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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Roman historian, Tacitus, observed that “There are many men who appear to be struggling against Adversity, and yet are happy; but yet more, who, although abounding in Wealth, are miserable.” His observations about happiness, or lack thereof, have not changed much over the centuries. A friend who has been on several short term mission trips to Haiti recently noted that although the people of Haiti live in extreme poverty and have deplorable living conditions, they are very happy. He then said that many people he knows here in the states, although having a much higher standard of living, are basically unhappy with the quality of their lives.

Such an ironic twist! Those whom we would think have no right to be happy are happy, while those we would except to be happy because they have the good things of life, aren’t! Why does happiness seem to be so elusive in our society today? Two thoughts come to mind. People who are happy tend to have a purpose outside of themselves. It is usually found in having a relationship with God and in caring for and serving others. These are often people who have a deep faith and dependence on God, greatly appreciating the things they receive as a gift from God. They don’t merely take things for granted, but receive them with thankful hearts. They freely give to others, whether of their possessions, or time. They find joy in serving others.

Why does our society seem so unhappy? We have bought into the slogans such as “Grab all the gusto you can” and “Look out for number one” etc. Focusing upon self-centeredness robs us of the ability to truly be happy. Self is a hard taskmaster who never satisfies. It leads us to obsession with our rights and the continual drive to always want more. We are never satisfied. We become narcissistic, seeking only our own personal pleasure, even at the expense of others. Self-centeredness destroys relationships with others, as we find ourselves envying their good fortune. Focusing upon our selves opens up a great void that is never able to be filled; one which leads us to spiral downward into the blackness of despair and unhappiness, never to be satisfied, consumed with always wanting more. The resulting dissatisfaction only leads us to a more desperate search for that seemingly elusive state of happiness, one which we can see but can never grasp. It is always just beyond the horizon, enticing us onward in an illusive pursuit, much like searching for the end of the rainbow.

To find true happiness requires getting out of self, having a purpose which is other centered, in service to God and mankind. It is in the process of serving others and making a difference in their lives that we discover joy and contentment. We must seek the good of others more than of our own. Only then will we find the satisfaction and joy of true happiness. We have been created by God to live this way, to live in community, because God himself is in a communal relationship as Father, Son and Spirit and desires to have a communal relationship with us. Jesus, during his brief three years of ministry, established a model of service for us to follow. It is a model based on love and relationships. It is only in abandoning our selves in loving and serving others that we truly find the contentment of happiness. It’s time to ask ourselves, what am I looking for to provide happiness in my life?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Battle with Idols

Our post-modern world has much in common with the ancient world, going back even to pre-historic times; namely that both worlds, modern and ancient, have always fought a battle with idolatry. While the ancient world, with its plethora of gods and goddesses was more overt in its struggle with idolatry, the struggle in our modern world is more covert and insidious, even disavowing the very existence of the one true God while worshipping as many, if not more, idols than did the men and women of ancient times. While the ancients thought of their deities in more physical terms, depicting them with human qualities, we tend to idolize individuals, institutions and concepts. If the assertion by Owen Barfield in his book Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry that “when the nature and limitations of artificial images are forgotten, they become idols” is correct, we have a very serious problem indeed.

Exhibiting a “more is better” ideology, we project upon our images excessive qualities which by far exceed their natural limitations. Consumed by a thirst for power, our government confers upon itself salvific status, enticing us to look to it for solutions to all our problems. Seeking prosperity we become consumed with the acquisition of wealth, forgetting that wealth is transitory, as those who experienced the stock market crash of 1929 or the aftermath of the recent mortgage meltdown quickly discovered. Consumed with status we strive to obtain degrees from the prestigious centers of academia; the mere physical piece of paper showing our degree having more value to us than the actual knowledge we have supposedly acquired in the process. Forgetting that the original purpose of the institutions of higher learning was to impart wisdom and knowledge, along with the tools necessary to acquire them, thus enabling people to live moral and spiritual lives in society, we have idolized academia.

Our flirtation with idols does not end there. Barfield defines idolatry “as the valuing of images or representations in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons”, thus an idol is “an image so valued.” In this light, our idolatrous worship can extent to anything, even to good things. As soon as an admired image becomes a desired object it is in danger of becoming an idol we worship. The acquisition of a beautiful wife (or successful husband), a coveted job, social status, the latest technological toys, etc. can all become sources of idolatry. For that matter, even our church can become an idol if we value it more than we do God.

Just as he refused to do in the Old Testament times, God refuses to play second fiddle today. If we are to follow him, he must be number one in our lives. If we desire anything more than him, we have already succumbed to idol worship and come under his condemnation, needing to repent and seek his forgiveness. There is not other way.

Because the temptations are often strong, it is important to do a reality check from time to time, examining whether or not we are in danger of creating idols. If we find that there are certain things that we dwell upon more than God, we may be guilty of idol worship. If the trust we place in things far surpasses their limitations or we glamorize them, we are likely idolizing them. If we look to society or government for all the answers to our problems, we will find that we are guilty. Ask yourself the question: Who do I really worship – God or something else?