The Power of a Joyful Life… or Revisiting the Notion of Happiness

I’ve mentioned before (at least I think I’ve said it here… if not I know I’ve said it elsewhere), that I dislike John Piper’s notion of Christian Hedonism. It strikes me that any philosophy based solely or primarily in what brings me the most pleasure is problematic, regardless of the ends it espouses. If my pleasure is the ultimate goal, then I am putting myself at the center of all things, and this is a place that I should never be. That being said, for the past two years God has been teaching me about joy, and I feel like I’m finally getting to the heart of the lesson. For most of my life happiness has been… unimportant. My goal was to be strong, or to be powerful, or to be righteous, or to be good, or to be spiritual (kind of in that order actually), and happiness was something that I always saw as an addendum at best, or a distraction at worst.

A few years ago a friend of mine was lecturing me about the way I approach life and asked me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ The only response that I could give was ‘Eh, maybe I guess…’ I want to stress here that my goal was not to be unhappy. I’ve never seen misery as a sign of righteousness (or at least I don’t think I have), but I also never made it a goal to be happy. Over the past two years God has been slowly changing this.

So, recently my bible study (yes, I’m part of a bible study now… yes, I realize that I haven’t posted in ‘like forever’ which translates to a couple of months in real time… thus proving the theory of internet relativity:T=CPI or Time=Care exponentially multiplied by the Perspective of the Individual)… anyway, my bible study has been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a book that I’ve loved for a long time, but recently I’ve had a new perspective on. I think that, at its core, Ecclesiastes is an admonition to joy. The author repeatedly points to the pointlessness, injustice, and repetitiveness of life, and then responds to himself by arguing that true purpose can be found in God.

In chapter one and two he shows that none of the things we normally cling to: labor, love, wealth, knowledge, and pleasure, can possibly serve as the purpose of a meaningful life. All of these are fleeting, ephemeral, and ultimately vanity. However, in chapter 3 he shows that, while none of these things is the point of life, all of them have a point in life. This is an important distinction. A life lived for the pursuit of any of these things will ultimately be unfulfilling, because they are, in themselves, vane. However, all of them are gifts given by God to bring pleasure to life and add to its ultimate purpose. Solomon argues that everything happens for a reason, and that God is the ultimate arbiter of that reason, so should we argue that he got things wrong?

Chapters four and five continue in this vein, showing the vanity and injustice of everyday life when we live it without God, but the pleasure that God can bring through that same vanity when we place him at the center of our lives. I have long been somewhat enamored by the mystic ascetics (or ascetic mystics… whatever you want to call them). And I think that true joy can be found in the ascetic pursuit of God, but this is not the only way to glorify him.

Whoever we are, whatever path God takes us on (and I’m not trying to preach Universalism here, if you think God is calling you to be a Buddhist Monk you need to revisit the scriptures), we can and should find joy when we truly place him at the center of our lives. This is something that I’m currently working on. For a long time I, like the Pharisees, turned moral virtue and righteousness into an idol, all too often replacing my worship with God with a worship of goodness. Even when I left this behind, I didn’t seek to enjoy God, but simply to endure with him.

My circumstances haven’t changed much in the past few years. I’m still single, still poor, and I still have debts that I’ll probably never be able to realistically pay (though this is in God’s hands). I still struggle with depression, fear, doubt, worry, etc. However, I’m struggling less and enjoying more. I’m learning to find my joy in God and truly, thoroughly worship him.

Solitude

I often consider living on top of a mountain somewhere, or joining a monastery, or finding an island someplace where no one will bother me. In his play No Exit (Huis Clos), Jean Paul Sartre presents several excellent points. Sartre was by no means a Christian, but in No Exit he shows a particular insight into the human condition that I rather enjoy. Two particular quotes stand out, one of which Sartre is quite famous for. No Exit is about three people, Garcin, Ines, and Estelle, who are trapped together in a room in hell. As the play develops the three reveal their true natures to one another, hoping that these revelations will help them come to terms with their situation. However, in actuality, the revelations instead cause the three to hate on another all the more. The resolution of the play, Sartre’s thesis statement as it were, comes in Garcin’s realization that “Hell is other people”, which is the quote Sartre is famous for. However, another excellent point in the play is Ines’ declaration that “we are our lives and nothing else”. Plenty of atheist principles could be read into this latter statement, but for the moment I’m going to choose to take the line at face value.

I’ve spoken before about the cyclical nature of life that is portrayed in the competing standards of Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism essentially argues that if I am right internally (right being), then I will do the right things (right action). Confucianism, on the other hand, argues that if I do the right things, I will become right internally. These are both true and both false. Because of the imperfection of man (i.e. natural sin) no matter how deeply I cultivate my being, I will still be prone to wrong actions, and no matter how many right things I do, I may still do them from wrong motives. However, the opposite is true. If I truly cultivate a right spirit, then I will be more prone to right actions, and in pursuing right actions, I will encourage the rightness of my spirit. Thus, both right actions and right being are necessary for a right life. However, Ines’ claim is, on the surface, true. I am my life. Whether I am judged by men for my actions or judged by God for my heart, both are formed through the life that I choose to live. I cannot be ‘essentially a good person’ if I cultivate neither right being nor right actions. If God is not in my heart, and if my actions are not focused on his glory and the well-being of my fellow man, then my life is without value. I have nothing to offer to either God or man beyond my life.

However, my life is far from perfect. As is yours (don’t get cocky). We are all fallen people, prone to inflict immense amounts of pain upon one another. We are all selfish, even at the best of times, careless, and cruel. Even when we have the best of intentions we still manage to hurt one another, and so when our intentions (as is so often the case) are less than the best, we become for others the very hell that we fear. Please, don’t take me wrongly, I am not denying the existence of a literal hell (though I find more references in scripture to ‘outer darkness’ than to ‘fire and brimstone’. Nor am I denying that the torments of hell will far surpass the pains of this world. What I am saying is that the closest we will ever come to knowing hell during our lives is in the community of others. Similarly, the closest we will ever come to knowing heaven during our lives is in the community of others.

Tonight, a couple of friends and I were bitching about women. Specifically about the repetitive cowardice, dishonesty, and truly perverse expectations/desires that we see in most of the women who populate our city. Specifically the Christian women who populate our city. There are times when some (not all) of these women have shown a true depth of compassion, grace, and love. However, there are also times when each of them have shown a callousness and cruelty that, to this day, I find astounding. Women who have lost much of our respect through their actions towards ourselves and others (we kept the conversation very general so as to avoid gossiping about anyone in particular). Women whose lives, and thus whose selves, have inevitably been tainted by the stain of sin.

I live in a culture that often presents women as ‘innocent’, ‘pure’, ‘chaste’, or ‘virtuous’. I live in a culture that essentially says to women ‘you’re already morally perfect, so you don’t need to try, focus on your looks instead’. I cannot express how utterly devastating this culture is to American women. Forget the focus on looks. Forget the extreme dieting. Forget the size zero obsession. None of these even begin to compare to the incredible lack in moral quality that this attitude has encouraged in women. Instead of developing their hearts and minds too many American women have focused on career, appearance, relationships, etc to find their identity and virtue. The problem is that none of these things actually develops either identity or virtue. Instead, Christian women should be focusing on developing a strong relationship with God and learning the moral qualities that exemplify that relationship. This is where true identity and virtue lies, regardless of gender.

Monkeys on the Brain

In college I had a roommate who was obsessed with monkeys. Specifically with the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, but with monkeys in general. Largely because of this person the phrase ‘monkeys’ has become a cuss word for me that symbolizes everything bad in the world. Sometimes it refers to a specific problem, sometimes it refers to the generally cursed and depraved state of the world, sometimes it just refers to the fact that I get in my own way. Right now, I have a lot of monkeys. One of those monkeys is the fact that, over the past few weeks, I have found myself struggling with pornography to a steadily increasing degree. I have struggled almost daily, and generally fallen once or twice a week. It’s gotten to the point that a short-term goal for the coming week (Thursday-Thursday) is to avoid all forms of pornography. Once Thursday comes I’ll set a new goal. Assuming I succeed, it will hopefully be a longer goal (maybe two weeks). If I don’t succeed… well, try, try again, right?

Another monkey has been random bouts of hopelessness. Admittedly, I’m prone to periods of moderate depression. I don’t struggle with the ‘Life is worthless, I’m staying in bed’ extreme kind of depression, but there are times when I feel overcome by life in general. As I write this, and for most of the night honestly, I find myself completely sure that I will die alone. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really believe this… mostly… most of the time. I generally believe that God does have a relationship in mind for me. I don’t know with whom, or when it will happen, but this is still my general assumption. Most of the time. Tonight, my general assumption is that no one will ever love or desire me, and thus that I will die old, alone, and probably miserable. I’m pretty much convinced of this really. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it?

Feelings are deceptive things. They don’t portray reality in any meaningful way, and often they portray the very opposite of reality. Right now I know that there are people who love me. Perhaps no women who have a romantic inclination towards me, or at least none that have let me see that inclination, but people who love me whole-heartedly nonetheless. However, I don’t feel loved. My feelings don’t particularly care whether I am loved. The thing is, and it took me a long time to learn this, I can’t rely on any other person to make me feel loved. Most of the time those people don’t have a clue how to in the first place, and even if they did know how, they won’t always be able to.

I do want to find a woman who will love me. A woman who will want to take care of me, who will desire me and desire to be taken care of by me. A woman who will want to make me feel loved. However, even if I do find such a woman, it would be a disservice of me to always rely on her to make me feel loved. That isn’t something that she will ever be capable of. If I put my feelings in her hands, she will fail. This doesn’t mean that I am unwilling to give her my heart or my trust. I’m simply saying that she will be human, and prone to all the failings that humans have. Her love, however it appears, will be imperfect.

Honestly, this is obvious, and we’ve all heard it a thousand times, but I need to rely on God in these struggles. Not on people.

List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

Sin and Guilt

Yesterday I was at lunch with a group of people from church. Flowergirl was one of them. I generally take her and one of her roommates to church on Sundays, and then buy them lunch afterwards. This isn’t an attempt at a group date (I’ve given up on her… almost completely), just something I like to do because they are both poor college students in need of good meals. During the meal flowergirl was rather frustrated with me, mostly because I kept laughing at her. She hadn’t had much sleep the night before and was very tired, and so I had to keep waking her up in church. I commented that her head resembled a metronome in the way it kept bobbing up and down as she tried to stay awake. She didn’t see the humor in this, mostly because she was ashamed that she was struggling to stay awake in church.

Flowergirl, like many of us, was under the impression that the fact one struggles with something is, in and of itself, something to be ashamed of. This is not true. All Christians struggle with sin, and as one of my professors used to say: all means all and that’s all all means. While I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment (in some cases ‘all’ clearly means ‘most’, ‘many’, or ‘those of which I have knowledge’), in this case it is entirely true. Outside of Jesus Christ who, being the Christ incarnate, can’t really be called a ‘Christian’ (i.e. little Christ or follower of Christ) there has never been an individual who did not fail in his/her struggle with sin. However, even Christ himself struggled with sin. We know that he was ‘tempted in every way as we are’ from Hebrews 4, and from both Matthew and Luke we know that he was tempted by Satan himself. Christ did not sin, nor did he have a sinful nature, and some will argue that he could not have fallen to temptation (this position is called ‘hard impeccability’, though personally I prefer ‘soft impeccability’ which argues that Christ was capable of sinning, but didn’t), but I do not know of anyone who will argue that Christ did not struggle with temptation. This fact is made absolutely clear in the scriptures. So, given that Paul clearly fell to sin… repeatedly (Romans 7), that Peter fell to sin the the worst possible way (the denial of Christ), and that Christ himself was struggled with varied temptations, why do we believe that to struggle is, in and of itself, a shameful thing?

The answer, of course, is the American need to be ‘better’. If you sin then I am better than you because I do not sin. If you struggle with sin, then I am better than you because I do not struggle with sin. If you are tempted to sin then I am better than you because I am not tempted to sin. None of these things are true, obviously, but they are the lives that we often attempt to portray, and also one of the most prominent reasons for the frequent and warranted accusations of hypocrisy within the American church. None of us is perfect. We all struggle with a variety of sins. Those sins may be different for different people, but none is better or worse.

This is another facet of the American church that needs to be addressed. We often rate actions by their ‘sinfulness’. Homosexuality is the most sinful thing a normal person could do. Pornography is a close second. However, gluttony, gossip, worry, and pride are all innocuous, inconsequential sins by common American standards. This is, obviously, a giant load of crap. James 2 makes it clear that sin is sin. All sin equally removes us from a right relationship with God and no sin is inconsequential. There is a passage in John 5 that discusses the difference between ‘sins not leading to death’ and ‘sins leading to death’, which was (I think) the primary impetus behind Augustine’s division between mortal and venial sins, but this is a theological question that I will address another time.

For our purposes here, sin is all equally damning in the eyes of God. All sins should invoke guilt in us until we turn to God in repentance. However, the simply fact of struggle with a sin should not. In fact, it seems to me that a man or woman who truly and honestly struggles with sin is respectable. It is easy to give up the struggle and simply fall to sin, and if we struggle we will eventually fall. However, to continue in the struggle, to run the race, to fight the good fight, is something that scripture repeatedly calls us to (1 Peter and 1 John are both good examples, as are 1 and 2 Timothy). We are called to struggle with our sins, and in struggling we pursue perfection, which is the process of sanctification. This isn’t something that we can, or even should escape.

So, do not let the struggle be a thing of shame. When you struggle and are victorious, count it as glory to God who aided you in your struggle. When you struggle and fall, be aware of your human frailty and repent. However, the struggle in and of itself is a part of being human. Consider it as such.

Safety in Love

Sometimes we fall into sin. It’s not necessarily that we want to, or that we go looking for it (though there are times that we do), but sometimes we just fall into it. St. Teresa of Avilla referred to sin as ‘snakes and lizards’ or ‘the little lizards’ in her book Interior Castles, and she makes the point throughout that text that they are present at each stage of the Christian journey. Hopefully as we mature certain sins are left behind, those old struggles simply make way for new ones that we don’t realize were a problem… until God makes it clear to us.

However, when we fall into sin God always gives us a way to walk out. Sometimes that way is hard to see and hard to take. Sometimes it means making a herculean effort just to get up and walk away. Sometimes that way out is shockingly easy, like when my teenage niece messages me for advice on boys just as I start looking for something to watch that involves lots of naked people and sex. I think it would be downright impossible to talk to my niece about the guy she likes and watch porn at the same time. The two are simply antithetical to one another. This was the way out that God provided me today in a very weak moment, and I can’t explain how thankful I am for it.

The phrase ‘love conquers all things’ is often used to describe the frustrations, pains, and fears that romantic love brings with it. However, this isn’t the only apt reference for this particular phrase. True love is not confined to romance. True love hopefully exists between romantic partners, but it also exists between parent and child, siblings, close friends, and in many other kinds of relationships. True love, in fact, is all around us. It is in the way I talk to the barista at my favorite coffee shop. It is in the way I listen to my friends work problems. It is in the way I stop to help the homeless man on the side of the road. And it is in the way I walk away from sin to help my niece.

When I allow the love of God to flow through me into others it takes me away from sin. Thus, just as the love of Christ conquered the grave, that love in me conquers sin that will lead me into a grave of my own. On the other hand, when I step out of that love, death finds a welcome home in my heart and sin comes all too easily. My sin is conquered by his love and this is something that I need to hold onto. It’s something that I need to remember when I am weak, and when I think that I am strong. This is what I must run to when I am tempted.

Lacking Certainty

I like to be sure about things. In most ways I’m not a control freak (though I absolutely used to be), but in this way I still very much am. I like to be certain of the outcome before I do something major… like ask out a friend. The flowers I sent the other day met, according to my inside source, with a mixed reaction. They were viewed as sweet, but also a little odd and possibly kind of creepy. This isn’t the reaction that I expected, and to make matters worse I had a wonderful conversation with the young lady in question that very evening (though flowers were never mentioned). This conversation made me want to pursue her even more, but at the moment the only thing that I’m even remotely confident of is that she is completely oblivious to my interest.

This does not jive (yes, I just used the word jive) well with my need for certainty. I want to know how things are going to turn out, not guess. Of course, this desire isn’t limited to my romantic endeavors. I want to know many things. This has been a consistent struggle between myself and God. When he asks me to do something my first question is always ‘why?’ I have to know, and I fight him on it like mad until I do know. I’m sure some of you remember the occasion a couple of months ago when God asked me to invite a young woman to lunch. I fought with him about that for days simply because I didn’t understand why. The question ‘why’ is often my obsession. I always want to know why, and it is excruciating for me to be kept in the dark.

Of course, this obsession is often antithetical to actually trusting God in things. The absolute need to know ‘why’ contravenes the willingness to actually trust his wisdom. It is, needless to say (or at least I hope you could come to this conclusion on your own), quite frustrating. God has taken a lot of time to teach me how to trust, and still I am often very bad at it. Instead of simply trusting him and following, I obsess over the why questions and tear them apart. I will play out scenes in my head a thousand different ways trying to understand the whys and predict the outcomes. I’m usually wrong.

I think that I am slowly learning how to obsess less over things. Still, this morning (when I found out about this woman’s reaction to my gift) was particularly bad. I wound up pushing a friend (my source) for information (that she didn’t have in the first place) much harder than the situation warranted, precisely because I wanted to know. I have argued in a number of places that it is fundamentally impossible to know anything about the world that we live in. Knowledge=creative authority, and man does not have creative authority over the world. We interact with the world through our perceptions, and form beliefs based on those perceptions. Then we develop those beliefs into certainties, and act on them (not necessarily in that order). However, at no point in this process do we actually know anything about the world.

Nonetheless, even though I believe that it is fundamentally impossible, I want to know! This has caused me plenty of trouble in the past, and I have no doubt that it will continue to cause me trouble in the future. Nonetheless… while I can work on this issue, as I do often, I can’t simply wave it away until and unless God decides to intervene on my behalf. So, instead I focus on doing my best to be the best person that I can be, and to love others (this woman included) as best I can. I focus on glorifying God as much as I am able, and be his forgiveness, and the forgiveness of others for my failures (as I must do of my friend tomorrow).

I also do my best to do the best. Which means that I am going to stop agonizing over certainty and just ask this woman out. I’m going to try to keep it simple. I’m not going to make a great confession of love or anything. I’m just going to ask her on a date and see what she says. Hopefully it won’t blow up in my face.