by Gayle D. Beebe, Ph.D., President
I grew up in a church my parents started in 1951 with two other lay couples. In that congregation, those who committed their life to Christ or confessed faith publicly were put under the care of an elder. My elder instructed me to read a Proverb and five Psalms every day during my first year as a disciple of Christ. This tradition has stayed with me and has become a great source of wisdom and guidance.
In Proverbs, life goes well for those who pursue wisdom and poorly for those who are foolish or pursue evil. God intends to teach us that being obedient to him helps us achieve relationships that allow us to succeed and that disobedience leads us into relationships that ultimately bring about failure. Proverbs is about the dynamic of human nature coming to terms with itself, facing temptation and responding to God. It reveals a moral order in life.
Christ often spoke in parables, and when the disciples asked him why, he said he wants people who have the capacity for discernment to come to a deeper understanding. The parables help us shift our perspective to see the ways of God as we live in the world.
When I was a seminary student at Princeton, I heard Lesslie Newbigin deliver the lectures that became the book “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.” He used the terms “plausibility structure” and “structures of meaning” to describe how we put our life together so we can understand it. He wants Christians to develop a Christian outlook in the way we become fluent in a second language, so we can think as Christians without translating in our minds. He wants us to be bilingual, fluent and deeply imbedded in our culture with a Christian outlook informed by Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. The moral orientation of Proverbs and the perceptual reorientation of the parables can help us understand our life with God in this bilingual way.
A recent book, “Triumphs of Experience” by George Vaillant, offers great insights about life. Vaillant directs a project at Harvard University that started in the late 1930s, when researchers selected 268 undergraduates to follow over the course of their lives. Initially, the study pinpointed personal attributes that predict a successful life: superior achievement, good physical and mental health, happy marriages and strong personal relationships. The key question that has since emerged: What contributes to a life lived well? The answer is the capacity to come to terms with life’s great regrets.
Evagrius of Pontus, a church father who lived in the fourth century and developed the Eight Deadly Thoughts, believed that temptation and misbehavior begin when we think about them and let them take root in our mind. He taught that melancholy and depression result from our inability to come to terms with life’s great regrets, when we think our life hasn’t mattered. They build up in our soul when we lose confidence in the goodness of the world. This usually happens when our experiences don’t match our expectations, especially when something we hoped would happen turns out to be an utter disaster, and our deepest longings and best, strongest desires are thwarted. How do we recover from that? How do we respond?
Evagrius calls us to wisdom and discernment. Like the Proverbs and the great saints of the church, he says one of the keys to finding a meaningful life is recognizing that we have a contribution to make to the betterment of the world. As we consider how we can make an impact, we must use wisdom and discernment as we look into the possibilities and begin to find the place that will matter most for each of us. A meaningful life helps us deal with regrets.
I spoke recently with one of our sophomores, who is involved in Potter’s Clay and travels nearly once a month to Ensenada to get ready for the week-long trip during spring break. I was struck by the joy on his face as he talked about how much he loves his work with Potter’s Clay. Acts of service are one of the key ways we begin to understand the contributions we can make to life and participate in God’s ways in the world.
Underneath the busyness of Westmont’s culture is a longing to make a contribution that truly counts. Wisdom arises from recognizing that the way we spend our life matters. When we make good, honorable choices, they will bring joy not only to us, but gladness to God. I believe that contentment, wisdom and discernment result when we see ourselves in relationships that matter with immediate and extended families, personal friends, work associates or neighbors. We get feedback from these relationships that helps us realize we’re making a contribution, that we can survive adversity and setbacks, and that we have a support structure in place that will count when life turns out differently than we expect.
The book of Proverbs gives us a moral orientation to a life that will matter. The parables help us understand how we can look at the same reality differently. With this perceptual orientation we can see our life and relationships in a new way and learn to anchor our life to God and recognize his control in our life and the way he wants to lead us into a life of meaning and purpose.