Long-haul flights in economy aren’t the best or the most comfortable. But one of the things that make it better are the tiny monitors built into the back of each seat: small screens that passengers can use to watch movies or TV shows, and sometimes play games.
Me? I use them to track the progress of the airplane.
If you press the right button, the little screen shows you a world map – and there, on that world map, is a white dotted line showing your flight path. A tiny airplane icon moves along that path, loosely following the path of your plane in real-time. In the corner, a timer indicates the time remaining until your final destination.
I focus on this screen with a fervor that borders on the religious, and I normally adore it. But recently, on our trip back from Italy, I was sick of watching the screen. Six hours and a screaming baby into an eleven-hour flight, and I didn’t think I could bear being on a plane any longer.
I decided to deal with the problem by sleeping. I’d just conk out and pass a few hours in comforting darkness. By the time I woke up, I figured, we’d be a lot closer. So I pinned my travel pillow between the window and my shoulder, threw a blanket over my head, and put on my sound-canceling headphones.
I slept! That’s no small miracle on a plane, where my “sleep” is more often a sort of fitful dozing accompanied by a constant ache in my back. But when I blinked awake this time I had actually drooled a little bit onto my travel pillow. Elated, I yanked the blanket off my hand and emerged back into the world. I felt rested and refreshed; I’d slept for ages. By my reckoning, I’d spent a good chunk of the trip fast asleep, and so I consulted the screen to see exactly just how much time had elapsed. I figured we were due to land soon.
Not so. The little airplane icon on the screen had barely moved, and the timer informed me that I had been asleep for all of twenty minutes.
It’s a horrible feeling, the sense of progress shattered by a reckoning with reality. I’ve experienced this sort of dissonance in my Christian life, too: the sense that I’m so far along in my walk with Christ followed by the disconcerting realization that I’ve barely moved at all.
I think most Christians experience these sorts of moments, at least when we give ourselves time to reflect on exactly what it is we’re doing and how we’re living. For me, that sinking feeling of I’ve-barely-moved-at-all hits when I contemplate any of the following questions:
To what degree do I live my daily life to express the love of Christ?
How much of my purposes, desires, and goals align with God’s purposes, desires, and goals?
How much do I want and pursue what God wants?
When I ask myself those questions, I always feel like the answers are going to be better than the last time. And sometimes they are. But they’re never what they should be, either. They’re never anywhere close to what I feel like they should be.
See, most of the time, I want to be like Enoch in the Bible: “So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Genesis 5:23-24). I want my life to be summarized that simply: I walked faithfully with God, and then God took me away. What a powerful statement, and so small. But my life isn’t like that. My life is more like this: I walked faithfully with God at times, especially when I felt I ought to walk faithfully with God, and then the rest of the time I didn’t, and sometimes I forgot.
Which stinks. It stinks, right? I don’t want that written about me. I don’t want it to be true. And yet it is. And it probably is for you, too, if you’re being honest with yourself. It’s a discouraging feeling. It’s the same sort of sinking I’m-going-to-be-stuck-here-forever feeling I felt on the plane when I realized I’d only napped for twenty minutes. Miserable.
Recently, though, it occurred to me that my discomfort with my own spiritual progress is a promising sign. And so is yours. Because that sense of “this isn’t enough and I want more” comes from the Holy Spirit. It’s a holy urge. It’s God talking. It means God’s communicating with you! This is what progress looks like. It doesn’t always come in the form of achievement or mastery, but rather an authentic understanding of where we are versus where we need to be.
The other options are perfection or silence. And perfection isn’t going to happen. Most of the stellar Christians that I know – the ones who seem to have it all down pat – they’re grappling with the same struggles I am. They may be farther along, but they know in their hearts they’re not far enough along, either. As far as silence goes, that can be an indication that you’re so far from God you can’t even hear Him. So when you feel that discomfort with where you are spiritually, that creeping knowledge that you should be so much better than this, acknowledge and embrace it.
It isn’t a condemnation; it’s an invitation.
We live in a world that values accomplishment. Finishing. Getting off the plane. And so it’s tempting for us to evaluate our lives that way: I did this, I did that, I finished this project, I completed that task. But our relationship with Christ isn’t something we’re ever going to master, nor be an expert at. No matter how much we grow or change, we’re still going to look up and say, “I know where I need to be, and this is not it.” That’s what perpetual growth in the Spirit looks like. What progress looks like. What the Holy Spirit looks like when it keeps restlessly pushing us forward into more and more of who God wants us to be.
So when you feel that disquiet, that sense that you should be so much better at this than you are, embrace it. It’s a sign that God is working in you and working on you, that He’s speaking to you and invested in growing and changing you. It’s an indicator of a malleable heart and a soul that can be honest with itself.
And that’s pretty hopeful.