I fail).
[I definitely still agree with this, though I’d say this differently now; something like, “There is a world of difference between living by performance and living by grace.”]
8. The gospel is not a one-time vaccination but lifelong therapy. It is constantly rediscovering the truth that though I am more flawed than I could possibly imagine, I am more loved by God than I could possibly dream. This is simultaneously humbling and empowering.
[These last two show Keller’s influence.]
9. Idolatry is inevitable apart from God. When I turn away from God, I inevitably try to find someone or something else to give me what only God can give me: meaning, significance, purpose, joy, hope. Idolizing anything else destroys that thing, no matter how good it is in and of itself.
10. There’s a bigger story than my story. The world is not about me, and I am not the main character.
11. There is a difference between loving God and loving the idea of God. Loving God means accepting and submitting to God as he is, not as I imagine him to be.
12. Jesus is worth trusting. There is so much in this world that is mysterious and difficult to understand. There is much that I do not know. But Jesus has won my trust. And in the areas I don’t understand, I trust him.
13. Spiritual leadership flows out of knowing and following Jesus. This means that I must care for my own soul first before I can care for others.
14. As a pastor, I am called to equip and empower others for ministry.
15. Discipleship is not just teaching content but the sharing and impartation of life. It also means modeling and teaching people how to think, not merely telling them what to think.
16. Success is more than results: it is faithfulness, stewardship, servanthood and character formation.
17. The best motivation is grace, not guilt. Guilt alone has no value in creating life change. Rather than making people feel guilty about what they haven’t done, cast a vision of Christ and the joy of participating in his mission.
18. As a leader, my job is to shape the culture of the group I’m leading, not just to teach them important things.
[I think I still agree with this, while also feeling my limitations in shaping culture, and all the things that work against cultural transformation.]
19. The church is supposed to be a taste of God’s kingdom, a movement of healing and hope where the world can see what it looks like to live under the reign of God. This means that public justice is not optional, but rather the natural result of caring about what God cares about.
20. Life is about relationships and loving well is the goal.
21. Love in action is very different than love in dreams. Love is commitment, self-giving and sacrifice, not “warm fuzzies”.
22. Real life is found not in taking but in giving it away. The more willing you are to give yourself, the more you will find real life. There is a real cost, a real sacrifice, but the joy far surpasses the suffering.
23. Everyone is fighting a battle. Everyone is insecure; everyone is trying to justify themselves some way or another. It won’t work, and that’s why everyone needs the gospel. Knowing this makes people less intimidating, no matter how put together they might seem. It also leads to a response of compassion.
24. Character formation and transformation is the point of almost everything that happens to me. This is true in every story worth telling, including the story of my life. If the character doesn’t change, what is the point of the story? It also means that if I want to change my character, I have to change the story.
25. The small choices in life matter because they shape my character. Thoughts become words become actions become habits become character becomes destiny. This means that intentionality is key in every area of life.
26. You can’t live a life that is safe and a life that is brave at the same time.
[I wonder if I would say this differently now. It depends on how one defines “a life that is safe.” I want to affirm the beauty of ordinary life, ordinary obedience, doing small things. Sometimes bravery is required to keep showing up, resisting apathy and acedia.]
27. Prayer is one of the hardest things for me to do, but the most satisfying thing when I do it.
28. The best gift I can give to my kids is a great marriage. This means I focus on loving my wife well first and taking care of my kids second.
29. Taking care of my body is essential. Being healthy increases my capacity to enjoy life and to serve others.
[I haven’t done well with this during the pandemic. But this feels like something that I will need to take more and more seriously.]
30. It’s not how much you know but what you do with what you know that matters.