Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised. James 1:12When I was younger, I used to go camping. Whenever we were ready to leave our campsite, we were always told, “Remember to leave the campsite better than when you found it.” It’s a good metaphor for life. If my life is a campsite, how do I want to leave it? To answer that, I must be aware of what my campsite looked like when I took over? What does your campsite look like? Many campsites are left with the legacy of alcoholism and addiction; disconnected and neglectful parents; and families filled with blame shifting, volatile arguments, and confrontation with no conflict resolution skills. We inherit buried burdens from the generations before us who could not deal with the harm that had been done to them. In other words, those who came before us lived in trashed campsites, and they left us with trashed campsites. Emotional and spiritual refuse reveals itself in feelings of unworthiness, self-condemnation, shame, despair, anxiety, and addictive behaviors, intense pain, loneliness and fear.
What are we going to do with our trashed campsites?
One choice is to continue to live in the trash, add to it, and dump even more disorder for the next camper. Imagine a campsite that’s been left by previous generations of campers who have not taken the responsibility of picking up their garbage. The following generations of campers then have the burden of picking up not only the trash they generate themselves, but of cleaning up piles of rubbish that were left for them as well. What a tremendous burden. It’s difficult enough to live life dealing with your own issues. How much harder it is when your issues are multiplied with generations of unhealthy emotional and spiritual problems left piled up untouched.
Another choice is to pick up the trash. My garbage, whether I choose to acknowledge it or not, affects others. It will become their legacy too if I don’t do something about it.
About two years ago, I made a conscious decision to start sorting through my trash and leave my campsite better than how I found it. I won’t get into all the details here, although I’m willing to talk with you individually about my journey. I will say, after some health scares, I realized that I did not want to live the second half of my life like the first. I hit a low point where I felt defeated, helpless, and unhappy. I no longer wanted to feel like I was a victim to other people’s poor decisions. I felt physically unhealthy. My coping mechanisms were not good. My spiritual life felt dry. I was dissatisfied with feeling dissatisfied. So, I decided to change – and approached it with a different strategy than I had previously. I found people who could support me and give me the tools to help me achieve my goals: a physical therapist, a mental therapist, a personal trainer, and a spiritual companion. I sought guidance on my nutrition. At first, the changes hurt. The progress was slow. I had a lot of trash to sort through.
In my journey, I found that progress through life’s garbage is not a linear, upward progression. It starts slow. After practice, I made a lot of initial progress. I got excited and built momentum for change. I threw lots of old trash away and began seeing the possibilities. I enjoyed living in my tidy, new campsite.
Imagine being in a campsite you enjoy. Everything is set up perfectly, just how you want it. One day you see the tip of a garbage bag coming out of the pristine ground you’ve improved. You tug on the bag to dislodge it, and realize there’s more garbage buried underground. No problem, you can get a shovel and dig it out, fill in the hole, and go back to enjoying your experience. But, when you start digging, you realize there is more than one bag. You are living on a landfill. Now what? You worked so hard to clean up your life, and now you find there’s even more work to be done. After all the expense, all the sacrifice, all the sweat you’ve poured into this project, just when you thought you were done, you realize it was just the beginning of the process.
Maybe you thought you had built your campsite on a high vista and could enjoy the view forever. Now, you realize you are living on a plateau. It’s not the exhilarating high point. It’s not the miserable low point. What you thought was the destination is really a mid-point – the levelling-off place in the journey.
Maybe you decide to start clearing the campsite of your life, and realize there are multiple levels of trash to sift through. You are now an archaeologist, excavating the past. For some, the thought of going through multiple layers of historical emotional garbage can feel discouraging – maybe even paralyzing. For others, it may be an opportunity to uncover some valuable hidden artifacts.
Before I put this campsite metaphor to rest, let me say one more thing. As we dig into the trash others have left for us and seek to leave our campsite better than we found it, we may be building more hills to climb in the process.
Any journey of improvement is not a linear progression where one success builds upon the next. Growth is more like a series of plateaus. We can experience radical improvement up to a certain plateau. Suddenly, we feel stalled. When we’re stalled on a plateau, we’re in a state of suspended animation—or even regression—for an indefinite time. It may feel like everyone else keeps climbing higher and higher, leaving us behind. How we handle those plateaus will determine whether we remain stalled there forever. It’s emotionally trying, and we’ll want to give up.
Here is the hardest part. When the work of self-improvement get’s tough, the temptation to go back to old habits and worn-out coping strategies comes right back. That nagging voice will seemingly come from out of nowhere and say, “This is not goings fast enough. For all this hard work, you feel a little worse than when you started. You do not have the humility and patience to hang in there. Just give up.”
Or, sometimes I will be tempted to overcome my discontent by sheer force of work. Certainly, if I focus obsessively on my goal and work even harder, I will feel better. But, then I overdo it and injure myself. Pretty soon I’m messed up with injuries, hobbling around but still obsessively overworking.
For me, the hardest temptation comes when I’ve experienced radical improvement, I reach a plateau, and I get comfortable there. I’ll talk myself into being content. That tempting voice will say, “You’ve worked so hard and come so far. You have finally arrived. Make a campsite and enjoy. Oh, and just forget about that little plastic bag sticking out of the ground over there. It’s nothing.” I will spend time clutching to and preserving what I have achieved. Life now becomes more about being afraid of losing what I’ve worked for.
Call them what you want, plateaus, temptations, trials, obstacles or opportunities … let’s realize that change by any name is difficult. Perseverance is difficult. Endurance is difficult. Yet, our New Testament scriptures consistently remind us to face trials with endurance, and to face temptation with stamina. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised (James 1:12). J. B. Phillips understood this as he paraphrased James 1:2-4: "When all kinds of trials crowd into your lives, my brothers (and sisters), don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they have come to test your endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men (and women) of mature character."
There are three things that prevent us from experiencing truth - our desires, our fears, and our opinions. I call it the voice of the tempter. No matter where we live, what we believe, or what period we are living in, we experience the same vexing limitations of the mind and spirit. The voice of the tempter I keep talking about – that’s not some external voice of evil. The tempter lives within us – our lusts, our fears, and our sense of the way things should be. It’s the voice of the patterns of behavior that long for security. It’s the part of us that longs for a world that’s real and permanent when life feels insecure and all too short. The voice of the tempter is the expression of the turbulent longings and fears that whisper to us, and the views and opinions that confine us.
The truth I’m continually learning is, we cannot always have what we want when we want it. And … that is not a bad thing. Just imagine everything we set out to do was completed right away. We would have nothing to aim for, no goals, and no reason to wake up in the morning. If we have something big and important that we want in our lives, we will have to be patient. And we will also need to be persistent.
One thing to remember here is to enjoy the journey, if you think a certain goal will bring you happiness and you struggle to find anything to be grateful for on the way, chances are when you finally get there you will still not feel satisfied. Only when a trend is followed continuously do the results of single actions gradually accumulate in such a way that they become good fortune or misfortune.
A path through a forest, worn by centuries of use, will grow over and return to the forest when nobody walks along it any more. A path becomes permanent with perseverance, whether for good or for bad.
Celebrate every small victory on route to your big goals. Be patient and persistent and you will get there in the end! And if you don’t get where you want, you’ve still accomplished something wonderful. You will leave a path for others to follow – hopefully one that reaches an enjoyable destination. You will leave a campsite that is better than how you left it. And those who come after you will be better off. After a lifetime of emotional endurance and hard work, their campsite will be even better than how you left it. And their children, after another generation of perseverance and courage, will leave it even better. This is how we make progress, and grow in maturity, and forge peaceful, compassionate people and societies. “When trials crowd into your lives, don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! They have come to test your endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men (and women) of mature character."