In college I read a book called Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper. I want to be clear from the start that this book, as well as several others by him, were pivotal in my development; in learning to be a disciple of Jesus. His ministry as a whole was food for my soul at a time I desperately needed it. But I’ve found over the years that there are two ideas in this book that I’ve ultimately found confusing, unhelpful, and even detrimental to my growth as a human being, and I’ve been trying to unlearn them.
In chapter three Piper gets very specific as to how one might waste his or her life, saying:
I will tell you what a tragedy is. I will show you how to waste your life. Consider a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader’s Digest, which tells about a couple who “took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.” (46)
At the time I read this book, I needed direction. I had just come back from college. A second year drop-out. Completely confused as to what the next step might be. I had just lost my love for playing the piano. The very thing I saw so interconnected with my future in every way.
Part of finding direction involved needing someone to tell me what wasn’t important in life. What not to live for. What not to do. Because there are so many options.
But I didn’t just need to know what not to do. Looking back, I’m realizing, reading Don’t Waste Your Life was helpful, but sort of in the way it’s helpful when someone tells you not to eat sugar. Okay, so what do I eat?
The second idea that most stuck with me was in chapter eight, “Making much of Christ from 8 to 5”. This chapter essentially made me feel like the greater purpose of my job, whatever I was doing, was to “spread the aroma of Christ” in my workplace. To put it more simply, to share the gospel with my co-workers. And if I wasn’t, I was wasting my job, and ultimately my life.
Waste, waste, waste. A lot of emphasis on not wasting.
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When Rachel or I are depressed, we will try and phrase things as positively as possible. We don’t just say, “Honey, you shouldn’t be depressed. Look at how much you have to be thankful for,” as though throwing dry leaves on a fire might extinguish it. Instead we’ll enter into one another’s misery, and try to re-direct thoughts from, “I don’t want to do this,” to “It’s okay if you don’t want to do this life-thing today. Let’s make some coffee.” And we’ll talk it through. Not just tell each other what we shouldn’t do. I used to scoff at this idea, but we’ve literally started saying, especially at the start of each day, “Today is going to be a great day!” And it actually has been helping. I don’t think it’s just wishing positivity into existence, or saying that bad things won’t happen. Because they do. Everyday. But rather, it’s a way of – in those especially vulnerable moments of the morning – shutting out the negative thoughts that rush in, and filling the mind with good things. “…whatever is true… whatever is pure, whatever is lovely… if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)
So where was I going with that? Oh, yes. I appreciate Piper’s desire to help lost and misguided people from wasting this good life. (Because it is so good!) But I find that the negative focus – don’t waste – tends to lead me to a spirit of thrift rather than overabundant generosity. Because there will be waste when one is overabundantly generous. You cannot both be calculated and wastefully generous, because you cannot calculate waste. And when I try, I simply get lost in the weeds. Maybe it’s just me.
So how can waste ever be good? At the simplest level, there are two kinds of physical waste, for example. Bad waste, which does not break down or decompose easily (trash in the garbage). And good waste, which does (such as compostable materials).
In the larger context of creation and nature, waste is good and necessary. Waste is what makes the world go ’round. For millennia, human and animal waste, for example, went back into the earth and decomposed. It became a part of the soil. The foundation, a rich soil bed for new life to germinate and grow.
Obviously, this is not what Piper is talking about. He is talking about wasting one’s life. But the reason I bring it up, and perhaps why I found it confusing is that I interpreted his book to imply that any kind of waste was, well, a waste. And that one should simply not waste. Waste, bad. Not waste, good. Simple math.
I think I’ve been so conditioned culturally to be thrifty. To not waste time, energy or money – because time is money, and conserved energy is saved time, and time is money – everything goes back to money. This has caused me, I think, to lose a sense of adventure when it comes to wasteful generosity. It’s easy to think in such a calculated way about the use of our resources, that we forget that all of creation and nature are always giving, never holding back, always ‘wasting’.
Flowers put out thousands of seeds, and only a small percentage germinate. Men put out millions of sperm, but only one gets the prize.
In other words, waste happens in such massive amounts in nature. And we are part of nature. So is it possible that waste in our lives can also be good?
I say a resounding, “Yes!” And I believe that to encourage people not to waste – while I understand Piper’s point – can perhaps lead to too narrow a view of what it could mean or look like for someone to follow Jesus. Especially someone who doesn’t fit into mainstream, western Christianity. It excludes people on the fringes of life and society, in my opinion.
Rather than saying, “How can I squeeze my life into this Jesus thing?” I’ve found a more helpful question to be, “How does Jesus, the light of the world, shine light onto all of life?” The former question implies a separation between sacred and secular, while the latter (to me, at least) helps me see all of life as sacred. All people as having potential to follow Jesus in their own, unique, God-given way. Because there is nothing hidden from the light.
I find the phrase “Waste your life” more helpful than “Don’t waste your life,” and I think Piper and I are both trying to communicate the same thing. Live for the truth. For what is good.
I believe the phrase “Waste your life” is actually an affirmation of life. That it affirms Jesus’ philosophy, that the only way to really live a full life – the only way to preserve and keep your life – is to not try and hold on to it. To let it go. To waste it. And that only those who waste their life – who lose their life – will find it.
Now to collect some shells.