Living in the Gray
As I reflect on this previous year, I am struck by a constant theme I saw in a lot of the work I did with clients. When people have experienced years of abuse, unhealthy relationships, darkness, and relentless anxiety...they tend to make sense of it all by reducing it to small, bite-size statements of fact or truth. The struggle to make sense of a chaotic, broken world can lead us to making conclusions that are simple...cut and dry...and in the end, lead to much more confusion and struggle.
There is a danger when we see the world in such black-and-white/all-or-nothing terms. We miss the story that is being woven by a God who sees us in process...a God who came to live in the ‘gray’ that we inhabit every day.
All-or-nothing/black-and-white thinking is likely a response to our feeling out of control. In an attempt to simplify our environment (the one thing we can control the least in most situations) we label things, people, words, scenarios, etc. into neatly separated categories - “good and bad” - “right and wrong” - “acceptable and unacceptable” - “comfortable and uncomfortable” - etc. And typically, once we start down the road - we begin to hold our ground and believe something to be completely what we have labeled it. It’s either black or white, and it’s either all black or all white, or nothing.
This allows us more certainty in our minds. I may not be able to control that which I have labeled as other or bad... but at least I can write it off...not think about it...pick it apart...judge it. It frees us from the gnawing sensation of unresolved conflict. For at least a brief moment - our world feels within our control again.
Intellectually, we know the problem with this - we were never in control to begin with, and this division of the world into neat categories really only exists in our minds. But when we are surrounded by like-minded people who also see the world in similar categories, we can allow this to go unchallenged. And then it starts to feel true.
I want to be careful to not sound like a relativist - I do believe that there is absolute truth, and I believe it is found wholly in Scripture. But I find myself unwilling or resistant to enter into the narrative of advent fully - wanting instead to quantify it in all-or-nothing/black-and-white thinking terms.
Consider the world into which Jesus was born. Waiting on a savior, waiting to be rescued from oppressive foreign rule, those in Jerusalem wanted the warrior to arrive and free them physically. And yet, the Magi showed up to the house and found a baby. Those who were given a front row seat may have even been able to say “ok...sure...this is the future savior, he’s going to grow up into this warrior…we’ll just wait...” And then they see Jesus - walking around as an adult, sharing confusing parables, healing people, talking about dying, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey...not exactly what we thought he was going to grow up to be…
The story of advent challenges our all-or-nothing/black-and-white thinking because it pushes us to consider what is happening in the gray. The pharisees wanted to live in the black-and-white. They wanted Jesus to give them definitive categories because they wanted to be proved right in their religious thinking.
How often to I rely on this black-and-white/all-or-nothing thinking to provide me comfort? I want Jesus to tell me I’m right. I don’t want to bend my understanding of the world to see a savior lying in a cattle stall. I want a certainty that relies more on my way of seeing than on who Jesus says he is. When the doubt creeps in, if I’m not careful, I can dig my heels in.
I can look at the reality of a God who put on flesh and demand that he look more like the warrior I thought he would be. Instead of responding like the shepherds or Magi did, I can stay away from Bethlehem...I can hold on to my false sense of control.
The mystery of advent is that Jesus creeps into this thinking, challenging it...but not leaving us without an answer. He is this certainty we crave. And I’m beginning to see how much living in the gray allows me to challenge every other distraction guaranteeing me certainty in this world.
The reality of the world we live in is that nothing is really all that black and white. And the more we are willing to walk in the gray, the more I think we will find our savior in the stable. It is paradoxical and feels like we would be heading for more uncertainty. But like the shepherds or the Magi following the star, may we realize the ultimate light we crave is not upward, but lying in a manger. May we focus this advent season on inhabiting the gray in the way Jesus came to inhabit this world.