My wife and I spent part of Monday at the Ventura County Fair. The fair grounds are adjacent to Ventura Beach and about a half a mile from the Ventura Pier, so after a few hours touring exhibit halls, looking at farm animals, and watching a pig race, we took a walk on the beach. As we walked, we passed several homeless people. Some were asking for money, others were sleeping under the palm trees, and still others were conversing with their friends. I felt something I often feel when I see homeless people: envy. No, I don’t envy everything about their condition, and I know that my envy is based on a superficial understanding of their condition. I envy their apparent carefree attitude.
Here is what I imagine it’s like: They don’t have to report to work or worry about a superior’s evaluation. The clock doesn’t control their lives. It doesn’t matter what time of day or what day of the week it is. The tasks they need to accomplish are simple. They are not obsessed with building a career or pleasing clients or producing a product. They are not burdened with social, family, or professional responsibilities. The expectations of others do not trouble their minds. They don’t seem to be worried about their appearance. The prospect of success or failure doesn’t shadow every move they make. Most enviable of all, I imagine that they do not experience this little voice inside their minds that never stops whispering, “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something? Have you fulfilled your responsibilities? What have you forgotten? Couldn’t you accomplish more? Have you done anything today that matters?”
Of course, I don’t really want to be homeless, and I would not trade places with them. I have what most people consider the marks of success: financial security, a job I love, good friends, professional respect, a wonderful family, a nice house, and reliable cars. And I don’t want to give these things up, and I don’t want to be irresponsible. And yet—here is why I am envious of the homeless–I have to admit that I have not learned how to deal with that anxious voice I mentioned above. It doesn’t want me to relax. It sets unrealistic expectations, and it keeps moving the bar. No matter how much I do and no matter how well I do it, the little voice is never satisfied. It never says, “That’s enough for today.”
Does anyone else experience the oppressive little voice? I’ve tried to deal with it by reasoning with it. I tell it that it expects the impossible. No human being can do every good thing imaginable and do it all perfectly! You need to find a healthy balance between work and recreation. “Good enough” is good enough! Things don’t have to be perfect to be effective. As reasonable and persuasive as these arguments sound, they are not completely effective in stilling the little voice…because the little voice doesn’t get its thoughts from reason, so it doesn’t listen attentively to reason. The little voice always finds a way to evade reason. It can always reply, “How do you know when you’ve done enough? Where is the “balance” between work and relaxation? When is it good enough?”
If reason and common sense fail to still the little voice, perhaps reason informed by faith can succeed? As a Christian thinker I am driven to explore the resources of my faith to deal with this problem, and I believe I find help there. But first we have to consider whether faith may actually contribute to the problem. What I mean is this. I am totally convinced by Paul’s argument that because of God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ we are accepted by God on the basis of our empty-handed and humble faith in Jesus. As far as I am aware, I am not trying to be good enough to earn God’s love and forgiveness. I know this is impossible.
But I do believe I am obligated to use my life, my energy, opportunities, my talents, and my time to do God’s work in the world. And the little voice won’t let me believe I am actually doing a good job of this. Perhaps, the little voice doesn’t accept Paul’s teaching that we are saved by faith and not by the works of the law. Or, it may fear that if I begin to think I am doing enough and doing it well enough, I will become proud and self-righteous. Or, it may think that if I relax I will become lazy and presumptuous.
In the coming weeks and months, I want to explore the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament for help with this problem—my problem. Here are some ideas that may be relevant: (1) We are responsible to God only for the assignments he gives us, and God does not give impossible assignments. (2) We may need to stop trying to evaluate ourselves. Instead, we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. We are not good judges of ourselves. (3) God does not depend on me (on us) to accomplish his will. God will not fail just because you forget something. (4) Don’t expect to see the final result and value of your work in this life. Leave that to God. (5) God gives us work to do on a daily basis. Don’t expect God to lay before you a detail plan for your life’s work. It’s amazing what new and unexpected opportunities arrive with no advanced notice!
Yes, I envy the homeless for the carefreeness. But their carefreeness seems to be the result of their abdication of all responsibility. And I don’t envy that. What I really want is a carefreeness based on trust in God’s grace and power, a carefreeness in work and recreation, in friendships, in the routine business of life, and above all in acts of love for others.
I’m looking forward to this series. Because I have the same problem. You’re right, it’s not a saved-by-works ethic, but, at least in my case, it is a desire to be worthy of the grace, opportunities, and gifts I’ve been given. It’s also subcultural received trait: the good old Protestant work ethic.
Yes. It’s really hard to articulate the difference. I’m not sure it’s possible to explain it to someone who has never experienced it. It’s like explaining an experience of a quality, a color or a taste for example, to someone who has not and cannot at present experience it for themselves. See you soon!
Hi. I just wanted to say thank you for writing this article. I’m a regular 34 year old woman with high earnings. I never got married because no one asked and therefore never bought a home, and live with a friend with no 9-5 job, but claim my earnings on my tax report. I don’t do drugs and I’ve been evaluated for mental problems with no serious problem. I’m a Christian as well and after reading your article, I had hoped god would reward you for fulfilling an assignment and helping clear up the question for me, why do people hate the homeless? To me there had to be a reason. Was it that they regret buying a home and therefore spend a majority of their time working? To me that sounded like envy, and I decided to google my question and this article showed up. I wanted to remind anyone who believes in God, that if we have time, the bible teaches us that the world is indeed trying to oppress us and how we can live without it. Thanks again for clearing that up, after I realized I wouldn’t be buying a home or getting a regular job, I started travelling the world, and suddenly my friends disappeared. It’s a very confusing situation to someone who hoped to have the same things as everyone else and had to live a different lifestyle.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Elizabeth. You are still young, and God still has plans for you! Everything we experience or don’t prepares us for fulfilling our unique task. You life probably already has blessed many and will bless many more. Blessings, Ron H
I think you are projecting something on to the homeless that doesn’t exist. And do you mean all homeless people or just the few that looked homeless to you and seemed carefree? Maybe you should go and sleep on the streets for 30 days and see how that feels or if that is too extreme, dig in and do some research. You might even consider volunteering at a shelter for homeless people.
Thanks for reading and responding to the essay. However I did not write this essay as a commentary on or analysis of homelessness; nor do I claim any insights into what it is like to be homeless. I simply reflected on what I felt as I observed superficially. So, you are correct in your assessment of my ignorance of homelessness. But your comments do not respond with approval or disapproval to the actual point of the essay. Perhaps I will in the future attempt to learn more about homelessness and homeless people…but that is not what I was doing in the summer of 2017 when I wrote this essay.