It is a great consolation to me that God “is mindful that we are but dust.” (Ps 103:14 NASB).
Myself, however? I tend to live not only un-mindful of that, but in denial of it. We all prefer to pretend to ourselves that we’re something far more substantial, that we have it together—maybe there’s ups and downs and twists and turns in our stories, but at least we know where they’re going and we are making it happen. But it just ain’t so.
How dusty of us to live denial of our dustiness*
As modern (particularly Western) people we believe that we get to tell the stories of our own lives and we are given permission to shape so much of our sense of self. But this incredible opportunity is also an incredible burden. It is by our stories that we make sense of the world and meaning from our experiences—it’s what people have always been doing (Homo Narrans Narrandus Anne Foeret calls us). But this expectation that we can, by ourselves, tell a coherent story of our lives is both unreachable and unrealistic.
Still, we try. At the least we try to keep it coherent on the surface: to project an image of ourselves that we have it together. Deeper though we long for that certainty—a certainty that is entirely unachievable on our own. The everyday sufferings, whether crises or disappointments, reveal to us our inability to hold it all together within ourselves.
We have a deep desire for the sense of security that cohesion brings—that the centre would hold, when instead things fall apart.**
The reality is that sometimes your story breaks apart, and you can’t hold it together. Sometimes this is on the surface, and your curated image needs to be carefully patched over, but sometimes it is in the deep places. Perhaps it’s in your relationships, your vocation, your body, your mental health, or all of them all together at once. Perhaps it’s a crisis moment that causes the fracturing, or perhaps it’s the long wearying process that breaks you down—perhaps through seasons of deconstruction or disorientation.
However you end up with your story in pieces, I want to say that the problem is not so much the weakness, it’s the living in denial of it.
Scripture offers us words of lament and of hope, allowing us to speak of this to our God.
Listen, God! Please, pay attention!Psalm 5:1-3 (The Message paraphrase)
Can you make sense of these ramblings,
my groans and cries?
King-God, I need your help.
you’ll hear me at it again.
I lay out the pieces of my life
on your altar
and watch for fire to descend.”
In my own season of disorientation I have often been thinking of the formlessness of Genesis 1:2, where darkness was over the surface of the deep, but the Spirit was hovering. That void doesn’t look promising, but where the Spirit broods, a space becomes pregnant with possibility—possibility that only emerges from the abundant creativity of God, possibilities far beyond and far better than what I might create for myself.
Oh that we would know that the Spirit is hovering over the unformed chaos of our lives.
The presence of God is always present, offering us the pattern of heaven that signals the renewal of any moment, and the reordering of the most chaotic environments. Every moment, every action, every thought, every problem contains the renewal potential of remaking them according to the pattern of heaven—of remaking our broken stories into something far better.
To enter into this, we need to surrender our urge to write our own stories—our supposed “right” to do so, even—and that is no easy task. But our own efforts are revealed as meagre and unstable when we try to navigate the deep fracturing of our lives.
To close, here’s a song to sit with: In Time, John Lucas retells Ecclesiastes 3 and brings deep comfort with this chorus. (You can listen on YouTube here)
“And I don’t know the end, or tomorrow’s storyJohn Lucas, Time
But I have found the one who gives me rest
And I will make my bed in His promises
For He holds true when nothing’s left”
* I like using this word “dustiness” rather than “flesh,” because “flesh” gets easily confused with bodies and we can end up thinking that God has something against bodies altogether. In the New Testament “flesh” (sarx, σὰρξ) refers to the corrupted brokenness of our humanity by which sin leads to rebellion, suffering, and death.
** Yes, I’m thinking of Yeats’ poem The Second Coming (here). This phrasing continues to resonate in modern literature; I’m not sure if Eugene Peterson was thinking of it in his paraphrase of Isaiah 33:5, but I like it.