In Arthurian legend, certain people devoted their lives to the great quest for the Holy Grail. They sacrificed their bodies, purified their hearts, and gladly renounced all they had—for what? To gain a glimpse of the ultimate symbol of communion with Christ. Of course, this quest was about more than the momentary sight of a relic. It was about the pursuit of union with God. It was the pursuit of life in the kingdom of God, the kingdom of which Camelot itself was only a faint echo.
This pursuit was not a casual undertaking. It demanded—indeed, largely consisted of—preparation of the spirit. This quest could only be fulfilled by someone who was humble and true and pure in heart. As one version expresses it, “On the sole condition of leading a life of purity in thought, word, and deed.”
However, no matter how difficult the task, no true knight questioned whether it was worth the cost. This was the Quest, beside which all others—conquering great enemies or gathering great wealth or building great kingdoms—paled in comparison. This was, to use one of Jesus’ metaphors, the “pearl of great price,” for which any rational person would joyfully give up everything.
In our time, the great quest is for a “balanced lifestyle.” Ask most people in American society today what they are after, and they will say something about the need for balance. The Merlins of our day are time management consultants; books of incantations have been replaced by Day-Timers.
Even so, balance is not the Holy Grail. A balanced lifestyle is not an adequate goal to which to devote our lives. The problem with that goal is not that it is too difficult, but that it is too slight. Balance is not the most helpful paradigm for an ideal life.
The quest for balance can contribute to a tendency to compartmentalize our faith. Often a balanced life is pictured as a pie chart with life divided into seven or eight slices, one labeled “financial,” another “vocational,” and so on, with one of the slices reserved for “spiritual.” This paradigm encourages us to think of matters such as finances or work as “nonspiritual activities.” It blinds us to the fact that God is intensely interested in our every moment and activity.
Another problem with the goal of balance is that it doesn’t allow much room for people in desperate situations—those in crisis or the poor or the oppressed. What does it mean to tell someone with a terminal disease or a street person or a single mother with a physically challenged child that she needs “more balance”?
“Balance” tends to carry with it the notion that we are trying to make our lives more manageable, more convenient, more pleasant. After all, we ultimately decide for ourselves what balance looks like. On a vacation we discovered the world’s greatest peach cobbler at a restaurant called Bob Evans, and we spent the rest of our trip looking for Bob Evans three or four times a day. We decided that for that week a balanced life looked like this:
At a deeper level, the paradigm of balance simply doesn’t capture the sense of compelling urgency worthy of human devotion. It is largely a middle-class pursuit. It lacks the notion that my life is to be given to something bigger than myself.
As George Bernard Shaw said,
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
The quest for balance lacks the notion that life is to be given to something bigger than ourselves. It lacks the call to sacrifice and self-denial—the wild, risky, costly, adventurous abandon of following Jesus. Ask hungry children in Somalia if they want to help you achieve balance, and you will discover that they were hoping for something more from you. And I believe that, deep down, you are probably hoping for something more from yourself.
So is God. Jesus never said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and lead a balanced life.” He said to follow him. He wants us to do what he would do if he were in our place.
Ortberg, John. 2009. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Check out the new Bible Study, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. It is available on Amazon, as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. (Like Netflix for Bible lessons.)