Hello all. I took last week off to rest my brain as I felt like I needed to fill myself and not pour out for the day. As C.S. Lewis used to say “All things in moderation, including moderation”. Anyways, I have been pondering happiness and joy lately and I thought I would spend some time writing down my thoughts on where I believe these things come from, and some of the ways that our thinking can go wrong in regards to finding and maintaining a joyous attitude.
I want to start with a bit of a grizzly scenario.
Lets say that you find yourself alone and freezing to death, and you are becoming increasingly convinced that your demise is steadily approaching. How would you feel? I know it’s a dumb question, we would all feel pretty awful about the whole situation. Hopelessness is saddening, pain is never fun, and being alone while feeling hopeless and in pain only piles on more misery.
Now, lets say that the situation changed. Someone comes to you and gives you a jacket that was of such high quality that your body was warmed and your life was saved. How would you feel then? I dare say that you would probably feel quite happy. And the jacket had allot to do with that.
A jacket, when you are cold, makes you happy.
Now, if this statement is true, what could be said of ten jackets? Would ten jackets make you ten times happier? Would a hundred jackets make you a hundred times happier? Would a thousand jackets make you a thousand times happier?
No. It will not.
Happiness is not about having an overabundance of one thing. Studies have proven that, in fact, an overabundance of anything is almost always harmful.If you’ve read the recent reports about people “binge watching” netflix, you will find that this type of behavior actually causes depression. A well crafted show is a good thing. But binge-ing on a good thing is destructive and will actually bring about the opposite of what you are seeking. Happiness and genuine joy come, not from having more and more and more of a good thing, but from receiving just enough of the right thing.
We know this. Deep down inside, we all know this.
This fact, however, does not keep us from trying to acquire a whole bunch of the same thing. A good meal brings us joy, but too much of that meal will leave us miserable, overweight, with low self-esteem and will eventually contribute to an early death. Studies have also recently found that running as exercise is healthy in moderation. But in fact, people who run every day for more than 45 minutes have the same death rates as those who do not run at all.
You are happy when your needs are met, and become saddened when you live in too much abundance and excess. That drive that is inside of you for more and more is a clue that your other parts do not have what they need… namely, your soul.
Your soul has an insatiable desire for more. Theologian Hans Walter Wolff wrote a book called “Anthropology of the Old Testament” and in that book there is a chapter about the “nephesh”, the Hebrew word for “Soul”. In this chapter he repeatedly refers to nephesh as “The needy man”. Wolff uses dozens and dozens of passages of scripture to show us just how needy the soul is. It has a constant desire for more and more, but unless it is fed exactly what it needs, it is never filled.
Thomas Aquinas wrote:
“We are limited in every way but one: we have unlimited desire, unlimited longing”.
When the makers of Netflix added the “autoplay” feature last year, causing shows to play continuously, one after the other, they knew exactly what they were doing. They had stumbled upon the same thing that made Youtube so popular… one more video. And Facebook… one more scroll down. And the snooze button… one more quick snooze. But none of it ever gives us what we are looking for… in fact, it takes away what we want. We have all lost precious time because of our insatiable desire for “just one more”.
“Simplicity is freedom, duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear.“, as Richard Foster wrote. The discipline of simplicity is an important one. I believe it was meant to remind us of these simple facts that we can readily observe, but rarely notice, every single day. Jesus said “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). I don’t think that we really believe this anymore. It is so ingrained in all of us to literally judge a persons life by the abundance of their possessions… which is why we tend to despise the poor and homeless. This is also the viewpoint of those who would abort a mentally handicapped baby, because we believe that our lives consist of our possessions, and a fully functioning mind is considered among the commodities of a developed society. But Jesus tells us that our possessions, wether it be money, intelligence, willpower, or marketable skills, do not determine a life.
Our request to God should be:
Not for more intelligence, but the simple wisdom to make the decisions that we currently need to make.
Not for more money, but the providence to meet the current need.
Not for more time, but the diligence to live what time we do have to the fullest.
Not for more friends, but the love, compassion, and empathy to be the best possible companion to the few that we have.
Not for more, but for better and more meaningful: moments/relationships/conversations/meals/experiences/marriages/work/etc…
Feed your soul what it needs first, and let the body and mind follow that. When you find yourself wanting more more more… stop and ask yourself where that is coming from. Ask yourself if more has ever really satisfied. Observe all the ways in which more has been destructive in your life and the lives of those around you. And reject the idea that more of this or that will really satisfy.
Ask God for what he calls “Our daily bread”. It is not a lifetime supply. It is right here. Right now. It is all you need.
More on this next week.
On the American plains in the midwest in the mid 19th century it was commonplace for farmers to hear stories of farmers working in the fields when a whiteout blizzard appeared on the horizon. These storms were known to swallow up vast farmlands in a matter of minutes, and there were countless tales of farmers who died in their own yards unable to find their way in the midst of the storm. Many of them, less that a hundred yards from safety, never found their way home.
With this warning in mind, many of them learned that when the weather was still good, they needed a lifeline. They would fasten a rope from their porch to their barn. The rope would lead them home when they could not see where to go or which way to turn.
Likewise I can recall stories of people that I have known that that, when the storms have descended upon their lives, they were spiritually lost. I can’t count on both hands the number of people that I have seen who’s faith has died in the midst of storms. When skies were calm they seemed to live with such spiritual ease and surety. But when things went dark, they were lost. Their bodies lived on, but their faith was abandoned and left to die in the place where the storms arose.
Many people never fathom that life can turn very dark in the blink of an eye. That loss will come their way. That great pain and confusion will arise. That you might suddenly find yourself alone in a terrible storm.
This is typical of the young people and families that I work with. They are immortal, and nothing bad will ever happen. The thought is never entertained that storms will arise, and no preparation is made for the storms of life.
Your soul needs a rope.
You must build that rope through regular spiritual intake. The regular practice of spiritual disciplines, the quietness of solitude and meditation on scriptures and the teachings of Christ, a routine practice of sabbath. These are the things that will lay the groundwork for the path that your soul will take when things are dark.
Our regular practices during peacetime become habitual responses in times of conflict. A person will always long to return to the place where it has learned to gleam nourishment. And in the midst of the storm, the unfed soul will wander to and fro aimlessly looking for answers and finding nothing.
In 1873 Horatio Spafford received a telegram from his wife that would have slain the soul of many-a-man. He was a real estate investor in Chicago, successful by any standards. Two years earlier he had lost his only son to typhoid fever, and the following year lost every bit of real estate he owned in the great Chicago fire. He sent his wife and daughters home to England the following year while he stayed back and focused on rebuilding his life. Two weeks later he received the message that would change everything:
“Saved alone. What shall I do?”
The ship had suffered tragedy and went down with his remaining children, leaving only his beloved wife.
Spafford quickly boarded a ship headed for england and as he passed over the very spot where his daughters had perished, he penned the words of the famous hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”.
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Needless to say, this was a man who had prepared his soul, who had strung a rope to lead himself home again in times of storm and peril. And when those times came, he found his way to the comfort and safety and nourishment of his savior. He was able to drink of that well and his soul, though undoubtedly damaged and scarred, survived.
I wonder if mine would do the same, or if it might simply die in the storm. I wonder if my faith would survive, or if I would leave it behind.
The salvation of your soul is not just about the afterlife. It is about the present life. Salvation means healing and deliverance at the deepest level of who we are in the care of God through the presence of Jesus.
Sooner or later, your world will fall apart. For some of you, like Horatio Spafford, it will happen while you are still alive… but for most it will happen when we die. What will matter then is the soul you have constructed. It will be what you are left with. Your empires might fall, your loved ones, your accomplishments and your riches might be lost. But your soul will remain.
If you focus on building your life alone, then you will run the risk of losing everything. But if you build your soul, you will find that your life is filled with all of the things that you have always wanted. In addition, your soul and your life can be a light that others will find direction in, and a rope that can lead them, and yourself, home again.
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” ~ Jesus of Nazareth.
A few years back my wife and I bought a fixer upper and we worked on house until it was exactly what we wanted it to be, on the inside that is. One day we decided that we would start working on the yard and it was entirely different territory to us.
The yard had not been worked on in years, and the house is 85 years old. Which means that there are 8 decades of yard projects that had been buried like ancient ruins. One layer on top of another. The most prevalent object in each layer was rocks. Subsequently when we started raking the yard in preparation for making a garden we realized that there were far too many rocks to plant anything.
Slowly we started pulling out the rocks one by one and a couple of hours into it we realized that (1) it was going to take a whole lot of work to get all of the rocks out, and (2) when we finish we are going to have a really large pile of rocks to deal with. We never finished the project, and we now park our car on that spot.
But all of this gets me to thinking about those fields you see all over the world where farmers have plowed the earth and gone through all of the preparation and the work involved in preparing the earth for planting. I think of places that I visited on tour last summer in Germany, and I think of pictures of places like Ireland where the earth is separated into vast fields separated by knee high stone walls that stretch the entire length of the field. There are also roads between the fields that are laid with the same stones used for the walls. They meander between vast green gardens and golden fields of wheat. They now play a very important role in the protection and care-taking of the garden. They ensure that the garden is not trampled, and they keep out those that would trample the life-giving fruits of the well tended gardens.
Do you know where those stones come from? I used to assume that they were brought in just to be used as separation for the fields, but I have learned that those stones which now protect the fields and define the boundaries of the gardens were actually dug out and removed from the place where the garden now sits.
This is an amazing thought to me, and it seems that there is something to be gleamed (pun!) from that.
We all have an inner garden. Many of us would like to till and plant in the garden of our souls, but when we actually get in there with the right tools (spiritual disciplines, prayer, study, sabbath… etc) we start to find all kinds of things that need to be removed before anything of substance can grow.
Being a pastor, I interact with allot of people. And when you interact with allot of people, sometimes things can go wrong. People get hurt, and people hurt you. Sometimes it my fault and I need to acknowledge that and say “Here is something in my life that is a hinderance to growth, and it needs to be removed”. Other times the fault is not mine, but is cause by spiritual and moral shortcomings in the lives of those I am working with. When that happens, I need to point and say “That is something that is dangerous, or someone that is unteachable… etc”.
Yesterday I came across one of those emails that pastors sometimes receive. It was from a long time ago and it was angry. It was insulting and attacking and degrading. But wrapped up in it was truths that I needed to hear and things I needed to confront, both in my life and theirs.
Since then much time has passed and new information has been gathered and added to what I now know about that time. But perhaps the biggest thing that I have realized when coming across that old “stone” is that, instead of being a hindrance, these stones are now part of the walls and paths that are daily protecting the garden of my soul.
Some of the stones around the garden of my life and soul are used as barriers, walls. They have helped me set up healthy boundaries that protect me from unhealthy people. People that would trample my garden and destroy the life that is growing there. I have learned that there are healthy people who come and pour into me, and there are unhealthy people that are envious and destructive. In popular psychology they are called vampires (a term coined by Dr. Judith Orloff, and used by others such as Dr. Henry Cloud). They are people who need to be fed, but also need boundaries. I have learned that there needs to be well maintained paths that lead them to the wall where they can be fed from the garden in a way that is healthy and nourishing for both myself and them.
Some of the stone that I have pulled out have become paths that guide people. I point to the stones and say “Here are all of the ways that I have failed, that I needed to change, and the things that were keeping me from growth. Follow the path that I have laid, step on MY stones so that they won’t end up in YOUR garden!”.
My goal is to have a soul that is filled with an overabundance of life-giving food. Overflowing with love for the loveless, grace for the graceless, with peace for those who are constantly at war with the world around them. All of these things are found in Jesus of Nazareth who, many times in scriptures, is referred to as “The stone which the builders have discarded that has now become the cornerstone”.
Often times the things that we have discarded will end up being the same things that will ultimately lead to deliverance and freedom. Not only for you, but also for other people. Even the salvation of your soul was paved with the suffering of the Messiah. But the pain which you inflicted upon him through your sin became part of his path towards your very salvation.
So may you look back on the path that God has led you down and see that it was paved with great toil, but it was necessary to bring you where you are and where He has for you to go.