Once upon a time, Michael and I went to Paris. It was hands-down the worst trip we’ve ever taken. It was hot and the city smelled like poo. The exchange rate was pretty terrible and, because we had very little money to actually spend in Paris, the cost of everything stressed me out. We don’t speak French but we were assured that everyone there speaks English (that is so not true.) We kept getting lost and taking the wrong buses. The Louvre was crazy-crowded and the Mona Lisa was so small. The food that we could afford was actually not that great. Most disappointingly, our credit card didn’t have whatever chip the European cards had, so we couldn’t use it in the machines that were set up all around the city to allow you to rent bicycles. Everyday, Michael looked longingly at all the lucky French people effortlessly riding bikes as we trudged around on foot.
I was pretty sad that our trip had turned out so badly. I mean, it’s Paris. Isn’t that supposed to be the place where two young-and-in-love people have the most romantic time of their lives? Before our trip I imagined that we would sit together in little cafes, holding hands, and basking in the fact that we were in Paris and in love. To say that the reality of our trip didn’t live up to my expectations would be an understatement.
I learned a couple of things from that experience– 1) For goodness sake, do a better job planning and preparing for your trip than I did. I am usually pretty good about these things, but for some reason with that trip I just didn’t do any research. I thought that getting to Paris and being there would be enough to ensure that we would have a fabulous time. 2) The reality of how things actually are is often radically different than how I expect them to be. If I had started the trip with a different expectation, I don’t think I would have been quite as disappointed.
In his sermon, The Struggle for Love*, Keller teaches on Genesis 29 which is the story of Jacob working for seven years in order to marry Rachel. Laban, Rachel’s father, is a crafty old guy and tricks Jacob into marrying his other daughter, Leah. Jacob actually marries Leah, goes to bed with her thinking she is Rachel, and doesn’t discover that it is Leah until morning. He’s understandably upset but agrees to work an additional seven years to marry Rachel.
There are a ton of things that Keller brings out in this sermon that I think about constantly, but the one that sticks with me the most is his refrain, “You go to bed with Rachel, but in the morning, it’s always Leah.” He uses that line over and over to explain why we are so often disappointed, not when we don’t get what we strive for, but when we do get what we’ve been working for. Getting married, having children, taking that vacation (ahem…), finally getting that promotion– we “go to bed” with them thinking that this particular thing is going to satisfy us… it’s finally going to meet our heart’s desires. But we are always, always disappointed when we wake up and find that it’s actually Leah. C.S. Lewis writes:
Most people if they really learn to look into their own heart would know that they do want and want acutely something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love or first think of some foreign country or first take up some subject that excites us are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning can ever really satisfy. I am not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or failures of holidays and so on. I’m speaking of the very best possible ones. There is always something we have grasped at. There’s always something in that first moment of longing but fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse. The scenery has been excellent. It turned out to be a good job. But it’s evaded us. In the morning it’s always Leah.
I think about this often because I know that I am tempted to focus on the temporal. I am so easily distracted by what is happening in my life at this exact moment that I forget that I wasn’t made for this world. I put my hopes in what I can see, instead of what I know to be true.
If things are going well and everyone around me is healthy and happy, I tend to dream and plan for the future. I imagine a comfortable life where I have all the right answers, everyone likes me, and I consistently make good decisions. If things are not going well and life is crumbling down around me, I tend to be fearful and turn to my familiar frenemies, Stress and Anxiety. I worry about every decision I make and forget what it means to trust God for my provision.
But thinking in eternal terms helps me keep my perspective. My job, my pursuits, my marriage– these are good, good things… but they aren’t ever going to fully satisfy me. They aren’t meant to. I am free to enjoy and rejoice in the Lord’s blessing on my life without elevating those things to a place that only Christ should occupy. I can hold things loosely and remind myself that my identity isn’t bound up in what I accomplish or how well things seem to be going. And when something is taken away from me, I may indeed be very sad and weep bitterly, but it won’t devastate me. As Michael has said to me countless times over the last 10 years: The most beautiful, amazing thing that could ever happen to me has already happened (I’ve been saved by Christ) and the saddest, most terrible thing that could happen isn’t ever going to happen (to be separated from Him forever). What comfort it is when I remind my soul of that truth.
I’m not sure that we will ever go to Paris again; there are other places I think I’d rather explore. But it was a good lesson for me. The Paris of my mind– the bright and shiny (and pleasant smelling) city that I spent months dreaming about– was in reality just another city. Paris isn’t supposed to exist solely in my mind or on a postcard. It is a place where people work and raise their babies and don’t have time or the inclination to help tourists. And that’s okay. Allowing things and people to exist as they are meant to exist (whether it’s your job, your spouse, or a long dreamed about vacation) means that our hearts aren’t getting unduly attached to them. The only thing that should completely capture my heart is Christ- and he’s the only thing that, in the end, won’t break it.
* There will be a day when I do not reference a Keller sermon in every single post I write, but today is not that day, I’m afraid. I am not very original so most of what is rattling around in my head comes from things I read or listen to. I figure I might as well give credit where it’s due.