By Patrick L. Mitchell
We all play what I call the “better game.” We spend too much time fantasizing about something “better,” though deep down we know it rarely, if ever, truly is better.
We pay for the next better, move cities to find the next better, cheat on a spouse to experience the next better . . . and it’s almost always to our detriment, for there is no satisfying this psychological sasquatch.
Church hopping is a large-scale manifestation of this desire, and Southerners—of which I am one—are especially skilled in this “game.”
The perfect church is out there, and I’m going to find it. It will be the one where worship transports me to Heaven and the pastor preaches a strong, theologically rich sermon with hilarious stories, poignant illustrations, and priceless application, all in 30 minutes or less.
I carried that mentality—this quest for better—into my graduate education and professional career.
It’s a reason we’ve moved 11 times in seven years of marriage; sometimes we moved within the same city (but my wife still counts those as moves). Strange that I always felt “called” to great cities like Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Savannah, Georgia. My graduate transcript was a registrar’s worst nightmare.
After all my searching and our gypsy-like moving, we ended up in daggum Bluff City, Tennessee. (You have to use daggum in sentences that mention Bluff City.) And, by the way, it’s a very generous use of the word City, because that daggum place has a population of only 1,664.
But there we were: my wife, our two toddlers, a chocolate lab, and me.
Through the years, I went from megachurch to megachurch in search of “better” and ended up most satisfied pastorally and professionally serving a church in this small, out-of-the-way town. It’s not to say great fulfillment can’t be found in a large church. But my concept of success was so distorted that I could find it only in a smaller context where the gravitational pull of “better” was not so great.
A Humbling in the Hills
At Bunker Hill Christian Church (no relation to the battle) in Bluff City, nobody was waiting to be “wowed.” People wanted to be loved, and “love people” was one thing I’d never done in a church staff role to that point. No, I needed an audience with whom to share my penetrating insights into the Bible. Loving people seemed mostly inconvenient. So, I got off to a slow start in Bluff City. But I grew . . . almost imperceptibly. At Bunker Hill I experienced kind, patient, gracious women and men who had seen the worst life has to offer and despite that—or because of it—they were willing to bear with someone as green and idealistic as me.
That season was refining, for it exposed the prideful dross that covered every inch of me . . . pride that kept me from living a Hebrews 11 life and would keep me from dying a Hebrews 11 death.
Even when I thought I was seeking God’s kingdom first, I was very much at home here on this earth. I was all about the tangible, measurable, and quantifiable. I had been discipled in the ways of the business-model church.
From childhood to adulthood, the next achievement—next girl, church, city . . . the next better—was supposed to make me feel like I’d arrived.
I came to realize that, fundamentally, these all were things I could manipulate. All I had to do was say, “Well, God’s calling me to California. God’s calling me to St. Louis. God’s calling me to break up with you” (best/worst line ever).
Faith Moves Forward
It doesn’t take faith to manipulate. It takes faith to live and move toward that which you do not control.
“For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
There’s only one truly better city, better scenario, better anything. It’s the city of God.
There is a future that will be fashioned only by faithfulness in the moment. God the architect has the plans drawn up. But he is also the builder. So, what’s our part?
It might sound like this conclusion to Hebrews 11:
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect (Hebrews 11:32-40).
What better epithet could you ask for than verse 38?“The world was not worthy of them.”
That will be said only of a person who has lived for a better world. If I were to die today, it would not be said of me.
So, like the folks in the text, I can’t sit idly by and merely dream of the better place.
Get Your Head Out of the Clouds
A pastor friend said something I can’t shake: “Keep your eyes fixed on Heaven, but get your head out of the clouds.” I translated it to my context this way: “Stop being a critic without bringing a contribution.” I’d made a living doing that. (The pay is terrible, by the way.)
I now ask God to do something with my imagination other than have it be an idol factory that spawns discontentment and petty thoughts. I want to bloom where I’m planted, as those flowery journals at Target quip.
But part of a spiritual journey is smashing face-first into the transcendent reality that the lasting satisfaction and fulfillment we seek won’t be found this side of forever. It won’t happen. No matter what.
That realization should be great fodder for the fire of exhausting all resources in this life on the journey toward what matters most. (And it probably won’t involve Facebook fights or Twitter mudslinging contests.)
I have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources, and this is what and who God has put in front of me right now. So, I’m going to make the most and best of my life right now—and by faith it will produce a better life and death.
With my eyes on Heaven and head out of the clouds, I’m going to cultivate the ground in which I’m planted to see the fruit God wants to grow in me and through me, for my good, the good of those around me, and for his glory.
After serving in a variety of church ministry roles for the last 12 years, Patrick L. Mitchell now serves as an administrator at The Habersham School, a classical and Christian school in Savannah, Georgia. He has been married to Lindsey for 13 years, and they have four children: Ben, Nora Jane, Caroline, and Addie.