From a prisoner to a watchman

“We have therefore, in the power of God, a look-out, a door, a hope; and even in this world we have the possibility of following the narrow path and of taking each simple little step with a “despair which has its own consolation” (Luther). The prisoner becomes a watchman. Bound to his post as firmly as a prisoner in his cell, he watches for the dawning of the day.” – Karl Barth

A lot of people move to D.C. to make an impact. Whether it is through research or advocacy, in the government or a non-profit organization, we are involved in the “change business.” We want to eradicate poverty, end human trafficking, and ensure equal access to water, education and healthcare for all. We take pride in the purpose and meaning of our work, but if you talk to any of us, you will recognize the disappointment, frustration and fatigue in our voice too. It is not uncommon for an idealist to turn into a cynic.

You can be cynical about everything, if you think about it. Those of us privileged with high education have the natural knack to question the progress, impact and potential of any plan or program.  We are critical of people’s competence and motivation too. The Oxford Dictionary defines a cynic as someone who “questions whether something good will happen or whether it is worthwhile.” Will victims of genocide ever recover and heal from trauma? Can government officials be trusted to use the foreign aid properly? Will we ever find solutions to the challenges of the refugee crisis and terrorism? It is not hard to understand why change agents burn out and lose heart.

Bertrand Russell has famously said, “The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.” There is something very right and profound about recognizing the limits of human capacity and the pervasiveness of sin. It is good and important to have realistic and sober expectations. After all, you can only keep your smiles on for so long if you run on the fuel of false hopes or an inflated view of human capacity to direct the course of history. There will be mistakes, failures and setbacks in the process of change – it is only wise to make some allowance for them. But does that justify hardening your heart to the possibility of change?

The problem of cynicism is that it often masquerades as wisdom. Soren Kierkegaard describes it well: “there is a shrewdness which, almost with pride, presumes to have special elemental knowledge of the shabby side of existence that finally everything ends in wretchedness.” The seductive power of cynicism lies in its allure of cleverness. It offers a kind of security from what Stephen Colbert calls “a self-imposed blindness” and “rejection of the world that will hurt or disappoint us.”(He’s so much more than a hilarious comedian!) I am not arguing for naiveté or even optimism. But I do think that Christians ought to look beyond the tragedies and wretchedness of this world to the promise and hope of receiving the pure gift of New Jerusalem. We just don’t know in full how the Spirit works all things together.  If we really believe that God is present and active, and that He will bring New Heavens and New Earth, we can labor to serve the Kingdom even if our efforts might not bring the final consummation.  We can make a difference without having to save the world. We can bear the pain of loving the world without giving in to defeat and paralysis. We can be brave, and take the risk of being disheartened, and learn something along the way.

I recently transitioned from campus ministry to international development. In my work on green growth and poverty reduction, I feel very privileged to see God’s heart to restore all things in more concrete details. I know the greenhouse gases will not vanish from the atmosphere because of the op-eds, videos, workshops and grant applications I helped to produce, but I trust that these small steps will lead to some mitigation and adaptation measures in some countries. We might never find evidence or resolution for a lot of the moving pieces, but I am very encouraged by the productive dialogues we have with government, and the economic models that are becoming more sophisticated and useful. We do not have absolute control over how long-lasting our impact will be, but we can focus on this season that is entrusted to us and let God surprise us. When I was in campus ministry, I knew I could not solve my students’ problems or force their growth. But I celebrated every moment when someone started to love the Word, when he or she prayed for humility, when relationships reconciled, when communities cried with those who mourned. That was exceedingly beautiful to me, because I saw the power of God made perfect in our weaknesses. Similarly, even though I know that New Jerusalem will not result from incremental gains of human efforts, I believe we can start walking towards it, in whichever policy space we are in and celebrate the victories that God wrought in his power and might.

Whether a glass is half full or half empty depends a lot on a person’s temperament, but it also depends on the discipline of the heart to choose hope over cynicism. I hope the grace of God will reorient us from being prisoners to watchmen, waiting for Him with joy, humility and hope, and that this blog will be a feast of the foretastes of the Kingdom, and a net catching glimpses of shalom.

Ivy graduated from Princeton with a B.A. in Public and International Affairs in 2011. She is interested in learning about vocation/calling, politics of religion, sustainable cities, poverty, and whatever inspires her to start a new research project. (Yes she gets a tad bit too excited about too many things!) 

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