Thursday, July 22, 2004

The high-wire of contentment

It is there in the back of my head, the dull but incessant thought that my life should somehow be better. Somehow, I should be using my time more effectively. Somehow, I should have deeper friendships. Somehow, I should spend more time with my family. Somehow, I should be doing "God's plan" for my life. Somehow.

So after so many years, why do I feel no closer to this dream? If anything, life seems to be unravelling and spilling out of my hands like too much spagetti, rather than becoming neater. I have decided it is because of mindset, and it is a fine line that lies between complacency and hectic discontent. Lean too far one way, and we fall into becoming slack and slothful, but too far the other and we find ourselves trying to please everyone.

I believe it comes down to comparison. Somewhere deep in our hearts, we have a set of ideas about how our life should be. These ideas include our work for God, the 'significance' of our lives, models of what relationships we should have, and notions of 'normal days' where everything goes 'right'.

After much thought, I have realised such ideas are driven by our heart's desires. We desire to be loved, so we believe we should have loving relationships that fulfill that desire. We desire to be admired, so we believe we should be doing things to inspire admiration from others. We desire to be successful, so we believe we should see evidence of our success. Our wishes for significance, respect, peace, 'goodness', security, and certianty lead us to create a mental world that we think would fulfill our desires.

While good desires are not wrong, we can create such beautiful mental worlds, and we are grossly disappointed when we compare our idealistic mental world with the one we experience. This, I believe, is the source of discontent. Discontent erupts from the colliding mismatch between what we experience, and what we think we should experience. Lo, and behold, it is not rocket science!

Certianly, it is good and healthy to have dreams and aspirations, and to seek to do our best with what we are given in life. Yet, what good does it do comparing where we are to where we believe we should be? Would it do any good when starting a marathon to think, "I should be at the finish line"? No, the end goal motivates us and pulls us through the journey, it does not tend to make us feel better that we have not reached it.

Yet, we are constantly bombarded by what our lives 'should' involve. Look at the media, look at the culture of most Western countries - it has become such a part of our society, and our churches, we scarcely see it there. Little wonder we are discontent! Yet look at some 3rd world countries, many people there are truely happy and content, not because they have great circumstances, but perhaps because they expect nothing better.

We are told in the much-heralded Christian conferences that we should be significant, have impact, have influence, and change the world. While it is true that the church should indeed be light and salt in the whole world, it is so only on a corperate level. Yet, we feel like we 'should' personally change the whole world in an amazing way because 'God wants us to'. No wonder I see myself falling so short of the good Christian mark, it is not that I am not reaching far enough - it is that people tell me I should be able to do the high-jump with no pole.

God did not command us to be great people of influence and impact, He commanded us to love, and share the Good News of His love with others. Is it loving to focus so much on getting the world to love us and to love God that we leave no time for those we love? It is more blessed to give than to recieve, and this is especially true of love.

So, the great ideas of 'impact' and 'influence' preached at us can perhaps do us more harm than good, for they so focus our eyes upon the distant horizon that we stumble upon the ground we walk. Yet, at the same time, we must not spend so much time looking at where we are that we forget where we are going.

Jesus called us to be perfect, even as the Father is perfect. Jesus Himself was perfect. And yet, Jesus did not convert the world. In fact, He had trouble making even his followers believe Him. So why are we told we should personally be such spiritual, financial, and relational superstars? Jesus called us to be servants. The least, not the greatest. The body, not the head. If anything, we should seek to become less of ourselves, to allow more of God to shine out though us. It is the desire to serve better, and to love more, that should prevent complacency - not the desire to make our experience line up with our idealistic mental picture.

Fulfillment comes from what we give far more than from what we get. Focusing too much on what we desire leads to us believing we should have what we desire, and discontent with the lack of what we desire. Focussing only on the here-and-now can lull us into laziness, instead of walking on and growing emotionally, mentally and spiritually as will obey the Lord who calls us on. Yet, focussing on our direction with thankful hearts for our progress results in a balance between contentment and action. So let us set our eyes not on our feet, for we will not move, nor on the distant horizon, for we will stumble in discouragement, but on the steps ahead while appreciating the beauty that adorns our path. Perhaps then we will find we are walking the high-wire of contentment.


Mike said...

Preach it brother!

Since we were small, we have been fed with the idea "we can change the world" - A nice idea yes - but it's like the starfish analogy - you can only throw so many back.

You can use a similar example of driving in Christchurch. You can't make everyone in Christchurch become perfect courteous drivers. But if - when you drive - you let people in, instead of honking your horn and tailgaiting - you give them the incentive to do the same.

You may only come into contact with 2% of all the drivers in Christchurch in a week, but if those 2% take your example, you may reach 4%. if those 4% do the same, you could reach 8% and the cycle continues.

I have come across a similar principle through some non-christian friends of mine. One of them is a buddhist, and has introduced them to something called "The Karma Club".

Buddhism is based on the idea of karma - you do something nice for someone - something nice happens for you. You do something bad, bad stuff happens. The Karma Club is an idea that in order to be a member, you have to go out and do something nice for someone you don't know every friday after work, and if you tell anyone about what you did, it doesn't count.

We could take a few leaves.....

michelle said...

Reuben reuben reuben... how right you are...
like sands slipping through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives (heh.... that was a terrible tv show, but i guess the opening line aint all that far from the truth) You could write a book with all the long posts you write!
And its almost impossible to comment, cos you pack so much in... but brief points
1) i think we all want to make a difference, an impact, but sometimes its so hard to know what to do
2) After much thought, I have realised such ideas are driven by our heart's desires...(etc) that is a good point, i really see myself reflected in it... Its kinda sad, but its true.
3)every little bit counts. All the little things we do are still effective (well you know what i mean, some of them are) The things we do in God's name, that is. Sometimes it feels like a little drop in a bucket, but ive come to realise that manning a child sponsorship table for 2 hours is a start. Its not working in that orphanage in Africa, but its something. =)
4) i know your post was kinda general, but do you have any specific dreams? passions? that you want to share?

michelle said...

oh by the way - i kinda like the karma club's idea about doing nice things for people. On Sunday the pastor of the church i went to told us how he bought and gave chocolate to the petrol station attendent, but he was trying to encourage us to be generous livers =) to do nice things for people more often ... which is an awesome idea

Nathan said...

Hey, thats a good post there Reuben. Keep it up

Just a little thing on the kharma club - if in order to get into the club you need to do something good every without telling anyone, who do you tell to let you in the club....? :)

Philotas said...

you know, this is EXACTLY whats been on my mind for the last few months! :)
Man, do i LOVE this post :D nice job!

Its true. we can hear an inspiring sermon to go and do great things, we can get revved up and hyped and then look and see how realistically difficult those things are, and get disappointed.
While each of us may wish to do something great for God (I know I do) the reality is that we most likely never will. God needs nothing from us, and there is nothing we can give him that he doesnt already have (now where does that come from?)

When we focus on doing great things, as you and Michelle said, we often forget about the small, uninviting, unpleasant and boring jobs that must be done. Like helping out at a church working bee etc, and doing odd jobs for people in a nursing home or whatever. the jobs that more than likely, we will never get recognition for, and never be appreciated for all the effort we put in. Those might be the jobs we are called to do. so while people preach of doing great things, none of these can be done without laying the basic brickwork and foundation. :)

I hate to plug my own site, but on it, theres a quote from a song in the Prince of Egypt, "through Heaven's Eyes' that ties in very well. to read the full transcript, you can search the lyrics out in google :) Its really relevant to this :)

incognito said...

Wow guys, thanks for your encouraging comments. Michelle, yes I do have lots of dreams etc. Big ones include using music to reach non-Christians, having a great marriage and helping people using the stuff God's taught me. They're a bit more specific than that, but that gives you an idea.

At the moment, I know God wants me to do music, but I feel like there's no way it will accomplish anything. In a way that's good, because I have no choice but to trust God.

Phil, you said that "While each of us may wish to do something great for God (I know I do) the reality is that we most likely never will." I disagree. Jesus clearly taught that the least is the greatest in the Kingdom. It's the little things we do for others that sometimes make all the difference. You don't have to personally change hundreds of people, because if each person in the church reaches just a few other people - that is truely great. The greatness of the Church is collectively, not individually.

Of course, the church is full of luke-warm Christians and so this isn't really happening like it should be - but that's another post =)

Kelly said...

Wow! A big deep post & we're all totally on the same wavelength!

I totally know what you mean. For me this comes out the most when I try to explain to people why I'm so passionate about development stuff, everyone (mostly non-Christians) looks at me like I'm this poor stupid, naive little girl - "You really think you can make a difference?" as my old boss asked with total pity in his eyes. My lecturer in conflict management talked about how arguments for the UNs effectiveness were based on a quasi-religious idea that "every individual counts" *sneer*.

It's so hard to backtrack & think like they do for long enough to explain that if I can make a difference to only 1 person, then thats better than doing nothing. & I totally live by that idea of multiplication, because the only reason I'm here & doing what I'm doing is because I am a living witness of how much difference 1 person made to me, & I dare to believe that I might be able to pass that on, & then hopefully the cycle will continue. Even if I go all out & still never achieve anything visible by my life, I reckon that so long as you keep it real with God & do what you can, then you're a winner & He'll figure out how to use it somehow. But so hard to explain to someone who doesn't know God & doesn't have that fire in themselves! The times I've tried, people don't know whether to take me seriously or not, whether I have some ulterior motive or if I'm totally delusional! I used to get so upset by how many bad mean nasty people there are in the world & how they so outweigh the few people who are willing to try & make a difference, but now I see it more like if I can somehow live a life dedicated to God, love, service, as fully as I can manage, then maybe I can outweigh the bastardliness of 1 or 2 of those others? If enough people tried to outweigh them, we might get somewhere? There's sort of like this balance between the good & the evil, do you reckon we could try & tip that balance God's way if enough of us jumped up & down? Our individual efforts look pretty pitiful sometimes, but I reckon you're on the right track so long as you keep at it.