"Nothing ever seems to work out for me." Good things that happen to others never take place in my life." "I just don't find it possible to stick to anything and find it truly meaningful." Discouraging statements like these are spilled out to counselors without end. Few people seem to find purpose today. This writing is about this kind of struggle. And the same basic problem underlies most experiences that create such cries.
Commitment has been a matter of personal concern for years. I have been aware of its implications and importance, yet many things have puzzled me. I want to share some of the aspects of this variable that are now clearer to me.
Although I have felt commitment has paramount importance, I guess I had no idea so many people were committed to nothing—indeed had never even thought about being committed to something. I have asked many people in recent years to describe what was really important in their lives. To my amazement, many have been unable to answer, or if they do, they stumble around and give only vague responses (a common response is "to be happy"). Yet to be able to give a firm and clear answer to this question is absolutely necessary for effective functioning in the world at present. Lack of specificity in commitment characterizes the "instant society" in which we live.
Commitment has supreme significance in my life when mental health is considered. I know of no variable included in a lifestyle more important than an adequate, healthy, goal which has become central to me—things that give life purpose and meaning— direction! The individual who is not committed, or is vague in his commitments, will be a person who wanders around in life with little direction or achievement. He characteristically moves from one person to another, from one career to another, and his neurosis is shared as unhappiness with his lack of accomplishment in anything or any relationship. It is impossible to be successful without commitment...to be stable in relationships or careers unless one is committed...to ever find meaning and purpose in life without a tenacity that is characterized by firm commitments to something.
This is true because commitment prevents disintegration in an individual's life. The problem with survival in a relationship, career or in anything I do in life is really not that which is outside of me. More often it's the movement of my inner strength and tenacity that enables me to endure, succeed, and conquer. For this reason, commitment to Jesus produces sweeping changes in the life of any individual who makes Him his object of commitment. The God of the universe dwells in me when I am committed to Him. Scripture describes this as becoming a new creation in Christ, with old things passing away and all things becoming new, 2 Corinthians 5:17. In another sense, it might be called the reorganizing of the core of my life; a reshaping of my heart and its desires. And with this reorganization, I am able to mold with new vigor the environment and directions I truly desire to pursue. I am no longer like the keys of a piano played upon by forces beyond me and my control.
Perhaps no psychological variable is more important to my overall health than commitment. What is of supreme importance to me will become the focus of my entire life. Conversely, the direction of my behavior usually tells the story of my true commitments. Consider the reasons for the significance of commitments. First let me say that a goal to be of highest value to my mental health must be both enduring (lasting) and of greatest value. It is possible to have enduring goals that will lead to the destruction of an individual. A lifelong goal of hedonism or self-gratification will surely lead to ultimate disintegration and ruin. On the other hand, a goal may be of value and not enduring. One can pursue a college or graduate education, but when that is achieved (if it is the chief goal of life), what then? One is back to square one or first base and must look for other goals. So let's agree that to be of ultimate value psychologically, that to which I am committed must be both enduring and of value.
What is it then that helps me function effectively psychologically, spiritually, and physically, when I have valued and enduring commitments?
First, there is a sense of direction and purpose for my life. At last, I know where I am going and can begin to move in that direction in increments.
Secondly, I begin to experience a sense of accomplishment which almost everyone agrees is important. Maslow speaks of this as "self-actualization", and places it at the top of his hierarchy of human needs when discussing ultimate psychological health. Surely this is to be desired as a Christian for the glory of God.
Thirdly, systematic and progressive movements toward these goals lessen stress in my life that relates to indecision, uncertainty, and poor self-concept. These conditions are often the products of no direction.
In the fourth place, being committed to something of value ensures my movement towards an efficiency of functioning in my walk with God, my ministry, my interpersonal relationships and my vocational pursuits (which are the ways I express myself to my environment). This, in turn, produces a healthy harmony in my life that moves me towards a place of honesty and fulfillment, purpose and meaning. Psychological health aids physical health and assists in long life and productivity.
I have wondered, incidentally, why people in helping professions are seldom ill? Could it be that their goals as true people helpers are more apt to be both of value and possessing endurance?
The matter of the future is sometimes important to people as they think of commitment. "I fear commitment because I am not really sure what the future holds for me." "Things could change so easily!" "What if this or that happens?" Thinking like this does not belong in the order of commitment. It simply doesn't fit! This is a call for passivity—just drifting with the stream—moving with passing events. It is like saying, "There is no purpose in committing because I'm just a victim anyway." But this kind of attitude, in reality, deprives an individual of inner stability and direction, as well as an opportunity to control the environment in a way that enables him to be where he would really like to be.
If I would like to have a successful relationship with a person, I might hope for that, try to have a relationship to see where it will lead, and even make a half-hearted effort if "all goes well". But if I never commit, when I experience problems, I will move away and begin to look for another relationship. Think of coming to God in that way and you think of something that assures failure in the life from the very beginning. I do not come to Him with the idea of seeing what it is like...being tentative in the sense of "if few difficulties arise perhaps I will be able to continue". Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn ME." Not "Come unto me and learn my benefits." "Yoke" is a word rich in meaning. It implies commitment to the Lordship of Jesus and in turn makes me an obedient servant and laborer with a will that is only HIS. This certainly rules out tentativeness in this commitment. We share His yoke. "Take my yoke!" Yoke implies submission. We are yoked together with Him through our commitment.
This is also true in the matter of interpersonal relationships. I have a desire for a relationship with a person. I get to know him deeply. I make a commitment to him and turn my life in his direction. Let me try to describe what it means to be committed.
1. This person or cause is supremely important in my life... almost a matter of life and death.
2. With an act of my will I make a commitment and the entire direction of my life is going to be turned toward it.
3. My inner life is reorganized at the core or heart to protect and enhance that commitment and fortify it against any enemy. 1 John 2:15-16 tells me not to love the world-system. I work to set my affections on things above, Colossians 3:1. It is ever in my mind and heart to protect that commitment to the Lord Jesus. So also with the person I am committed to...ever protecting, ever enhancing, doing nothing that would threaten or endanger that commitment to the beloved one. I even approach my career or ministry in this way. We live in a day when characteristically people are involved in multiple projects or careers and fail to give full effort to anything.
4. Honesty will characterize my inner and outer life in an effort to be- come transparent in my overall behavior and be consistent with my commitment.
5. I will hang on with all my strength and life. Winston Churchill once asked an enemy why an English bulldog's nose slanted backward. Upon receiving no answer, he stated, "Because when he gets hold of you, he never lets go, and he still has to breathe." Commitment is getting hold of something and never letting go.
To live life without commitments is like drifting in the wide ocean with no oar or compass. It is to only hope that somehow I will find that situation, that person that promises me love and esteem, that paradise that gives me purpose, that involvement that will enable me to develop and become all I can become instead of knowing only stark meaninglessness and stunted usefulness.
No one models commitment more clearly than the Apostle Paul. A zealous Ph.D. rabbi, he tenaciously studied the Scriptures. He kept the law carefully and meticulously. He persecuted the early church with zeal, giving his approval to the murder of Stephen. And when the Lord seized him on the road to Damascus, he became a bold zealot for Christ. Hear him speak in Philippians 3:13,14, "...forgetting those things which are behind, and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Is this not commitment? Is this not reorganization...the turning a life completely in the direction of not only a cause, but more preeminently, a PERSON?
It is important to consider that commitment usually implies long-term involvement...long movement in the same direction...not a "wait and see" attitude. A hesitant attitude only leads to the disintegration of the individual and true commitment. Such hesitance is the way to ensure no movement. One cannot ensure failure in a relationship more firmly. It will go nowhere if it lacks genuine positive commitment. There is no basis for working with ongoing everyday problems when one does not have the inner reorganization in the very heart of his person to make that relationship precious. Such a relationship is doomed when the newness wears off. It will assuredly fail. And those in such a relationship will stagger from one relationship to another experiencing their lack of success in relating, but never knowing why it's so bad.
In this "instant society", people tend to shun long commitments. There is a "tired look" at so much time being involved in the accomplishment of something worthwhile. Because of this, there is hesitance in working toward what could truly be of value; i.e., (1) a college education, (2) preparation for ministry, (3) a genuinely fulfilling career, (4) a loving and fulfilling relationship, or (5) the accomplishment of a ministry that would transform a region and significantly impact the world. This is reality...the passing of two years, the movement of three or four years into yesterday...these will speedily pass whether or not I commit myself to anything. And unless I am committed to something, they will simply become dead, wasted years like all my other "chunks of time".
Commitment involves a mental attitude and an act of one's volition. It is characteristic of commitment that one decides what is going to be his or what direction he is going to take.
Peter sat in my office struggling within himself to understand his personal commitments. He had achieved a place of leadership in his profession, but his life was in shambles. He brushed a tear as he sought to understand the direction of his life that had led him to such a place of misery. Commitments? Actually, he couldn't remember ever committing himself to anything. But there were unconscious commitments, and after struggling in silence for what seemed like hours, he burst into tears and exclaimed, "Pleasure and self-gratification are in reality my only commitments!" Then he wept profusely, but his heart seemed relieved. Peter is today committed to Christ and His ministry of discipleship.
Where are your commitments today? How committed are you to anything? Is only what brings you pleasure and self-gratification your true motivators? Are you "wishy-washy" and vague in what is truly important to you?
Many years ago, Gordon Allport wrote a little book entitled Becoming. In this brief homily, he coupled the concept of tentativeness with commitment. His basic proposition was that tentativeness needed to accompany commitment in order to help us not become encapsulated. Otherwise growth would be blocked. Developing his basic ideas, he talked of the "half-sure—whole-hearted" person. I both like and dislike this term. I could surely never say that commitments—my commitment to God, the Scriptures, my major goals in life—are from a "half-sure" vantage point. There was nothing "half-sure" about my coming to Jesus that night many years ago in the middle of the North Atlantic. I was a tired, helpless and seemingly hopeless young sailor with no goals, feeling doomed. I crawled to the feet of the Savior wanting only Him, the forgiveness of my sin, the cleansing of my wounds. Tentative? No—desperate! And needing to hook my life to something or Someone Who would give me hope and meaning. As a result of that commitment so many years ago, I KNOW Jesus! He lives! I could never doubt that. There is nothing tentative about that.
On the other hand, none of us want to feel trapped in a position where there is no room to think, rethink and grow. Human understanding is at best flawed and frayed. It would seem that tentativeness or openness does belong somewhere with commitment. Perhaps the concept of tentativeness should be replaced by "flexibility". Tentativeness does not seem to adequately relate to faith and hope. But flexibility can be consistent with growth and the allowing of adequate thought processes for further investigation and dealing with the unknown.
When commitment is not of supreme importance in an individual's life, the individual is usually characterized by tentativeness in what he does. And this is not commitment at all.
Consistent with growth and stability is commitment with the ability to make shifts and alterations as needed in the months and years that follow any commitment.
It would seem that I first turn my life in the direction of my chief desires—my dreams. I experience the reorganization of the core of my inner life as a result of these acts of my will or volition. My commitment dominates my thinking, and my way of thinking energizes my commitment. I allow nothing else to impinge upon that choice—that desire—that passion. I cultivate it, facilitate it, guard it! If I must ultimately reevaluate it, that in itself can only make commitment stronger. It is unlikely that commitment to something of real continuing value and enrichment will be shaken by a flexibility that allows rethinking and new ways to enhance and strengthen that commitment.
But I do not begin with tentative ideas that exclude FIRM commitments. That kind of commitment leads nowhere. That is nothing! Commitment, not tentativeness, is for the strong, the resolute, the courageous; for dreamers and acquirers, and achievers!
I would like to give two illustrations that describe what we have just been talking about. These are illustrations of tentative commitments as opposed to commitments with flexibility.
The first involves participation in a discipling ministry. Tentative commitments involve this kind of thinking.
"I know I should grow, learn how to study the Scriptures, witness and pray. I'm really very busy (who isn't), but perhaps I can work it into my busy schedule cluttered with my many other (tentative) commitments. So I'll try! I'm going to try to make it a part of my life."
The basic commitment in this instance is to tentativeness rather than discipleship. My prediction is that this person will become a dropout—someone who falls by the wayside. Why? Simply because there is no real commitment.
Then there is the person who is committed, but is able to integrate flexibility into his commitment. The following is an illustration of how he thinks.
"I want to grow, learn to share the Gospel, perfect my walk and pray effectively. I'm going to make room for this and invest enough time to make this productive. If it becomes too difficult for me, I'll make some adjustments or changes so I can continue. But I will do it. It will become part of my life." In this instance, the basic commitment is to discipleship, and to the Lordship of Jesus.
A final illustration of the principles of commitment and tentativeness is one relating to interpersonal relationships. Part of the bond that God recognizes in a living relationship relates to commitment. The partners are to leave father and mother and be committed to each other—"leaving and cleaving".
But if my commitment is one that is tentative commitment, it is more like "I'll try. Let's see if we like each other, can live together compatibly, handle resources mutually, get along with each other and our families, and stay in love. If we are successful, we will continue until we tire of things, and then, perhaps, if we must, go our separate ways."
Again, this is not a commitment to another person. It is only a commitment to tentativeness in a relationship, but not a commitment to a person. And there is no "reorganization at the core of one's life." Direction, and power to move in that direction, is lacking. There is little that will make the relationship work. Again, this is no commitment at all, and given time, erosion will set in and the relationship will surely fail.
On the other hand, commitment to love a person—to cleave to that person—to enhance the relationship with flexibility and tentativeness that will enable one to deal effectively with the unknown...yet always in the context of loving that person and being committed to them...this is COMMITMENT! It is commitment that will enable a relationship to grow and flourish. This reorganizes my inner life, and that reorganization is the secret of strength and wisdom in dealing with the unknown.
Words about commitment would be incomplete without something concerning the importance of commitment in relation to the full scope of my existence. Erikson has written extensively in the area of psychosocial development. His works are held in high regard in academic circles. He has suggested stages of development that are helpful in understanding problems that individuals face as they grow and experience life.
Following the period that relates to mid-life, which is almost always a struggle for adults in contemporary society, we approach a time he describes as "Integrity verses Despair". This is when an individual begins to look backward (not around as in mid-life) and attempts to see his life in terms of accomplishments. He says one will have a sense of integrity if he sees he has made a difference. If not, there can only be continuing despair. We psychologists will often encounter a person about to enter old age who is in a state of all-consuming depression. This has been called involutional melancholia and it is a depression specifically related to the despair of having made no difference in the world, and the awareness that it probably isn't ever going go be any different.
Of course, Christ and commitment to Him can make a difference at any age. But try to imagine what your life will be like twenty or thirty years from now with the same level of commitment that characterizes your present life. Will you feel positive about the impact and difference you have made?
Then think of Paul, the apostle. Listen to his words at the end of his life. "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith," 2 Timothy 4:7. Again, he could write the church at Thessalonica and say, "For who is our hope or joy or crown of exulting? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming?" 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20. Again in the book of Daniel, chapter 12 and verse 3 we read, "And those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever."
Being able to participate in these kinds of riches toward the later years of one's life speaks of the need of strong and early commitments. There will be a time in most of our lives when we will take a hard look backwards and review what is now unchangeable for all eternity. Will you be able to see solid relationships, trophies of grace, consistent growth and development toward being conformed to the image of God's dear Son? Or will it be a relaxed "laizze-faire" tentative approach to life that has produced a trail of nothing!
Someone once said..."To sow a thought is to reap an act. To sow an act is to reap a tendency. To sow a tendency is to reap a habit. To sow a habit is to reap a character. To sow a character is to reap a destiny." What I am committed to today will determine my tomorrows. Commitment to Jesus and His Lordship is the only valid action that assures integrity and joy in the future.
Emery Nester, Ed.D., Psychologist, Servant of the only true God, Jehovah.