Wednesday, October 28, 2009

From 'How' to 'Who'

Reflections on our culture's pursuit of Happiness
For Thou Art my hope; O LORD my God, Thou are my confidence from my youth.” (Ps 71:5)
Sometimes when I feel down, depressed or even desperate, I will turn to the Psalms for help. Ps 1 reaffirms the solid foundation of the Word of God. Ps 2 tells us that while everything around us may be in turmoil, God is there for us to take refuge in. Ps 3 begins with direct threats coming at David, and ends with a trust that God’s people will ultimately be blessed regardless. By reading each psalm as it is, I cannot help but be amazed at the scope of emotional openness one can adopt before God. The 150 psalms together provide a treasure-house of praise & worship, joy & ecstacy, comfort & encouragement, affirmation of faith and expression of despair. No other book in the world could compare with the range of emotional experience encountered and shared by the psalmists. The psalms invite us in to share the journey, to experience the ups and downs of being human, and the utter joy to have God as our strength and refuge in our times of trouble. In our era, it is not always easy to approach the Bible with an attitude of God-seeking. This is because our present culture is one that is often filled with how's.
  • How do I make more money?
  • How do I have better relationships?
  • How do I make better presentations?
  • How do I design a winning plan?
  • How do I solve this computer problem?

Such a mentality sometimes affect our reading of the Psalms. We begin to ask about how to use the Bible to meet our own needs. We become caught up with the techniques of reading that we fail to appreciate that God is not a method but a person. Part of the reason for this 'how' mentality lies in our lifestyle of consumerism. We use electricity at home. We eat food at least three times a day. The cars we drive consume fuel. Studies in 2005 have shown that close to 80% of the world's resources are consumed by the wealthiest 20% of the world's rich nations. When we live most of our hours 'consuming' stuff, what is there to ensure that when we open the Bible, we are still wearing the hat of consumerism?  If that is the case, we read the Bible as if it is a Do-It-Yourself spiritual perk-me-up pill, or a daily dosage to 'balance' our busy careers and lifestyles. The Bible becomes as follows:
  • Suffering: "What does the Bible say about suffering?"
  • Jobless: "What does the Bible say about unemployment?"
  • Bad Relationships: "How do I get my spouse to treat me better? Is there a verse to convict him/her that I can use?"
  • World Events: "How does the Bible prophesy about these events?"
Such an attitude immediately straitjackets the Bible to conform to our own ideas and expectations. We flip from one verse to another looking for the 'right' answer. We sacrifice reading in context so that we can catch the 'right' verse to meet our most immediate emotional need, even though it means reading OUT of context. In other words, if we approach the Bible from the perspective of how, we can easily get frustrated when we do not get what we want. Sometimes we think that when we know the 'how,' our journey to happiness is set.

Unfortunately, such methods do not last. They are but temporary fixes.  Worse, it tells God the kind of person we are. I remember a time when I was first introduced to multi-level marketing. I have not met this friend for many years, until we bump into each other at a shopping mall. After exchanging standard pleasantries, we gave each other our contact information. A week later, I got a call to meet up for lunch. Happily I agreed. Soon the lunch turned into a major sales pitch about the multilevel marketing scheme and product. My protests landed on deaf ears. My friend had me cornered at all angles. As I think back, I shudder to imagine subjecting my friends to similar treatment. That day, I felt used. It is one thing to share a product or service one has. It is yet another to keep pushing it even when I have expressly said no.

Fortunately, not all salespeople as persistent as that friend of mine.  I like one particular quote from an insurance salesman. He says
"When you see me, do not think of insurance.
When you see insurance, think of me."
I appreciate that. It puts the desire for friendship before the insurance. Likewise, when we read the Bible, we must not think of our reading in terms of looking for answers to our own personal problems. Doing that only scratches the surface of our true needs. That will be using God's Word to meet our own ends. When we read God's Word, think of God.

In “On the Spirit of Happiness," a community of monks in New York commented:
Today’s culture idolizes technique. How-to manuals literally overflow the shelves of bookstores. We are so conditioned to the genre that we automatically seek out books on whatever interests us, fully expecting that we can achieve whatever results we might desire simply by finding the right recipe – learning the technique.” (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p95)
It is a rebuke on our world's infatuation with solutions and techniques. Wisely, the monks lead us toward the true source of happiness: Jesus.
Being happy involves the intense struggle of entering intimately into all that we do. And that is in our very nature; it’s what God has placed in us. This is what the Transfiguration is about. It’s not some pious story about going up a mountain and having light shine on everything. It has to do with the apostles gaining an insight into who Jesus really is.” (Monks, In the Spirit of Happiness, p313)

Let me conclude: The psalms point us back to God. True happiness must be in God alone. Scriptures remind us that only God can provide true comfort and true happiness. True happiness does not lie in the technique or the how of living. One can follow all the formulas of the self-help books and still be unhappy. Remember that there are 3 common letters in the word ‘how' and 'who.’ The next time we ask H.O.W in our pursuit of happiness, shake them loose like scrabble letters and rearrange them by putting ‘W’ in front of HO. True happiness lies in seeking the W.H.O, not the how. Let us come to God just as we are, ready to put aside our selfish agenda, and to be willing to be obedient to God's agenda.

Come to me, all who are weary and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

THOUGHT: Reading self-help books or following positive formula can be useful at times. Reading the Bible to meet our needs can be appropriate at times. Yet, when they become the main staple of our lives, they can become addictions, or idols. How do you know if they (or your good self) have taken over the place of Christ on your throne? Have you been guilty of using other people toward your own ends?


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