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Holding on and letting go

On the back of Jo Dolby's Balancing Act feature in this month's magazine, we have a series of blogs on tension and paradox within youth ministry. This week, Jo Whitehead of CYM looks at holding on and letting go.

Most, if not all of us, can probably think of times when we’ve had to make difficult choices around whether to hold onto something or whether to let go, to stay or leave, to persevere or call it a day. I can think of many occasions – some relatively insignificant, others life-changing, where the tension between these two has felt almost irreconcilable. Sometimes I’ve avoided the decision, sometimes I’ve thought, prayed and acted. At other times, my hand has been forced and others have made decisions which have meant I’ve had to let go of something I’d rather have held onto.

The importance of perseverance is well-documented. Thomas Edison had around a thousand unsuccessful attempts before he managed to invent the light bulb. He reputedly commented, ‘I have not failed, I have just found ten thousand ways it won’t work.’ JK Rowling famously sent her first Harry Potter manuscript to twelve different publishers – who all rejected it – before finally signing a contract with Bloomsbury.

The value of holding on is celebrated in Hebrews 11, where the great heroes of faith – including Noah, Abraham, Sarah and Moses – are praised for their perseverance in the face of struggle (Hebrews 11:39). Their persistence is cited as a model for believers. We too, the assumption is, should keep holding on, whatever the opposition and challenges.

But is it always as simple as that? Are we always called to persevere, whatever the cost to ourselves and to others? Jesus holds on lightly, letting people leave and walk away (for example the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:22). He tells the twelve disciples to shake the dust off their feet as they leave towns where their message isn’t welcomed (Matthew 12:13-14). Sometimes, it seems, letting go can be as much an act of faith as holding on. The challenge is discerning when to hold on and when to let go. I’ve found the following helpful when trying to make this tough choice.

What is your motivation saying?

There’s a big difference between decisions motivated by love and those motivated by fear. We may choose to stay with something to express God’s love and faithfulness in a situation. Alternatively, we might stay because we’re afraid of what people will think of us, or what will happen without our familiar safety-net. It’s helpful to be robustly honest with ourselves and consider what is motivating us – either to hold on or to give up.

What is your health saying?

Considering our physical, emotional and spiritual health can give important insight. If a situation is damaging us, then something needs to change. That may mean letting go or moving on, but not necessarily. It may mean identifying ways of sustaining ourselves in the midst of challenging situations – finding pastoral support, nurturing ourselves, finding sources of spiritual sustenance. The important thing here is to take action to care for ourselves.

What is God saying?

Discerning God’s isn’t not easy. If we see God’s will as a tight-rope we can live in fear of falling off –scared we’ll ‘blow it’ or ‘miss it’. This can lead to us stressing over every step and being governed by anxiety. I think this is too narrow a view of God, whose grace surely is wide and far-reaching enough to sustain us in our choices. Romans 12:1 encourages us to offer ourselves daily as living sacrifices to God. This, Paul says, is our spiritual act of worship and in this every day obedient relationship we are able to discern God’s ‘good, pleasing and perfect will’ (Romans 12:2). As we follow Jesus, understand God’s ways and his word more fully and seek to respond to the Spirit’s promptings, our choices should emerge from that relationship. Just as children, growing and maturing, are given more responsibility, God lets us choose and decide as we grow in faith. Sometimes, I think, there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, simply different ways forward. Here, God’s word may simply be, ‘What do you want to do?’

When seeking to engage in these discernment processes, safe places to talk and reflect can be invaluable. You may already have someone that you talk to, but a spiritual director, mentor or counsellor outside our immediate context (certainly outside the situation under consideration) and with no ‘agendas’, can help us explore issues creatively and honestly.

Principles for Letting Go

If we do choose to let go and move on from something, a few important principles can help the process.

  1. Recognise that endings are difficult. Particularly if you’ve invested in something or someone, letting go can be hard. Allow space and time for a grieving process. Change, however positive, usually has pain within it.
  2. Good endings are vital. Many of us aren’t good at endings and find them difficult. If you do decide to leave, try and leave well.
  3. Sometimes things have to die before we can see resurrection life. Jesus, talking about his own death says, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ (John 12:24) Prayerfully see your letting go as an act of ‘sowing’, and entrust the future outcome to God.
  4. Sometimes writing a prayer or creating a ritual can be helpful in letting go of something important. I’ve written in the sand on beaches and watched the tide wash away the words, built cairns of stones, created collages, art work and poems. Find things that work for you personally.
  5. Timing is key. Sometimes you may sense that you need to let go or leave something long before it actually happens. I knew I was going to be leaving one church two years before the time was right to go. Being willing to wait and living with the tension of being in an ‘in-between’ place is important here. Try and understand what God is wanting to grow in you in these seasons of waiting – there is treasure in these places, even if it is hard to find.

The author of Ecclesiastes writes,

‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1,6)

There is a time for holding on and a time for letting go and, as individuals, we make choices about those times. As we make our choices intentional and explicit rather than simply going with the flow, we take responsibility – our response-ability – in and for the situation. As we do this, I believe our choices can become powerful acts of faith, expressing our trust in the grace, mercy and creative power of the living God.

Jo Whitehead is Assistant Director of Midlands CYM, based at St John’s School of Mission in Nottingham.

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