Confession: I’m not the best at identifying my emotions. Turns out that most people don’t consider hungry or tired as actual human emotions even though those are often my answers to the question, “How are you feeling?”
So in an effort to grow in identifying and experiencing my emotions, I once downloaded a helpful emotion wheel to give me language for actual human emotions. And someone suggested that if there’s an emotion that isn’t truly captured on that emotion wheel, to identify that emotion and give it a name.
I had deep and intense emotions hovering around my workplace at the time: general despair, dread, and lack of joy due to feeling like a hamster on a wheel, lack of leadership, and a task list that would never, ever get to a manageable length. So I named that emotion trabajoplessness. It’s a mix of trabajo, which is the Spanish word for work, and hopelessness. That specificity allowed me to express that emotion, process it, and realize that I needed to find other work.
Naming and defining anything that has not yet been named and defined is a powerful component of the creative process. These two verbs —naming and defining—allow creatives to grab hold of nebulous ideas and thoughts and give them shape and boundaries. A ball of clay is just a ball of clay with a lot of potential until a potter decides they are making a mug and not a vase.
After my dad’s wrongful death lawsuit, I was contemplating a lot of ideas and thoughts that were hovering around something nebulous in the middle. (Full backstory here.) And I named and defined that something in the middle Christian obscurity: the practice of living an inconspicuous life while also living fully known to God. With that name and definition, we can continue exploring and explaining the definitions within the definition.
Let’s break this definition into four parts:
- The practice
- Of living an inconspicuous life
- While also
- Living fully known to God
(If this looks like a sentence about to be diagrammed, you’re not wrong. And if all the naming and defining and English class words make you twitchy, sorry, not sorry? You’ve landed on a grammar and writing nerd’s website.)
Tucked into the dictionary definition of practice are the notions of habits, customs, and pursuit of mastery. Doctors practice medicine. Lawyers practice the law. Yogis practice yoga. Writing, for me, is a daily practice of getting words out of my head and into my computer. In these practices, there’s (hopefully) a humility that comes with being a learner and a beginner even when one has been practicing for a lifetime. There’s always something new to learn and explore.
Christian obscurity is a practice for us throughout our lifetimes. The practice starts small and builds over years and decades. Our practice changes with our seasons of life. We continue to feel like beginners even when others tell us that we are masters. Paul tells Timothy that he himself is the chief—the foremost—of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) and says in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I am doing; for I am not practicing what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate.” He says quite a bit in the following verses about the sin that dwells within him, his flesh, his struggle to do what is good. And Paul wrote these things deep into his years of ministry! He’s articulating that he has not yet mastered walking with the Lord even though he is leading others in doing the same thing.
Of living an inconspicuous life…
Both Peter and Paul write about quiet, simple, tranquil lives, both internal and external:
“But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to excel even more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we instructed you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” (1 Thess. 4:10b-12)
“First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made in behalf of all people, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Tim. 2:1-2)
“Your adornment must not be merely external … but it should be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.” (1 Pet. 3:3-4)
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.” (Rom. 12:18)
When I envision an inconspicuous life, it’s ordinary to one’s time and place. In ancient Israel, an ordinary life was farming the Promised Land and shepherding flocks out in the wilderness. Today, an ordinary life in America has an infinite number of configurations. Mine happens to look like sending my kid off to school, writing and studying most of the day, making dinner, walking the dog, and keeping a tidy enough, clean enough house.
Our lives are unknown to nearly 100% of the world. Our lives are unknown to nearly 100% of our communities. (Here’s the math.) But we get to be known by some people, and that’s where the good stuff happens. To be clear, we’re not hiding from the world. We’re not hiding our sin and messiness. We’re choosing where to be wholeheartedly all-in and to let our vulnerability be seen.
Sense the transition. And the tension. We are intentionally choosing how and where and by whom we will be known in this world, and we are choosing to be known by God. We are choosing how much of ourselves to give to the world and to others while also allowing God to know us and see us and pursue us.
Living fully known to God…
Here’s the piece of Christian obscurity that is tricky. God is omniscient and knows everything there is to know about the universe he created. That includes us. All of us. Our bodies. Our minds. Our hearts. Our souls. And for a time (at least, speaking for myself) he lets us grow up believing that everything there is to know about ourselves is all there is to know about ourselves.
Until one day (or maybe over an entire decade) we wake up and everything that was working is not. And God invites us to understand the world from his perspective. He invites us to see our own selves from his perspective. And it turns out, he knows a lot more about us than a) we realized and b) than we know about ourselves.
But this (hopefully) doesn’t scare us off because in the midst those invitations, he is showing us how much he deeply loves us, knows us, and sees us. And we say yes to living fully known to God even when we don’t fully know ourselves. We settle into a spiritual journey with him, and in his timing, God peels back the layers of who he created us to be, who we are right now, and why we think, act, and feel the way we do.
Bringing it back together…
My hope with this essay, as well for this entire blog, is to give a name to what the Christian life looks like, define it, and begin exploring it. Christian obscurity—the practice of living an inconspicuous life while also living fully known to God—has many implications for our spiritual journeys, our relationships, and our time on this earth. I’m just scratching the surface in this essay to whet our appetites for what’s ahead!