I’ve got a friend who uses the airline’s “oxygen mask” as a metaphor for how to live the optimum life. “You can’t help anyone else until you put your own oxygen mask on first,” she says. “We’re teaching the kids that, too.”
Hearing it rubbed me wrong, although I couldn’t immediately explain why. I knew that my first question was: what constitutes “oxygen”? Is it weekends at the beach house? Long hours at the easel? A gym or sports club membership? Take-out dinners a few nights a week?
God says that when “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8). We are to be content even when we don’t have the basics: “whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).
The reason we are able to be content with what we have is “because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ ” (Hebrews 13:5) That is to say: however much we have or lack of whatever we consider to be “oxygen” to our life on earth, the air that we breathe is God and that air we always have in abundance.
Is Life Really Crashing to an Oxygen Mask Crisis?
The second question I had was: When do people need to grab an oxygen mask? It’s in a crisis. You put on your oxygen mask first so you have air to breathe in a life-or-death emergency, making it possible for you to assist others who also face that life-or-death risk.
So if life is to be lived by grabbing the oxygen mask, that means the underlying assumption is that life is in some kind of on-going crisis. Life itself is a short-supplied, short-term endeavor, where what we want must be grabbed and sucked at like oxygen in a crashing airplane.
If life is to be lived by grabbing the oxygen mask, that means life itself is a short-supplied, short-term endeavor, where what we want must be grabbed and sucked at like oxygen in a crashing airplane.
I’m not going to suggest for an instant that we’re not headed toward an ultimate end, a summing up, of epic and disastrous proportions. But grabbing at immediate supply isn’t what gets us through that end. If today and today and today are all crises, then I guess vacations and art lessons and sporting events and parties and restaurant meals are some of the “oxygen” that helps a person survive. But if God is in control yesterday and today and forever, and God is the air that I breathe, I don’t experience even catastrophe as crisis. I don’t need to be grabbing an oxygen mask and, as people used to say, “looking out for Number One.” I can be content and look for what God is doing.
Of course, trust and contentment don’t prevent hard work toward goals, even goals that cost a great deal. It just prevents making goals into gods. It lets us be drawn to the future God has imagined for us instead of being driven to a future of our own creation. It allows me to leave enough “margin” in my life that I’m not gasping for oxygen. It makes it possible to breathe God’s plentiful good air of the Spirit instead of treating the limitations of this life as crises that turn us into grabbers who have to put ourselves first.