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.

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Questions

So, I started the year reading Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I’m not finished yet… obviously. However, it has inspired a few questions that I wanted to jot down before I forget them:

On the Omnipresence of God:

1) Is presence a necessary quality of sustaining power?

2) If presence is a necessary quality of sustaining power (which Aquinas seems to assume) then is God present in hell through his sustaining power (opposing the common Christian doctrine that the primary torment of hell is the absence of God) or is hell a self-sustaining entity (opposing the common Christian doctrine that God sustaining power is necessary for the maintenance of all things)?

3) Is God present in hell? If so, is the primary torment of hell not the total separation from God? If not, can God really be said to be omni-present?

On Women:

1) My niece has been trying to convince me that I’m the kind of guy every woman dreams of marrying. This strikes me as prima facie false. However, is it possible that it is true and I’m either a) pursuing the wrong women (certainly I’ve dated many of the wrong women, but the ‘right women’ simply reject me out of hand) or b) for whatever reason quality women simply overlook me, don’t give me a chance? If the latter, why? (I don’t think I’m ever likely to actually answer this question…)

2) Rousseau argues that women are incapable of true virtue (though his definition of true virtue is questionable in the first place). Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, tends to argue that women are capable of true virtue (and she generally has a stronger definition of virtue), but they must be trained in virtue in the same way that men are. I tend to agree with the latter, but this leaves me wondering why so many women seem to reject the need to be trained in virtue? I assume culture elements are primarily responsible, but is this a valid assumption?

3) Why in the world do women obsess over clothing… especially accessories?

On School:

1) Is God finally calling me back to school? He seems to be, and things seem to be falling into place, but I find myself feeling very cynical and assuming that it will all fall apart before long.

2) Can I actually make the grade? I assume that this will be answered in time if God is calling me back to school.

I’m also writing again. This, I think, is a good thing. Although I’m working on a story that I’ve tried to write several times before. We’ll see if I can manage to finish it this time.

Sander’s Family Christmas

Tonight I went to see Sanders Family Christmas at a local theater. I’ll be honest, I went because a friend who works for the theater asked me to come and see her work, not because of any particular desire to see the play. I’ve never really been fond of Christmas… well, anything. That probably sounds like a strange thing to say, and it’s gotten me in trouble more than once in Christian circles. The play was good though… well, it was good in that it was well-acted and well-produced all around. It was also the general mish-mash of Psuedo-Christian pluralism that generally makes me dislike Christmas. I’m not saying that anyone who mentions Santa Claus should be stoned, or even that it’s wrong to do in church, but this particular play had high moments and low moments. One of the low moments was when the matriarch of the family condemned Santa Claus (something about Jesus punching him in the face) right before the family happily sang Jingle Bells, which is clearly not a song with any particularly Christian influences.

This is the thing that gets me about Christmas… Christians get just about everything wrong. From the ages of Mary and Joseph (Mary was probably in her early teens [14 maybe] and Joseph was probably in his late twenties to early thirties) to the wise men (who almost certainly didn’t show up in Jerusalem until a year and a half to two years after Jesus was born). We gleefully mix hymns with clearly pagan songs, sing hymns with horrific theology, decorate small fire-hazards in our living rooms, and do it all without any concept of what any of it means or is supposed to mean. Honestly, I think if people were just more aware of what they were doing I’d be okay with it. There’s nothing wrong with Christmas songs or Santa Claus per say, it just that I don’t like them and I get frustrated with everyone who looks at me like an inhuman monster when I say that. Then again, I am something of a Scrooge and the words ‘Bah Humbug’ have been known to leave my mouth… frequently.

However, there was something from the play tonight that I did appreciate very much. One of the characters, the patriarch’s brother… I can’t remember his name (Sam, I think… or something like that) has something of a checkered past. When he gets up to speak he speaks of his past and of how the family has helped him change. One of the lines (and I’m sure that I’ve butchered it) say,’I’ve gotta reckon that God takes no account of talent. It’s a man’s character that matters.’ That’s the gist of the line… probably with a little Terry Pratchett thrown in since I was listening to Wee Free Men on the way home. This made me think about my own life. Most specifically the past seven(ish) years since I graduated from seminary.

Don’t get me wrong, I can me a right ass. I can be arrogant, judgmental, thoughtless, and stubborn. If the beginning of this post doesn’t prove that then the rest of this blog probably will. However, I’d like to think that I’m less of an ass and more caring, compassionate, and hopefully a little more humble than I was seven years ago. I’ve certainly learned a lot about life, about people, and about faith. I’ve been beaten over the head a few times, badly bruised both by the church and by those outside of the church, and broken repeatedly. Honestly, seven years ago I was full of myself and extremely in-secure. Now… well, I’m not sure that I actually have much to offer, but what I do have to offer I will.

As I write this I’m talking with my niece about colleges and about the degree program that I’m applying to. I remember when I first got out of school applying to one doctoral or Th.M. program after another and getting denied by one program after another. Now… well, I’m just hoping that they let me into an M.A. program and that I actually have what it takes to do well in the program. It’s scary, and a part of me is saying ‘I’m comfortable here and I don’t want to leave’. Another part of me is saying ‘It’s worth it.’ I still haven’t called Dr. Liederbach yet, but I’m going to. It might wait until January, as I’m sure all the professor’s down there are ridiculously busy at the moment, but I will call him, and I will finish my application and submit it. And then… well, I’ll hope that for once my desires line up with God’s (I wish I was better at that), and I’ll wait for him to kick me in the head if they don’t. That’s the thing I’ve learned more than anything else. What I want doesn’t matter if it’s not the same as what God wants.

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.

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.

A Life of Worship

It seems that I have a lot more to say when I’m struggling with things than I do when I’m not struggling. Honestly, I don’t suppose that should really surprise anyone. I think we all tend to have more to say when we are struggling with God. The issues in our lives tend to be more evident when God makes them undeniably clear to us. In turn, this obviously means that we pay more attention to them, and that we have more to say about them. All to often I (we) have little to say when life is good. The reason for this is, I think, very simple. In the church today there is a dearth of true worship in the church. I have much to say when I am struggling with God because my struggles are at the forefront of my mind. I am frustrated with God, frustrated with myself, and I want everything to be better. However, when things are better I am not thankful. E.M. Bounds illustrates the difference between thankfulness and gratitude in his book The Essentials of Prayer. Bounds argues that gratitude is inward focused and negatively associated (i.e. not that gratitude is a negative or bad thing, but in association with action gratitude, being focused inward, is negatively focused because it does not produce action). Thankfulness, Bounds argued, is outwardly focused and positively associated (i.e. again, towards action: that thankfulness, being outwardly focused, produces action). I find that I agree with him in this, and I think that both are necessary for a life of true worship.

Obviously one may demonstrate thankfulness without being grateful. This happens quite often when we utter words of thanks to God or to others, even though we are inwardly bitter, angry, or disappointed. This is, of course, hypocritical (i.e. hupokrites refered to an actor, so a hypocrite is literally one who acts), but we are often hypocritical in our lives without paying much attention or care to our hypocrisy (this is something that has strongly disabused younger generations [who value genuineness greatly] from the mainstream church). So, we go through the motions of thankfulness with no true spirit of gratitude. I have found, in my own life, that this often leads to even deeper feelings of disappointment and resentment. I have, many times, felt truly grateful for the trials and struggles that God has put me through. However, I have also (probably more often) been thankful out of a sense of obligation. I suppose Kant would argue that acting on this sense of obligation, especially when my feelings ran counter to it, was the most truly good action. However, while I have great respect of the man, this is one place where I think that I profoundly disagree with Kant.

Sacrificial love is, in my opinion, a beautiful and very important thing. However, love that is truly sacrificial is gracious and grateful as well. It is not resentful, which is what I find my hypocritical thankfulness often turning towards. To act out of obligation is good as long as the action is truly genuine as well. I may thank God for trials because I am obligated to do so, and still feel truly grateful for those trials. However, if I give obligatory thanks in bitterness and resentment, I cannot find the wherewithal to call this ‘good’. Thus, I must argue that this kind of hypocritical thankfulness is not good.

However, one may also clearly be grateful without being thankful. I have often found myself in this place: filled with a feeling of grateful contentment, but so focused on my own internal pleasures that the outward exercise of thankfulness disappears. St. Teresa of Avila warned of this in The Mansions. St. Teresa claimed that she had known several sisters (she was a nun and so her writings were generally directed towards the sisters) who became so overwhelmed by the internal pleasures of God’s gracious love that they ceased all activities. She called this a deathly illness (though it isn’t entirely clear if she meant physically or spiritually) and called on the ranking sisters to keep watch on nuns who showed signs of this malady. St. Teresa claimed that this cessation of outward activity was a sign of spiritual weakness that would inevitably delay or even halt the spiritual growth of the sisters so affected.

I have to admit that I have seen this in my own life. There have been times when I hoarded God’s love and compassion, keeping it to myself and enjoying my time with God without letting anyone else benefit. When my spiritual life is turned entirely inwards it doesn’t stop being real, but it stops being prosperous. When we turn our affections entirely inward then, as Paul said to the Corinthians, we are edified, but the body is not. However, when we keep our holy affections balanced, with a strong inward life of spiritual gratitude that spills over into an outward life of thanksgiving and praise, then we edify not only ourselves, but the body as a whole. This is, I think, the best life that I could hope for, and I hope that it is the path that I am now on.

Meaningless Thoughts

The last few days have been pretty awesome. Not because of anything particular that has happened, but because of where my focus has been. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of days about the grace that God has given to me. Not just forgiveness for things in my past, though there is certainly a lot of that, but the opportunities that he’s given me to become a better person, to live well and joyfully, and to pursue him with everything that I am. Honestly, I don’t really have a whole lot to say right now. I have spent the last two days exceptionally thankful, and I think that being thankful is an important part of the Christian walk that we often allow to drift to the wayside in the pursuit of more important things.

It’s easy to go to God when things are bad, and it’s often hard to find things to be thankful for when times are hard. When times are good it’s easy to forget about God. I’m constantly amazed at the number of unsuccessful people I meet who excuse themselves with comments about bad luck, and never getting opportunities, and to some degree these are true. Opportunity is certainly not equal in our country, and we really shouldn’t pretend that it is. However, I am also amazed at the number of successful people who credit their success to their own abilities, insight, and perseverance. Rarely have I met an unsuccessful person who credited their own choices for their current problems, and rarely have I met a successful person who credited luck, chance, or God’s providence for their situation. It seems that unsuccessful people all have bad luck, and successful people are all insanely talented.

This isn’t true, of course. There are plenty of successful people who owe their success entirely to luck (or God), and there are plenty of unsuccessful people who made bad choices in life. Of course, there are also incredibly talented people who’ve never been given a chance, and people who built their success thorough trial, sweat, and tears. That being said, we like to take credit for success, and avoid credit for failure. Some of this, I think, is inherent in humanity. Some of it is due to a culture that judges us on what we have instead of who we are. However, regardless of the reason, we desperately need to take responsibility for our failures, and thank God for our successes. We also need to trust his providence in everything. If God truly is sovereign, then he does have a plan for this world, and for us.

Of course, we could argue for a deistic God who is sovereign, but just doesn’t care what happens to us, but this (in my opinion) would not be the God of the scriptures. We could also argue for an intellectually acceptable God who operates within, and is governed by, natural law (i.e. the laws of physics, chemistry, etc), but again, I don’t think this is the God of the scriptures. The God of the scriptures is both sovereign and caring. He is both transcendent and immanent. He stands above natural law, apparently outside of time, and his word serves as the fulcrum upon which all things turn. This God is not governed by the rules, he is the creator of the rules. He cares deeply for his creation, and especially for mankind, but he is also coldly willing to sacrifice millions to make a point (just look at the conquests of Israel and Judah). He is both loving and just, caring and wrathful, merciful and jealous. That is to say that, ultimately, God is an enigma.

However, this doesn’t mean that we should give up, throw up our hands, and simply say, “well, we’ll never figure it out, so why try?” There are many questions in the Christian faith that can’t be answered, and many men have gone astray in their instance that there must be an answer. However, this doesn’t mean that we stop asking those questions, that we stop considering them, discussing them, mulling over them, or attempting to understand the complexity that is God and his relationship with man. This is something that is worth doing. It always has been, and it always will be, and the greatest men of the faith wrestled with these questions. Certainly they are worth our time.