A Letter to Myself, Age 23

Tomorrow marks another trip around the sun for me. This time I’ll be twenty-four years old. That’s kind of a cool number: 24 hours in a day, 24 elders before Christ’s throne (Rev. 4:4)—and growing up, Jeff Gordon was my favorite NASCAR driver in his #24 DuPont Chevrolet.

As I thought back on the past year, I realized how much I’ve experienced, how much I’ve learned, and how far I’ve come. I’ll be honest: Age 23 was a tough, trying year. I asked myself questions I never thought I’d ask because I felt things I never thought I’d feel. (Welcome to the real world.)

But I came through the darkness back into the light. I am in a much better state of mind as the meter rolls over once again. And I’d like to think I learned some things along the way.

As a way of recollecting, I decided to write my 23-year-old self a letter. It’s the letter I probably wouldn’t have expected at the time, yet it contains everything I would need to know to get through this rough patch of life.

And instead of journaling it and tucking it away to get musty on a shelf, I am writing it publicly in the hopes that perhaps it will help you, too.

Without further ado, here it is.

Dear Matthew,

Congratulations on everything you’ve accomplished so far. You’ve worked so hard to be where you are today, and now you’re starting to enjoy the fruits of your labor after all these years. Having a job and a stable income, with some spending money to boot, is a birthday present all on its own!

For your birthday, I want to give you something more important than money, and that is wisdom. Not just any wisdom, but some lessons I’ve learned that you’ll do well to keep in mind as you go through this next year.

You see, for better or for worse, you’re about to enter what is going to be the darkest time of your life so far. I don’t mean to scare you, but I’m not going to sugar-coat it, either. I know you’d rather have someone tell it to you straight. I know—I do, too.

But you’re not going to go into this blindly. I’m not going to tell you everything that you’re going to experience, but I am going to tell you what I’ve learned after coming out on the other side. This is by no means the ultimate guide to life, but I think it’s the guide you’re going to need for this season that God’s about to allow you to be in.

The first thing you’re going to feel is a sense of helplessness. Even though you’re well-off financially, you’re going to feel that your life—your career, your future—is out of your control. You’re going to feel like someone else—a man, The Man—is running your life. You’re going to feel trapped in a job you don’t want to be in, doing things you don’t want to be doing. And being the independent-minded individual you are, you’re not going to like that feeling. You’re not going to like it at all.

As a result of this helplessness, you’re going to start feeling that God has abandoned you. You’re going to call out to Him—cry out to Him on many an occasion—and you’re not going to hear an answer. It’s going to make you question your life and your faith up to this point. You’re going to start to wonder whether He led you to a stream of water that’s suddenly dried up—and now He’s nowhere to be found.

To quote a Styx song, you are going to feel like a man in the wilderness.

The good news is, there’s hope—both in this life and in the next. You confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and that guarantees you eternal life with him. Just remember that one day, all this pain is going to be washed away, and he will dry every tear from every eye.

“That’s great to know,” you’re going to say, “but I’m still living in my earthly body! I’m dealing with problems in this life, not the afterlife!”

And you’re right. So let me offer you what I’ve learned from the wilderness so that you can survive it, too.

First, the question is not whether God has abandoned you, but whether you have abandoned Him. I’m not going to speculate—you know where you need some work. Start by getting on your knees and rededicating yourself to Him. Do this daily, every morning right when you get out of bed. He wants to be number one in your life, so put Him first—and don’t even have anything else on the list.

Second, understand that life is full of pain and suffering. You don’t need to look very far to see this. It’s a result of The Fall, of sin entering the world and corrupting God’s very good creation. Until Christ returns and sets things right, this is a fact of life.

Along that line, don’t try to find some deep meaning in life except for God. Nothing else will satisfy. It might fill you up for a bit and make you feel good inside, but before long it will leave you feeling empty and depressed—longing for more, for something else. The wisest man in the world said so himself: “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!”

But that same wisest man also said that to fear God and keep His commandments is the end of all things. In other words, that’s the meaning of life—of every life, including yours. Fear God and keep His commandments. This is the duty of all mankind.

Outside of that—listen to your emotions. If you feel strongly about something in your heart, pay attention to whatever it is. Especially if you feel it in your solar plexus—what one might call your “heart of hearts”.

But be sure to use some logic and reason before you go off and make a decision based on emotions alone. You could make a serious mistake and derail your life—your job, your career, your future—for years to come.

The exception is a “gut feeling”. If you feel something deep in the pit of your stomach, regardless of what it is, follow that instinct. It’s the strangest thing, but you’ve got to do it.

Now, aside from that, you need to strive for optimization in all four aspects of your life: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Being sick or out-of-shape in one will start to affect the others, and your whole well-being will deteriorate.

Exercise consistently. You don’t have to work out every day; two or three times a week will do. But be sure to push yourself so you can become stronger. Don’t stagnate—that’s a great way to become mediocre in any aspect of your life. And the neat thing about working out is that it stimulates the other aspects of your life. It’s also a natural stress-reliever!

Do things that mentally stimulate you. Read books—you enjoy doing that anyway, so carve out time to read. But be sure to read books that you enjoy, or that edify you in some way. If you don’t like book, stop reading it! There’s no law that says you have to finish it!

Oh, and keep your German skills sharp. You never know when they may come in handy. In fact, consider working on another language in your spare time. You’ve wanted to pick up some French—maybe even Koine Greek or Ancient Hebrew—so why not start now? There’s no better time than today.

In terms of emotions, one of the most powerful things you can do is to choose to be a glass-half-full person. Yes, you can choose to be positive. The lenses that you wear determine how you perceive the world. And you live in a vibrant, colorful, bountiful world that God has given mankind dominion over! Celebrate that! Celebrate life every day! Celebrate all the possibilities that you have!

Also, surround yourself with positive people as much as possible. That’s not to say that you should cut negative people out of your life completely—sometimes that’s not feasible, and even if it is, it’d be pretty rude to do so. But you have to look out for your own emotional well-being, and if that means spending less time with people who drag you down, then so be it.

On the flip-side, always be an encourager. Listen to those who, like you, are walking through the wilderness. Remember that each of us is fighting our own battle of survival every day. Have mercy and compassion, and show the love of Christ to everyone you encounter.

And I’ve already addressed the spiritual aspect somewhat. Pray every day, read the Bible every day, and obey the Lord’s commands. Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord your God.

In all things, strive for balance. Strike a balance between work and play. Strike a balance between producing and consuming. Strike a balance between order and chaos. (Have one foot firmly planted on the shore of order while you dip your toes into the sea of chaos!)

Take things one day at a time. Live for the day while keeping an eye on the future. Again, strike a balance—between today and tomorrow.

Remember that you have only one life, and that there’s a unique place for you in the grand scheme of things. So, while I don’t advise you to make rash decisions, if you feel like you’re the square peg trying to fit into the round hole—make a change! Do something different! Take a step, even a small one, towards what you think you were made to do.

I’ll wind this long-winded letter up by saying that you’ve always navigated through life by finding out what you don’t like to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. On the cusp of age twenty-four, I still haven’t found that “one thing” I love to do above all else. You may never. And that’s okay. As long as you can find pleasure in your work, your play, and your people, you’re doing pretty well for yourself. In fact, if you can manage that, you’re already a wealthy man!

Oh, one last thing: Never let go of your dreams. They are what drive you when you’re down. I happen to believe that they’re uniquely yours, given to you by God Himself. Keep that boyish gleam in your eye, that roguish smile on your face, and don’t chastise yourself if you catch yourself looking out the window and thinking about what could be. Do what you can to make those dreams reality. Follow them, even if it will take years to get to the end of the trail. It’s better to wonder “What if I hadn’t?” (which you won’t) than to wonder “What if I had?”

That’s all I’ve got for now. I think this is enough for you to chew on and digest over the coming year. You’re young and you’ve got a big, bright future ahead of you. (Look at all that you’ve accomplished already!) Just don’t let a few black clouds obscure those silver linings.

Stand firm,

Matthew

Stop Just Reading The Bible

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.

Psalm 119:11, English Standard Version

For the past three years, I’d held to a “year through the Bible” approach to my personal Bible time. I’d wake up and get my three or four chapters in, faithfully, day after day. For a couple years, I kept a notebook at my side and wrote down questions that I had about what I read.

Last year, I started the Bible marathon again. I made it through the Old Testament well enough, but by the time I made it to Acts I was losing steam. I had a sort of Bible burnout.

It’s not that I didn’t want to keep reading God’s Word. I realized the problem was that, deep inside, I wanted and needed to slow down. Just like traveling, you can blaze from place to place and see a lot of things, but you really won’t appreciate what you see unless you stop in one place for a few days and take it all in.

I started the year by camping out in Ecclesiastes and letting Solomon’s profound, divinely-inspired wisdom soak in. I supplemented daily chapter and section readings with a devotional called 31 Days to Happiness by Dr. David Jeremiah that Amazon Kindle coincidentally recommended to me.

I will note that, while the devotional is good, it is no replacement for reading Ecclesiastes yourself, just like any devotional is no replacement for reading the Bible yourself. And as a side note, if anyone tries to put words into God’s mouth (ahem, Sarah Young, ahem, ahem), be on your guard. Of course, we Christians should always be on guard anyway (1 Cor. 16:13).

After camping out with Solomon for a couple months, I felt that I should start memorizing some Scripture. When I was in junior high, I learned at a church retreat that young Israelite boys, particularly those preparing for the priesthood, would memorize whole books of the Bible. I figured that if a thirteen-year-old kid from two-thousand-plus years ago could memorize whole books, I could at least memorize some verses and psalms.

Last week, I memorized all of Psalm 1, which makes two psalms I know by heart (the other being Psalm 23, which seems perpetually burned into my memory from childhood). In doing so, I reflected on what I felt were the benefits of memorizing a passage of Scripture, and I concluded three things.

1. Memorizing Scripture is not hard. Like any task, breaking it into manageable chunks makes it easier and more fulfilling. For Psalm 1, I focused on one or two verses a day, reading them from my Bible in the morning, reciting them aloud or in my head throughout the day as best I could, and referencing my Blue Letter Bible app as needed for a refresher. I felt very accomplished when I concluded the day by thinking, “I now know one more verse by heart than I did when I woke up this morning.”

2. The momentum builds. Once you start memorizing Scripture, it gets easier to memorize more. I find that this is especially true with passages such as Psalms and Proverbs. You’ll find that, in many cases, each verse ties into the next, and so you’re not just memorizing words, but whole, coherent thoughts. Getting the ball rolling can be difficult, but once it’s rolling, it’ll keep going.

3. You gain a deeper understanding of the passage. It’s one thing to read verses on a page, like you’d read words in a novel. It’s another to slow down and dissect them for meaning, like you might a classic text. It’s a completely different thing to commit them to memory, because then your mind starts to sift them and process them and your understanding and appreciation of them will increase.

Let’s take Psalm 1:3 for instance.

He [the righteous man] is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 1:3, English Standard Version

Pause for a moment and think about that imagery. A tree planted by streams of water might initially conjure up an image of an idyllic, sylvan scene: a tree in a grassy forest by a riverbank. When you consider that the psalmists lived in the Middle East, where water is often a luxury and there is plenty of desert and wilderness to go around, that mental picture might change to one of a Joshua Tree with little other life around (at least for someone like me who’s never been to the Holy Land!).

Let that last sentence sink in: “In all that he does, he prospers.” Isn’t that something you want to commit to memory and meditate on as you go about your day? It might be something you want to think about when life gives you lemons, a Biblical truth you can cling to when the chips are down. It might be something you can turn back to praise when things go well: “Lord, thank you that you have allowed me to succeed in my work!”

To continue this example, let’s take a quick look at the following verse.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Psalm 1:4, English Standard Version
This is some sorghum chaff. If it weren’t piled high like this, imagine how easy it would be for a strong wind to blow it away. Photo by sarangib on Pixabay.

Here we see the contrast. In the previous verse, the psalmist talks about the vitality of a righteous man (or woman) and compares him to another living thing, a tree. In this verse, the psalmist compares wicked people to the remnants of harvesting grain: useless and left behind. Note also that the wind doesn’t just blow them away, it drives them away. They are not wafted along in the breeze but are gusted out of existence.

I don’t think there’s anything really profound in what I just wrote above, but these are things that I would have (and actually have) overlooked in daily Bible readings. Even though I believe every Christian should read through the whole Bible (it is God’s Word, all of it!), I also believe every Christian should slow down and smell the roses that God has planted along the way.

As for memorization, I believe there are two things it will do to your spiritual life. Firstly, it will draw you closer to God (James 4:8) as you put a larger focus on His Word. Secondly, it will aid you in times of need. I know there have been times when a verse that I memorized a long time ago pops into the forefront of my mind and sustains me through a time of distress or guides me in making a critical decision. I don’t know that God would bring them to mind if I hadn’t read and remembered them.

If you’d like to start memorizing more Scripture, the best thing to do is to just start today. Start with the Psalms, because they’re poetic and are fairly easy to recite. Start with Psalm 1, even. Do one verse a day until you’ve memorized a whole passage or chapter. Write your verse on a sticky note or notecard or even create a reminder in your phone so you can work on it throughout the day.

And just think: If you memorize one verse a day, you’ll have memorized three-hundred-sixty-five verses in a year. If you memorize one passage a week, you’ll have memorized fifty-two passages in a year. The best part is, you’ll have drawn closer to God and hidden His Word in your heart in the process.

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.

The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip.

Psalm 37:30-31, English Standard Version