The Illusion of Happiness and the Kindness of Want

God put eternity into our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) so that we can, if we aren’t too distracted, sense that something more awaits us.

Photo cred to Deb Zeyher

To CS Lewis was posed the following proposition and question:

“Many people feel resentful or unhappy because they think they are the target of unjust fate. These feelings are stimulated by bereavement, illness, deranged working or domestic conditions, or the observation of suffering in others. What is the Christian view of this problem?”

Today, the same question has taken on a sharper edge aimed at Christianity and the character of God: If God is all good and all powerful, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Either God isn’t all good; or God isn’t all powerful; or God simply does not exist.

CS Lewis answered the question put to him as follows:

“The Christian view is that people are created to be in a certain relation to God. If we are in that relation to Him, the right relation to one another will follow inevitably. Christ said it was difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt, 19:23; Mk. 10:23; Luke 18:24), referring, no doubt, to riches in the ordinary sense. But, I think it really covers riches in everything – good fortune, health, popularity, and all the things one wants to have.

“All these things tend, just as money tends, to make you feel independent of God. Because if you have them, you feel happy already and contented in this life. You don’t want to turn away to anything more, and so you try to rest in a shadowy happiness, as if it could last forever.

“But God wants to give you a real and eternal happiness. Consequently, He may have to take all these riches away from you. If He doesn’t, you will go on relying on them. It sounds cruel, doesn’t it?

“But I am beginning to find out what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a cruel doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows work punishment, but I find in practice that, when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a punishment it becomes easier to bear.

“If you think of this world as something simply intended for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable. Think of it as a place of training and correction, and it’s not so bad.

“Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think of it as a hotel. The other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is what comforts and strengthens you in the end.

“The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world become pessimists; the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.”

I like to say that perspective changes everything. Because human beings are finite, our perspective is limited. Change it, and the world looks different from the new angle.

Lewis had a perspective of this world that allowed him to see it as beautiful, for what it is worth. Perhaps, he was colored by his experience as a late teenager fighting in World War I. He knew the worst the world had to offer.

When he became a believer in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he found the “silver lining”. He found hope and light in the darkness of the world.

Many people who live in the late 20th and 21st centuries have had a relatively good time of “this life” compared to people just a few generations before us (and even more dramatically compared to people of centuries past). Our perspective is colored by our relative prosperity. In the United States today, even those who live below the poverty line live higher and better than most of the people in the rest of the world (and in times past).

The comparative riches we have tend to make us feel independent of God. Indeed, the shift in the question of the problem of evil from focusing on individual unfairness to thinking it is proof that God does not exist is a product of our perspective.

We have enough that we are willing to accept that what we can gain in this life is all there is. We have embraced a shadowy happiness in lieu of true joy that God offers to those who seek Him.

Continue reading “The Illusion of Happiness and the Kindness of Want”

On the Willows There

One of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written and recorded is On the Willows from Godpsell, the musical. Take a moment to listen to the song and the words.

The song lyrics are found in Psalm 137 from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

Psalm 137:1‭-‬4 ESV

The Psalm is a communal lament of the exiled people of Abraham’s ancestry in Babylon yearning for Jerusalem in their homeland. The rivers of Babylon are the Tigris and the Euphrates and their tributaries.

As I meditate on these things, I find it ironic that the region of the Tigris and Euphrates are thought to have been the location of the Garden of Eden. When the Psalm was written, the area was governed by Nebuchadnezzar II, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time, who had sieged Jerusalem, captured its inhabitants, and driven them to Babylon.

The song captures beautifully the sorrow and longing of a people who had recently lost their homes and all that was familiar to them. Not just their homes, but their way of life, their safety and security, their community, their culture, their ancestral roots, and their spiritual sanctuary – the Temple. Everything they valued most highly was lost in the exile, even their purpose and reason for living.

Jerusalem was the gem of the land God had promised to their ancient father, Abraham. Abraham had wandered from Ur, not far from Babylon, at the direction of God over one thousand miles to a “land God would show him”, a land God promised for his descendants.

Several generations after Abraham, his descendants were forced by famine to find refuge in Egypt where they were initially welcomed with open arms. They were eventually enslaved there for the ambitions of the Egyptian Pharaohs. They labored there, captives in slavery, for approximately 400 years.

Through a miraculous series of events, Moses led them out of Egypt and out of the grasp of their captors. They wandered 40 years through desert regions between the land of their former captivity and the land God promised many, many generations earlier to Abraham. God lead them by cloud during the day and by fire at night.

When they finally arrived in the land God promised so many years earlier, a land flowing with milk and honey, it was a homecoming of epic proportions. They lived and flourished there for many generations and centuries.

They were able to fend off the surrounding threats and to establish an Eden of sorts for themselves. Their safety and security that allowed them to construct a grand Temple where they could commune intimately with their God who rescued them out of slavery and delivered them to the promised land.

But all was not well in this Eden. Much like the first Eden, choices were made that ran counter to the designs and intentions for their wellbeing.

Through the Prophets, we learn that they became complacent in their comfort and abundance. They forgot the God who rescued them and delivered them into the land and gave themselves to idols. They stopped doing justice among one another, and they became as corrupt, wicked and evil as the nations that were driven out of the land before them.

This cycle of Edenic living, exile, longing, deliverance, redemption, Edenic living, exile and longing is the story of humankind. The exile is long and the yearning for Eden is great.

Continue reading “On the Willows There”

From the Image of God to the Likeness of God: from the Old Self to the New Self is a Matter of Choice

In Genesis 1:27, we learn that God created human beings in His image:

God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

In his letter to the Ephesians 4:24, Paul urged them (and us),

to put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Thousands of years have passed between those two statements. God has been working out His purposes in the heavens and the earth from before the beginning. Creating man in His image and establishing man in His likeness has been central to that purpose.

Reading the words of Paul in Ephesians, which clearly echo the description of God’s creation of human beings, got me thinking about the difference between the image of God that built right into human beings from the start and the “new self” that we are urged to put on that has created in the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness of truth.

What was the image of in God which we were created?

What is the new self that has been created in the likeness of God that we must put on?

Why must we put on a new self when human beings have already been created in the image of God?

I try not to lean on the assumptions that come first to mind when approaching Scripture. I often go back and work through text looking for things I haven’t seen before. As I write this, I don’t know exactly what I will find. I was intrigued by the echoes of Genesis in Paul’s and prompted to dig into them freshly.

Continue reading “From the Image of God to the Likeness of God: from the Old Self to the New Self is a Matter of Choice”

On the Sharp Edge is the Tension of a Narrow Path in the Natural and Spiritual Realms

https://www.flickr.com/photos/23899307@N05/4053030428

Andy Bannister writes in the Bad Theology Gap about the danger of sliding off one side or the other of theological constructs that Scripture holds in tension. For a visual, he describes the Sharp Edge of Mt. Blencathra in northern England that he hiked with his bride on their honeymoon. The way is “perfectly safe” to take the Sharp Edge to the top of the mountain, he says,

“provided you keep to the very top of the arête and don’t start fooling around trying to veer off to one side or the other. Keep your balance and keep a straight line and you’ll be fine.”

I have written before about the theological narrow road – the road that requires remaining in the center of the tension between two theological constructs – in the past. It is a theme that I see running throughout Scripture.

To be fair, the context in which Jesus uses the concept of the narrow path or gate is more pointed:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is narrow and the way is constricted that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

But, I don’t think the way Jesus uses the narrow gate/way concept is antithetical to the way I am using it here.

It is a theme we see in the universe that reflects God’s design with the fine tuning of physical constants. Those constants were set to razor thin parameters from the moment after the so-called Big Bang, such that carbon-based life was inevitable to form on a planet we call earth. Any slight deviation in those constants, and the Universe would expand too quickly and collapse back in on itself, or it would expand too slowly and lack the energy to spawn life.

This fine-tuning is (perhaps) like the narrow path (or narrow road) in that any deviation off a narrow path takes us into the woods, or weeds, or worse – down a steep mountainside!

A narrow road or (arête) is like the fine-tuning of the cosmological constants in God’s universe that were set just so, within very small tolerances that were necessary to produce life as we know it.


I see these principals in the sweep of Scripture that began with one choice that dooms mankind to futility, setting the stage for another choice that leads to the redemption of the created world. One choice that allowed us freedom doomed us to separation from God, but it was necessary to set up another choice (Jesus) that requires that same freedom to love God – not out of compulsion, but because we want to love God.

Andy Bannister sees this narrow path (arête) in the “classic example” of “the balance between God’s sovereignty and human free will”. The Scripture holds these concepts together, while we tend to want to simplify them and, in so doing, pull them apart.

“Rather than stick to the theological arête, we delight in plunging down one side of an issue or the other, sliding like a mountain goat with greased hooves as we suddenly discover the cliff is sheerer than we thought.”

While the Bible holds in balance the sovereignty of God and a substantive freedom of will for human beings, Bannister observes that people have struggled to hold on to one without letting go the other:

“[T]hroughout church history factions have formed, denominations have split apart, hostilities broken out, and nasty emoticons deployed in anger on Twitter by people who want to play off divine sovereignty versus human freedom.”

I see the same tension in a recent sermon that focused on the difference between childlike love and childishness, which displays a lack of love. Jesus called us to be like little children in our faith, but not childish. Other tensions exist, such as the necessity of faith and works. These are not contradictory concepts, but paradoxes that need to be harmonized.

These paradoxes don’t only exist in metaphysical realms. The reality of quantum mechanics seems to stand in contrast to the constants of classical physics, yet we don’t dispose of one set of principals to hold on to the other. We don’t favor one over the other, because we find the truth lies in holding both. We hold both sets of principals together, even though we might not see how they can be harmonized.

Interestingly, the idea of holding apparently contrasting things in tension is an ancient, biblical principal.

“It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other….” (Ecclesiastes 7:18 NASB)