Those thirty words from Dr. Mulholland explain decades of my life.
I had been in full-time ministry for about eleven years when I crashed into a wall. I had expended a lot of energy trying to be in the world for God, and I was utterly depleted. The invitation at hand, about which I both felt fear and longing, was to allow everything to be pruned except learning to live my life in God and to submit any results of my existence in this world to the steadfastly loving Father of Jesus rather than to the work roles I had engaged in for God’s sake for so long.
So, I am remarkably well-acquainted with the first half of Mulholland’s statement (the well-intentioned but misguided living in the world for God), and my hope is to spend the rest of my life as an experiment in the second part (living in God for the world). My experience of going underground and of learning to stay planted for the long haul has given me occasional, small tastes of what “in God for the world” means. The central lesson perhaps seems obvious but in practice is very counter-intuitive: arranging our lives to be lived fully in God is the only way that we can become carriers of the incomparable gift of God’s grace to the world.
To make this a bit more practical: I need solitude (aloneness with God) in order to be able to genuinely encounter others and love them well, rather than unconsciously seeking to manipulate them for my own satisfaction. I need silence (quietness with God) in order to be able to recognize when the words I say to another person are coming from an honest, open, loving place within me or when they are trying to impress, cajole, or otherwise control the person to whom I say them. I need to learn all of the seemingly unproductive practices of cooperating with grace, because a lifetime and lifestyle of staying planted through them is the only way that any fruit from my life will be a grace-result and not my own counterfeit production.
This is every bit as true, practical, and applicable for bankers, teachers, movie stars, janitors, lawyers, business leaders, students, pastors, aid workers, and politicians as it is for monks and retreat leaders. Grace is lavishly available in each of our lives, as well as sufficient time for us to cooperate with it. We have to be intentional about looking for the opportunities for these kinds of grace-cooperating practices, and we must be vigilant not to waste those opportunities as they are naturally given to us. For the sake of the world (including spouses, parents, or children living within our own homes as well as refugees and sex-trafficking victims on the other side of the globe), it is imperative that we learn to live in God and allow grace to have its maximum impact on us so that the grace-parched world around us can find some relief.
The tricky thing about all of this is that it is so easy for me to deceive myself. I can talk myself into thinking that I am living in God for the world and therefore becoming an agent of God’s grace, when my motivations are really coming from many things other than God’s life and love. So I end up spreading my own sickness while convincing myself I’ve been doing a lot of things in the world for God. I don’t think Mulholland’s words will ever cease to be a challenging reminder for me. God is not interested in you or me doing things in the world for anyone’s sake (not even God’s own), but we are given the incomprehensibly good invitation to draw our lives from God so that we can become whatever kind of benefit for the world that God determines.*
* This reflection on Dr. Mulholland's words is adapted from my book, Grace That Grows: A Method of Thought, Life, and Love for All Christians.