4 Things I’d Say To My 30 Year Old Self
At age thirty I had been in technology for nine years and fulltime ministry for just over a year. My wife and I had three little girls five and under. Now, approaching sixty, I can look back and see that half a lifetime can lead to some major changes of outlook, as well as some fortified perspectives.
My current profession informs the perspectives of “What I’d say to my 30-year-old-self.” As an organizational health consultant primarily working in the realm of churches and faith charities, I tend to take a holistic and long view of things. The first thing I would advise myself, three decades ago, is to…
Think Ahead, Looking Back
“But each one should be careful how he builds”. (1 Corinthians 3:10)
The apostle Paul’s advice closely parallels king Jehoshaphat’s opening line in a speech: “Consider carefully what you do.” One was discussing preparation for times of testing, and the other was realigning his nation to ancient principles after a nearly catastrophic test. Both sayings convey the importance of thinking through the implications of how we build our social systems, live our lives, and make important decisions.
One poorly managed step can derail years of earnest investment. This is true for church, family, and our personal lives. When I was thirty, I was quite naïve, thinking that people could triumph over setbacks by just getting back up. But some failures are more consequential, and so, best prevented.
I’ve asked younger folks, “If you were able to peer many years into the future, and you discovered that you were part of a great spiritual achievement, what are some things that you believe would have enabled you to get there?” This question can be enlivening and soul-searching.
When we “think ahead, looking back” we are being both aspirational and principled as we consider the upshot of important earlier decisions. Early on, my wife and I paid attention to the connections between choices and outcomes when it came to mentors (Hebrews 13:7). We were blessed by choosing mentors whose outcomes were admirable, and I’ve reaped the benefits in my marriage and grown children. Our daughters have made great choices in character, congregations, husbands, meaningful career paths, and ongoing learning.
On the other hand, I was not as wise as it pertained to church culture. I wish I had paid closer attention to the connection between leadership paradigms, methods, philosophies, and outcomes. I’d tell my thirty-year-old self to openly ask, “What will the upsides and downsides be later if we go in this direction?”
Accept That Suffering Is Underrated
“When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever”. (Proverbs 10:25)
During the summer of 2001, when I was forty-two years old, I was reading the book, Survival in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi, and became deeply troubled. Its 187 pages led me through the harrowing circumstances, abuses, and choices that the author experienced over a year in the infamous camp. I realized that I had never really suffered. Before I made it even halfway through the paperback that I had picked up in a used bookstore, I paused to reflect on my fortunate life, and I foolishly prayed, “Pulverize me, Lord. I want to know true suffering. Please do not hold back. Let me feel everything that others throughout the ages have felt. Please take me to the limit; only do not harm my family. And let me return.”
Less than two years later, that request began to be honoured, although clearly not on the level of suffering I had read about. A sudden firestorm struck my congregation, of which I was in a leading role. The upheaval lasted about four months and consisted of meetings in which rage was expressed, swarms of misinformation on social media, stalking, and unspeakable acts by one-time friends. In the end, I had lost dozens of close friends, had put on some weight, and become swollen. I began experiencing a dark depression. When the dust had settled, the size of the congregation had declined by about thirty percent. Many hidden things came into the light when the storm came.
My wife and I went on a five-week sabbatical of quietness, reading, and transformative contemplation. My decision-making algorithms drastically changed, heavily influenced by the book of Proverbs. The names of people I would trust, listen to, and let influence me changed considerably. And I felt like I had been rewired to be more assertive in getting ahead of challenges. In fact, I was strangely lured to other crises.
During that period, I learned of a new word coined by J.R.R. Tolkien: “eucatastrophe.” He added eu, a Greek prefix for “good,” to the word we already understand: catastrophe. He reserved this term for tales where a tragedy conceals a treasure—joy, then tears of sorrow, followed by even greater, tear-filled joy.
After all is said and done, I’d tell my 30-year-old self to be ready for prayers to actually be answered, and to not waste his suffering.
Avoid Formulaic and Quick-Fix Mentalities
“Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight”. (Proverbs 9:6)
My view of systematizing Christianity and its message has changed. During my twenties and early thirties, I was looking for the always-dependable silver bullet, such as the best method and techniques for reaching lost people. Over the decades, I’ve studied catechisms under different names: First Principles, Guarding the Gospel, The Alpha Course, and others. I even wrote my own. Over time, I came to see that formulaic approaches have their advantage but also their downsides.
It was easy to observe the downside of catechisms because they can turn salvation into CliffNotes and propagate errors by what they overemphasize and underemphasize. When the congregational crisis that I mentioned earlier occurred, many members came forward and confessed that they hadn’t read their Bibles for years; however, some of them had become proficient in the techniques of evangelism, discipling, and instructional material. It became evident that some members of my faith community had succumbed to a similar error that I saw in mainstream evangelicalism—reducing the message to “just believe this” and “do that” expressions. Over time, gospel jargon can become a substitute for a fresh examination of the Scriptures.
I’ve seen that formulaic Christian cultures also tend to be quick-fix oriented, and they address problems in the church in a style reminiscent of the games Bop-It and Whack-a-Mole. The risk of using symptoms-based approaches to address problems is that the underlying causes do not respond to being hammered.
I’d tell my thirty-year-old self to stick close to the source of the message and routinely look for the root cause of human behavioural issues—to walk in the way of insight.
Prepare for Good Endings
“The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride”. (Ecclesiastes 7:8)
Every one of us who does anything of value will eventually experience an unpleasant ordeal such as being fired, a severed relationship, being blackballed by part of a faith community, or systematic marginalization. Though I’ve never been fired, I’ve faced other difficult endings.
When inevitable endings become apparent, we will be forced to decide how we see them—for example, as a sign from God to move along, or signalling the need to pursue new opportunities and relationships. If we only see the injustice of how an ending interrupted our plans, we might become bitter and miss some of the spiritual benefits that are just around the corner.
In our early fifties, my wife and I were accused of something that we were completely cleared of two years later. But before the situation was entirely sorted out, I went back to graduate school to study conflict management. Throughout that period, it became increasingly clear that the unfortunate event had awakened me. The result was a reset of my vocational journey. Through prayer, advice, and contemplation, I resigned and launched a ministry to help churches and charities manage crisis, conflict, and change.
Between age thirty and the present day, I’ve experienced one distressing conclusion about every six years. I’m not sure what that says about me, my congregation, or my extended community. I wish I knew early on that relational and organizational disruptions can be purifying and beneficial. I’d tell my thirty-year-old self to be adaptable to inevitable unpleasant endings and focus on their possible positive meanings.
There are more things to say to my thirty-year-old-self. About the joys and sorrows that were to come, the surprises and dangers that lay ahead, and the enormity of the changes that would occur in the subsequent decades. But these perspectives about keeping a long view, grasping the value of suffering, pursuing a deeper understanding of spiritual matters, and the necessity of endings would be the most important.
In all ordeals, I would remind myself, to make sure I let Christ be formed in me (Galatians 4:19). Because if there’s anyone who has modelled these perspectives, it is Jesus Christ. The Hebrew writer even used a unique word to describe the ultimate forerunner. The Greek term archegos(Hebrews 2:10, 12:2-3) has been translated as originator, author, path-breaker, victor, leader, hero, trailblazer, pioneer, prince, and founding king. He alone always trusted in the ever-coming Father of surprises and plot twists.
Written By Steve Staten
Steve Staten is a consultant based in Chicago. His first book, The Art of Breakthrough: Collaborating on Audacious Undertakings, was released in December 2018.
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