Sunday, December 17, 2017

Pursuing Happiness vs. Pursuing God




It seems every single human being who has ever walked the face of this planet has been in pursuit of one ultimate goal: happiness.

Certainly we all have different visions of how we will achieve this end-goal: living in America, moving up the corporate ladder, stockpiling millions of dollars, living in a mansion, spending time with family, selling everything, or gaining self-identity. All these visions may be different; some are even at odds with one another. But the end-goal is the same: to achieve lasting happiness.

How Could These Pursuits Be in Opposition to One Another?


A couple years ago, I drew the conclusion that one of the major issues amongst Christians is that we are too busy pursuing happiness instead of pursuing God. What I meant by this conclusion was that the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of God were on two opposite ends of the spectrum. Therefore, you could only have one of the two: God or happiness.

As I studied this subject a bit more, I realized I wasn’t the first person to have arrived at this conclusion. People all throughout history have arrived at similar conclusions, but none more obvious and influential than Immanuel Kant. Although Kant had no appreciation for Christianity, he was very interested in the philosophy of morals and ethics. He drew the conclusion that the most moral act a person could perform was one in which he not only intended to receive no benefit, but actually received no benefit.[1]

According to many Christian theologians, to pursue God is to pursue the highest form of morality. If we apply Kant’s philosophy of ethics to the pursuit of God, we draw the conclusion that when we pursue God, we are not permitted to receive benefit from this pursuit, lest it diminish the moral value of this pursuit. In this way of thinking, the pursuit of God and the pursuit of happiness stand in opposition to one another.

This belief is rampant among American Christians. They work really hard to do what they do, simply because it is their duty as Christians, without expecting to receive any benefit, whether physical or spiritual, from their actions.

Is this what the Bible, the authoritative book of Christianity, says, or have today’s Christians unknowingly confused Kantian ethics with biblical ethics?

How Could These Pursuits Be One in the Same?


A Bible verse that stands out as appearing to agree with Kantian ethics is this one from the Gospel of Luke, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…”[2] Another one is, “[Love] is not self-seeking…”[3] If all we had to work with was these two partial Bible verses, we’d have to agree with Kant that the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of God are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

But what happens when we read the entire Bible? Would we draw the same conclusion? If the pursuit of God and the pursuit of happiness are opposites, then how do we explain this verse? “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forever more.”[4] According to David, the writer of this Psalm, we will experience everlasting pleasure in the presence of God. Pleasure is a benefit, is it not? If God demands the highest morality, and the highest morality can only be achieved by receiving no benefit, then something is seriously wrong with the picture this verse paints for us.

Or how about these verses which Jesus spoke: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”[5] Jesus promised his disciples great rewards for following him. Again, this sounds drastically different than Kantian ethics.

Or what about this final example: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”[6] It appears that Paul, the writer of this verse, is saying that the reason he would be willing to give away all he has and deliver up his body to be burned is because of a benefit he might gain from it. Essentially what he’s saying is, “What’s the point in doing all those things if I don’t gain something from it?” Paul was expecting to receive benefit from his actions.

Over and over throughout the Bible, God promises great rewards to his people. Even in the verse I quoted earlier from Luke 6, the verse ends by promising reward for loving our enemies, doing good, and lending, expecting nothing in return.[7]

According to the Bible, the pursuit of God and the pursuit of happiness are not on opposite ends of the spectrum. Actually, the Bible tells us that the greatest happiness we can ever find will be found in our pursuit of God, not because he gives us a bunch of stuff to make us happy, but because he gives us himself.

Is the Pursuit of Happiness the Same as the Pursuit of God?


Before I wrap up, I want to answer this final question because of a common misunderstanding I’ve observed when discussing this topic: Is the pursuit of happiness the same as the pursuit of God?

When we think of achieving happiness, typically we picture having lots of money, lots of nice stuff, a successful career, and a healthy family. I’ve seen people who have all that stuff, yet they’re still not happy. And I’ve seen people with none of that stuff, yet they’re happy. All of these things are not really necessary in order to find happiness, nor is gaining great amounts of those things going to guarantee happiness.

It seems that the more we have, the more we want. Enough is never enough. With every milestone we hit, we experience a brief period of happiness, but then it quickly fades as we began setting our sights towards the next major milestone. No matter how much money we have, how many toys we have, how successful of a career we have, or how healthy of a family we have, we will never be completely happy with all that stuff. We will always feel unfulfilled.

This feeling of unfulfillment is what philosophers Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis called a void. They both agreed that this void could only be filled by an infinite and immutable object.[8] The only infinite and immutable object which exists is God, the creator, sustainer, and sovereign ruler of the universe.

Do you want to experience everlasting happiness? Pursue God. Your pursuit of happiness will be achieved in your pursuit of God.

I’ll warn you up front that when you pursue God, you’re initially probably not going to like the ways he works in your life. He’ll probably take away some, and maybe even all, of the things in which you currently seek happiness. But I can tell you both from my experience and from the experience of countless others that losing these things is going to be the best thing that ever happened to you because it will allow you to experience a much greater level of happiness than the happiness you currently find in all your stuff. The happiness we’ll receive from gaining God far surpasses the happiness we’ll receive from anyone or anything else in this life.[9]


[1] Ayn Rand, For the Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1961), 32.
[2] Luke 6:35 (ESV).
[3] 1 Corinthians 13:5 (NIV).
[4] Psalms 16:11 (ESV).
[5] Luke 18:29-30 (ESV).
[6] 1 Corinthians 13:3 (ESV).
[7] “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.” – Luke 6:35 (ESV)
[8] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 113, thought #425.
[9] Much of my thinking on this topic was inspired by John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2011).

Saturday, December 9, 2017

How Did Our Holiday Traditions Originate?




Celebration of Christmas


Americans observe December 25 as a national holiday to observe Christmas. Where did this tradition originate?

Christmas originated as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, the person who Christians believe to be their Messiah. It appears that Christians first began celebrating the birth of Jesus within a couple hundred years of his birth, but it wasn’t until the fourth century that it was officially recognized by the Roman government.

Why did early Christians choose to celebrate his birth on December 25? A number of theories have been postulated on this one, but the leading theory is that December 25 was the time when the Romans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia. What was Saturnalia?

In Roman culture, Saturn was worshiped as the god of agriculture. Unlike America, Europe would’ve experienced their winter solstice (shortest day of the year) around December 25. Therefore, starting on December 17, the Romans would celebrate Saturnalia as a week-long festival to celebrate the return of the sun for the spring season. This festival, which involved a lot of drinking, was not sanctioned by the early Christians. So it is theorized that Christians set Christmas during this same time to rival Saturnalia.[1]

When Europeans (mostly persecuted Protestants) first began coming to America, they made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. But by the 1680s, celebrating Christmas became legalized. However, the federal government didn’t recognize December 25 as a federal holiday until 1870.[2]

Gift Giving


Surprisingly, the tradition of gift giving does not have Christian origins, nor is it primarily associated with St. Nicholas. Instead, it appears to have originated as a carryover tradition from the Roman Saturnalia festival.

During the festival, people gave “one another gifts such as pottery figurines, edible treats like fruit and nuts, and festive candles.”[3] This tradition is supposed to have carried over into the Christmas celebrations of early Christians.

What about the wise men? When the wise men came to see Jesus, they acknowledged that he was a king. In Eastern culture, it was common for people to bring a gift to the king when they visited him. So the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which were presented to Jesus were understood as gifts being given to a king.

What about Santa Claus?

Santa Claus and His Reindeer


What would the holiday season be without Santa and his reindeer? I’ll start with the legend of Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas was a Catholic bishop in the fourth century who valued giving gifts, especially to people who were in great need. As legend has it, there was a poor man who had three daughters. At that time, it was customary for the father of the bride to give money to the bridegroom called a dowry, but because he was poor, he didn’t have the ability to give a dowry to their bridegrooms, meaning that his daughters couldn’t get married. But in the middle of the night, St. Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney which fell into a stocking which had been hung up by the fire to dry. When the man figured out that St. Nicholas was responsible for giving the gift, he told all his friends and news spread such that whenever people received a secret gift, they attributed it to St. Nicholas.[4]

How did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? The Dutch knew St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolass. In America, the name was shortened among the Dutch to Sinteklaas and later morphed into the English name Santa Claus.[5] Say Sinteklaas out loud and you’ll see the connection.

Where did Santa’s reindeer originate? The first mention of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh is from a poem written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore titled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” This poem was later renamed “Twas the Night before Christmas.” In this poem, Santa is supposed to travel from house to house in a flying a sleigh powered by eight reindeer named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen.

In 1939, Robert May wrote a book about Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer who was teased by the other reindeer by of his glowing red nose, but when a foggy Christmas Eve came, he was commissioned to be the light for Santa’s sleigh. This book sold millions of copies, was adapted into a song which was became a Gene Autry hit, and was made into a popular children’s movie in 1961.[6]

Christmas Carols


Growing up, our youth group made an annual visit to some of the elderly folks in our church to sing Christmas carols. We’ve all heard carols such as Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

The word carol means to dance or sing a song of praise or joy. Like some of the other traditions we’ve seen so far, it seems to have originated during Saturnalia. The Romans would sing praises to their god.[7]

When Christians first began celebrating Christmas, carols were a part of the celebrations. Throughout the middle ages, carols all but disappeared, but in the past couple hundred years, they have revived as an important part of the holiday season.

Decorations


The day after Thanksgiving, families begin pulling out their holiday decorations such as trees, ornaments, and lights. Where did these traditions originate? Let’s start with the Christmas tree.

It appears that the custom of setting up a tree first originated in Egypt with palm trees, was customary in Babylon with evergreen trees, and was used in the Roman festival of Saturnalia with fir trees.[8] During this festival, Romans placed fir trees decorated with red berries in their temples and decorated their homes with branches of fir trees.

No one really knows when fir trees were first used as Christmas trees, but it’s speculated that they were first used around a thousand years ago and these trees were hung upside down from the ceiling. In the seventeenth century, Germans began decorating their trees with gingerbread, gold colored apples, and glass ornaments.

Christmas tree lights were added shortly after the invention of the light bulb. They became more publicized in 1895 when Grover Cleveland had the tree in the White House decorated with Christmas lights. Over time, different colors were added and the lights evolved into what they are today.[9]


What did you find most interesting about these holiday traditions? Are there any others that interest you?


[1] David Pack, “The True Origins of Christmas,” The Real Truth: A Magazine Restoring Plain Understanding, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017. Also see “Christmas Day in the United States,” n.d., accessed December 9, 2017, https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/christmas-day.
[2] “Christmas Day in the United States,” n.d., accessed December 9, 2017, https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/christmas-day.
[3] “A Brief History of the Christmas Present,” The Week, December 20, 2014, accessed December 9, 2017, http://theweek.com/articles/441360/brief-history-christmas-present.
[4] “St. Nicholas, Santa Claus & Father Christmas,” Why Christmas, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/fatherchristmas.shtml.
[5] “Santa Claus,” History, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017, http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus.
[6] Ibid.
[7] “The History of Christmas Carols,” Why Christmas, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/carols_history.shtml.
[8] David Pack, “The True Origins of Christmas.”
[9] “The History of Christmas Trees,” Why Christmas, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/trees.shtml.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Why I Stopped Trying to Become a Better Person





For many years, I spent lots of time and energy trying to become a better person. It’s not that anyone would've ever considered me a terrible person, but I’ve never been satisfied with being good enough. I’ve always wanted to continue trying to get better day in and day out.

In our culture, trying to become a better person is an admirable trait. Leadership gurus spend a lot of time talking about all the benefits of continuing to improve ourselves. I don't disagree. Becoming a better person is great and something I hope we all are able to experience.

A few years ago, in the midst of me trying to become a better person, I encountered a problem that, to my surprise, I couldn't overcome. For all the years I spent improving myself, I found an area of my life that I couldn't change, no matter how hard I tried. I finally gave up and stopped trying to become a better person. And it was here that I finally experienced a breakthrough. Here's what happened.
 

My Journey to the Bottom


Throughout my life, I have been pretty successful at appearing like I am becoming a better person. Overall, I’ve had pretty good morals and have tried my best to obey all the rules. In the church world, I used to be viewed as a superstar Christian. I attended a church service every Sunday, was friendly to the people around me, didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t have sex outside of marriage, served needy families, gave ten percent of my income to my local church, read my Bible every day, was a part of the leadership team at our church, sang in the praise band, was the church Treasurer, and I eventually quit my engineering job to work full-time at our church. I started well and continued to build upon my early success to become a better person day after day.

But in the midst of all this success, there was a nagging struggle I was facing. I was making great progress in modifying my outward behaviors, but inwardly, I was seeing little to no progress.

I remember a day in high school when I realized I didn’t care about people the way I thought I should care about them. When I would engage in conversation with people, I spent most of the time talking about myself. Sometimes out of politeness, I would ask how the other person was doing, but would immediately forget what was said. I made a commitment to myself that day to ask others how they were doing and try to remember what was said. For the next week, I fulfilled my objective. But as time went on, I went back to talking about myself all the time.

For years, I experienced the same failure over and over and over. I tried to do everything I could to change the way I interacted with other people, but I kept failing time and time again. Even when I experienced little bits of success at asking questions rather than doing all the talking, I recognized that I really didn’t care about the people; I was only asking the questions in order to make it seem like I cared about them.

I was plagued with an overwhelming since of uneasiness about my situation, but I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to care about other people, but I couldn’t seem to do anything to change that part of me.

About three years ago, I hit rock bottom. A series of uncontrollable circumstances in my life brought me to this painful, yet life changing place. It was here that I was challenged like I've never been challenged before. Everything I believed about being a Christian was put on a scale and weighed against what the Bible actually says. It was during this painful experience that my nagging struggle came to an end.

My Journey to Heart Transformation


In late summer of 2014, I spent a week with a close friend who lived close to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Amidst our time hiking and canoeing, I spent some time reading a book which was highly recommended by a friend. As I was reading one evening, a very bright lightbulb magically turned on. In that moment, for the first time in my life, I realized my problem. For all these years, I had been trying to transform my heart (inward change), but the truth was that I was incapable of changing it. I could continue trying to transform it for the rest of my life, but no amount of “fake it till I make it” behavior modification was going to cause me to care about people. The only way I could care about them was for God to transform my heart; he had to give me the ability to care about them.[1]

Six months later, I began to experience God’s transformation first-hand. I began feeling so much love and compassion for people that I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to run up to everyone I knew to give them huge hugs and tell them how much I cared about them. I wanted to know everything about them. And I wanted to pray for them. Since all that stuff could seem a bit creepy, I tried to contain myself as best I could, but it was really hard.

Do you see what was happening? As I was experiencing heart transformation, my behaviors began to naturally change. Building quality, caring relationships became something I wanted to do rather than something I felt like I had to do. When you love people that much, you can’t help but show them how much you care about them.

Two and a half years later, I continue to experience God’s work in my heart as he continues his transformation to make me love people more and more every single day. I don’t need to try to become a better person anymore because God is already hard at work. The best thing I can do is get out of the way and let him do his thing.

In the past two and a half years, I've learned a lot about God's heart transformation. Here are four of the most important parts to it:

  1. There’s nothing we can do to move God to transform our hearts. He does it in his time at his speed.[2] That doesn’t mean I don’t pray for heart transformation every single day for me and for my friends. I definitely do. But it’s not because I pray that he does his work; it’s because he does his work that I pray.
  2. The goal of heart transformation is to make our hearts like God’s heart.[3] God’s love is so much greater than any love we can fathom. After all, he loves himself (because he is worthy of love) and us so much that he endured his own wrath in order to pay for our sins. His goal is to transform our hearts to love the same way he loves.
  3. Heart transformation is a life-long process. It doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient. At times, you may appear to experience a lot of progress at a single point in time, but realize that God has been working in the background for many years to bring everything together perfectly at that moment. Furthermore, no one ever reaches full perfection in this life.[4] It’s only when we’re with Jesus that we will experience perfect transformation.
  4. As our hearts continue to be transformed, we will naturally live more and more in obedience to God. When James, one of the biblical writers, talked about needing to have both faith and works,[5] he wasn’t talking about our works doing anything to earn salvation; he was talking about God’s saving and transforming work in our hearts leading us to do good works. So if someone says they have faith but don’t have good works, then there’s a good chance that person doesn’t actually have faith.

Conclusion


So why did I stop trying to become a better person? I stopped trying to become a better person because I can’t truly make myself into a better person. I can modify my outward behaviors, but I can’t change my heart. Therefore, I’ve stopped wasting my time and energy hitting my head against a brick wall and instead have chosen to watch and praise God for the work he has done and continues to do in my heart and the hearts of the people around me each and every day. And I hope you are and/or will have an opportunity to experience the same thing.


[1] “And we all…are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18; “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” – Ezekiel 36:26
[2] “’I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” – Romans 9:15-16.
[3] “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” – 1 Thessalonians 4:3. To be sanctified means to be holy. And the Bible tells us that we need to be holy as God is holy. But it also tells us that God is the one who makes us holy.
[4] “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” – Philippians 3:12
[5] “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” – James 2:17