Saturday, August 27, 2005

Who I used to be

I like who I used to be. As a child, I had so much fun and was a lovely kid. In my teenage years I had my troubles, but it was a great learning time. When I was 20, though, I had it all together.

My world was full of ideals. Everything could be solved easily so long as I thought about it hard enough and applied logical ideas. Nothing was a problem, only a challenge to be conquered victoriously. The few problems in my life seemed quite small compared to the general feeling of “life is good” that I had.

I was the ruler of my world at 20. I had grown up and conquered the world. Academically, I had won. Friends, I had been lucky enough to get. Free time was easy to come by easy to enjoy. I could be who I wanted to be, and nothing was standing in the way. Little was I troubled by the world outside the one I wanted to see.

In the last three years, almost all of that has changed. I have grown up a great deal, and realised I wish I could be 20 again. It was easier then. It was fun then.

What happened? I suppose I learned my ideals just didn’t line up with the real world. Problems came that I realised I couldn’t solve, and I didn’t even know where to begin. My free time, my hobbies, many of my friends, my technical competence, my care-free and untroubled thoughts – all seemed lost.

It was like I had been travelling across some great land on a great adventure, and I had learned all about how to travel well. I knew what I needed to. I had the right gear. I was fit and experienced at crossing the plains, mountains, valleys, wilderness, and highways. Then suddenly the land ended, like cartoon Coyote chasing after Roadrunner and suddenly running off a cliff. There’s that moment when he’s hovering in the air and looks down to the chasm beneath him with a comical look of horror. Then, he falls down the absurdly deep canyon while accompanied by an equally comical whistling sound and lands unharmed in a puff of dust.

But when I fell, I didn’t hit land. I found myself suddenly learning to swim in a raging ocean. None of my previous experience had prepared me for it or helped me deal with it. I was a complete novice. In many ways I still feel that way.

I wish I could recapture some of the things I loved about being 20. Perhaps my happiness then stemmed from my naivety, so maybe I can never get that sort of happiness back. There must be a kind of happiness living in the real world, though, when we learn to somehow ride the churning chaos and tide of life beneath us.

But where is that happiness? Where do you look for happiness when you realise the happiness you were chasing was just a mirage?

Oh, I know all the “right” answers… the ones that come from idealised views of life and people. But the real world isn’t like that. The real world isn’t “right”. And somehow I think finding happiness is like a skill that you cannot simply “know” because it must be learned. There are no answers, only problems. It’s like learning to ride a bike.

I need to learn. I need to learn to find happiness amidst the trouble, and peace among the turmoil. Find love through pain. Find contentment that does not come from competence or tranquillity, but the contentment that comes from simply surviving through life’s thunderstorms and hurricanes. I must find enjoyment despite my cynicism. Hope despite my broken dreams. I must no longer compare my life with an unrealistic ideal, and instead look at how far I have come.

When I was young, I thought flying to the moon would be nice. Now, just seeing the moon is nice.

I would go outside at midnight and wonder the mysteries of the stars. Now, I go to bed and sleep.

I had visions of being the leader of great world-changing company. Now, it’s hard enough just having a job.

I dreamt of a life without problems, but now I realise it’s those problems that really make life what it is. So, now I wish I could better deal with the problems I have.

It all seems to be far more glum than when I was younger. But, I don’t think I’ve changed – I think I’ve just tasted the real world for the first time. What’s worse is I’m not sure it gets better – because from what I can tell it only gets harder. The waves are larger and the winds stronger. I’ll look back on this time and think it was easy, but I wish I could think that now.

Have I lost my passion for life? Have I lost some precious essense of youth, like forgetting where I put my car keys? And if I have, how can find it again? Is it possible? Do I even want it back? At what cost have I lost it, or have I found something else? And if something else, what?...

Do you see how many unanswered questions I have now? =)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Psychology of Christianity

How much does our psychology affect our understanding of Christianity? After some thought, I decided it must have a very significant affect. Our psychology affects how we percieve and relate with the world, and spiritual matters are inherently connected with the physical world, so why would spiritual matters be unnaffected?

People's mindsets strongly control over their perception of Christianity - so much so I think we all underestimate the extent of this influence. In my own case, I think the factors of my upbringing and past have made me place great importance on building loving relationships by being a Godly person. Obviously, this isn't a bad thing, and it certainly makes me aware of this theme in the Bible.

However, I wonder how much it also blinds me to how others view Christianity, and perhaps other aspects of the faith. It seems our subconcious can block things from our awareness or attention without our even realising it, and I believe our Christianity is no exception. There are, it seems, two ways of dealing with the challenge of maturing as a person... The first is to accept the challenge and courageously grow stronger to meet it - the second is to ignore it and remain the same. The first is often painful, the second seems less so.

When I find something that challenges my faith, my way of living, my security, or even my very identity - I generally try to have enough courage to accept it and seek to grow from it. I accept I do not know it all, and need to grow. I do not base my identity in being sure of what I know, or in knowing everything, or in being right, or in being "good". Far from it, I identify myself far more with learning, growth, and development that with being all knowing, all wise, or all good. I am secure in how I deal with problems, not because I don't have anything to worry about.

Persons who lack such courage, however, do not seem to have such a will to learn and grow and develop. They seek to protect their sense of identity from the challenge that - if they were to accept it - would mean they weren't quite as knowledgeable, wise, or good as they thought they were. They train their mind not to adapt and grow in strength by dealing with new challenges, but to protect itself from challenges dealing with them brings pain. Indeed, it seems their minds fortify their own stability at the cost of decreasing their ability to deal with new challenge.

The result is that their subconcious blinds them to the things that they don't want to see. They can't even contemplate what they are not seeing, because their minds block even thinking about it. In Christianity, this often takes the form of suppressing doubts and anything that would bring their beliefs into question. In other words, they become bound by their own fear to grow and mature as Christians and suffer the emotional pain that comes from maturing.

I struggle to think of examples of this subtle trickery our the subconcious as it is more about the way we think, rather than what we think. Perhaps, it is why when some people read the Bible, some teachings just don't seem to register. And, if an undesirable challenge is raised with them, they simply reject it - finding "reasons" or by "forgetting" that it was raised at all. The result is their Christianity becomes one based on a Bible full of holes, and they do not accept any notions that perhaps there is more to it than they believe.

The most common things left out are, of course, the challenging teachings. Parts of the Bible that clearly state the necessity to forsake sinful things and to live a disciplined and truly devoted life are somehow glossed over and never mentioned. The mind protects what it holds dear, and if someone holds onto sinful things or an undisciplined lifestyle, their mind will do whatever it can to ignore challenges to what it wants to keep. And they justify their ignorance. "We don't need to be disciplined, for we're under grace." "God always forgives us, and loves us just the same no matter what we do." "Oh, God doesn't expect us to be perfect..." "It's so hard to not be influenced by the sinful things of the world, God will understand."

People don't even realise they're justifying themselves so that they don't have to face the challenge of reality. Yet, what's worse - far worse I think - is creating a faith that justifies what they want... What becomes of Christianity when it is used as a phychological drug to cover over the real issues? What happens when you stop wanting to learn more and more of God's true character and how He wants us to be, and instead believe God to be how you want Him to be?

"Each of us has a hole in our hearts that only God can fill... Just accept Him, and He will fill it." No, just invent Him and He will fill it - your very own custom-designed God... He'll be everything you want. He'll "love" you no matter what, and because of this "love" He won't care if you stay as a spiritual infant and won't challenge you at all to become more like Christ. He'll forgive you always, so you know everything you do is "alright". He'll always "be with you", to comfort you and give you warm fuzzy emotions when life actually challenges you.

In fact, this "God" is everything that "solves" all the emotional problems you have. If you feel alone, "He's there". Tired, "He gives strength." In financial trouble, "He provides." In danger, "He's in control." In sickness, "He'll heal you," but if He doesn't, "It was His will." When things go well, "God is blessing you." When things don't go well, "It's all for the best." When you find something or someone you want, "I feel God's telling me..." The list is endless.

The sad thing is that many times nothing really changes. The God who created them would probably love to help them, but they don't really know Him - they only know the God they created. In other words, by decieving themselves with a false god who makes them feel better, they block the way for a true relationship with God to really help them mature to truly overcome the problems of this world.

I believe God does not want to remove our problems or remove us from them - He wants them to be His tools to fashion us into maturity, and the likeness of His own character. So, naturally, by not dealing with problems we fail to use them to mature. Instead, failure to mature through problem-solving is characterised by immature faith - one based on a God we want and reality we invent to suit us. No one can persuade such a person that reality differs from their imaginations, for their own minds will prevent them understanding it. There is only one way such people can change their immature faith, and it is by being committed to maturity and the reality it is founded on. This is my committment. So, while I know I still have plenty of psychological barriers to having truly Godly character, I know I am heading in the right direction.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The 'Big Picture' Series - 8: Followers of Christ

As I review this series, it strikes me how inadequate it has been. I had hoped to make my ideas clearer than I have, and cover much more ground than I have, perhaps to shed more enlightenment than I have. Throughout this whole series, the content of this post has been my goal. The question, “What is it to follow Christ?”, has always been floating in my mind, and I give some thoughts in response here. I hope that throughout this series I have painted in (very) broad strokes how we, God, and others fit into the big picture of the universe. In response to all of this, I hope the obvious answer to the question “So what do we do about it?” is to follow Christ. Here, I attempt to give a general idea of what following Christ really means. This will be the last post in this series, so I hope you have enjoyed it.

Followers of Christ

Heart – like Christ’s

Christ’s heart was centered on God and others, and not selfish or material things. Love God, and love others – these were the two things He rightly distilled God’s commandments down to. For this loving cause, He lived to help others have more Godly fellowship with each other and God by becoming more Godly. Christ had Godly ambition, rather than selfish motivations, and so should we. Following Jesus has everything to do with our heart, because everything we do is directed by it.

Our heart is like the needle of a compass that tells us which way to go. If the needle has correct magnetization (Godly ambition/desire), it will lead us to the right destination, but if it has the ‘reverse magnetization’ (selfish ambition), it will lead us in the opposite direction. If the needle looses magnetization completely (apathy), it will leave us wandering. In this way, the needle must have the right properties to be faithful to the earth’s magnetic field if it is to lead us in the right direction. Likewise, our heart’s ambition needs to be in the right direction in order to be faithful to God’s guidance and instruction.

Following Jesus is being devoted to the same things He was. In this way, we are also being devoted to God, for Jesus was devoted to God. This devotion is a decision, an allegiance, a commitment, loyalty and dedication to God and what He wants – and far more than a ‘belief’. This devotion is what I talked about in the “faith” section of this series. What we are devoted to is the like the magnetization of the compass needle – we are guided towards whatever our hearts are set on. If our hearts are devoted to the same things Jesus was, we will follow His path and reach the same destination.

Character – like Christ’s

Character is something developed over time by the choices we make. It is like the position we are on a long journey, in that it usually takes a long to time change – and you have to keep going in the same direction for quite some time to notice it changing. If the devotion to God we have in our hearts is like the compass that points towards our destination, then perhaps Christ-like character is our destination. The further we head towards this destination, the more like Christ our character will become. But, Christ-like character itself is not the objective of our faith – it is the state in which we can best enjoy our life’s purpose to have the best possible friendships with God and others. God made us for perfect friendship with himself and others, and this is the real objective.

That said, this should be noted: even if our destination to be like Christ is correct, if the compass of hearts are not devoted to the same things as He was, we will be lost. There have been many times I have realized with dismay why my character is not getting more like Christ’s – because I don’t want to. It’s no good to just want to “be like Christ” if I’m not devoted to thinking and living in a Christ-like way. To have Christ-like character we cannot be devoted to things that are not Christ-like.

Once our hearts are right, and then our character will change accordingly. This change is because our character is molded by the choices we make, and the choices we make are born from the ambitions of our heart. Sometimes it’s a tough road, as the road is not well-trodden and there aren’t many other people walking it. But, there is something to be said for walking on the direction you know is right even when you don’t feel like it. After all, true devotion is not about “feeling” devoted but it’s about being devoted.

So clearly, if we are following Christ, then Christ-like character should increasingly show itself in how we live. The longer we have been following Christ, the more like His our character should be. We should grow to be people of integrity, kindness, compassion, honour, joy, peace, patience, discipline, and above all – love.

Lastly, relationships require two people. So, part of building Godly relationships with others is becoming people with whom Godly relationships will flourish. In other words, we must care for ourselves as much as we care for others – but the focus should lie on building the great friendships God intended with Himself and others, and not greedy and selfish in motivation. So, being self-less is not ignoring ourselves and focusing on others, but it is focusing on our relationships with God and others and doing all that we can to make those relationships good. Godly character is what makes those relationships the best they can be.

Deeds – like Christ’s.

If our hearts point to our destination of Christ-like character so that we live in Godly friendships, then our actions are certainly the steps along the way. Godly deeds are the things we must do to become Godly people. Think of how you imagine saints behaving, and think of their character. If you want to be a saint like them, how else can you do it except by behaving like they do? To follow Christ, our steps must be along the same direction and path that He took, or we will find we are not following Him at all.

The joys and difficulties of life are like the ground we travel – they are part of “life in its fullest”. Our deeds are like the path we take over that ground. Some paths are better than others, some are much the same. Some lead to disaster, and some to blessing. The really important actions are the ones that affect others our relationship with God and the people around us. Actions that don’t involve others aren’t as important as ones that do.

There are many instructions about what we should not do as followers of Christ. But equally important are the instructions about what we should do. If you do not steal then you may not be a criminal, but it doesn’t make you a saint. So, we need to be watchful about both what we do and what we do not. I haven’t the space here, so read a Bible for pointers... but note the importance of making our love measurable by the things we do.

Position - like Christ’s

If we will imitate Christ in the above areas – then it is clear from the bible that we become “brothers and sisters of Christ”, and “co-heirs” with Him. And if we are co-heirs with Him, we will inherit the same eternal life as He did in the resurrection. Surely, this is wonderful news! What could be better than to be the person that God intended us to be, and to be with other similar people having the amazing friendships God intended for humankind? And if we are such a person imagine how pleased God is, and imagine how pleased we will be. But what if we are not Godly?

Jesus was perfect in ways we have already failed to be, but nevertheless, we are called to be on the same overall level as He was – as followers like Him. Though we should aim to be, we do not have to be exactly like Him for God is merciful and forgiving. While we may have displeased Him in the past, God does not hold our bad actions against us after we turn away from them. But note that He is not pleased with our flaws of heart and character of the present, and it would be uncaring of Him to overlook these.

It is possible to have a heart like Christ’s – here and now, otherwise why would Jesus have made it clear to do so? It is this Christ-like condition of our hearts that makes us brothers and sisters of Christ, to be Sons and Daughters of God just like Christ was! This revelation still amazes me, and it is indeed one that is incredibly wonderful. It is possible to be like Christ in our hearts (albeit with some minor flaws), and if we’re like Christ we will have a similar relationship with God. Paul writes in Col 1:19 and Col 2:9 that the fullness of God dwelt in Christ, and then prays in Eph 3:20 that we also would be “filled with all the fullness of God”. It is those who are like Christ that Paul often describes as being “in Christ”. Jesus’ heart does not change to become like ours, rather it is ours that should change to be like His – this is the only way we can be unified with Christ.

Lastly, God is not a cosmic accountant, measuring his acceptance of us by the sum of our good deeds minus the sum of our evil ones – rather He calls all those who are devoted to Him His Children. But true Children of God act like Children of God. Godly actions may not “earn” a position of God’s favour any more than baby cannot do much to earn its parent’s love, but Godly actions are essential to having God’s favour if we are to grow from being spiritual babies.

Role – like Christ’s

Hand in hand with position is responsibility. If we are to have similar position as Christ, we also have a similar role in the world. As followers of Christ, we are to be devoted to the same things He was, and this devotion should be evidenced by doing similar deeds. Jesus said in John 14:12 that people who are devoted to Him will do the things Christ did, and “they will do even greater things because I am going to the Father.” Greater things! How can this be?

Imagine Jesus being a swordsman going into battle. Many Christians seem to view things like this: we are the poor and defenseless and He is the big strong defender who goes and fights off the evil that threatens us, we just have to “stay close to Jesus” and everything will be great for us. Yet, it seems quite clear to me that this lazy and pathetic view is not one Jesus would have wanted. Instead, imagine us (people devoted to Him) giving Him our allegiance, and taking up our swords with Him. Rather than one soldier, there is an army, and an army can surely be of more effect than a single soldier. In this way we can do greater things, when we devote ourselves to the same cause that He was devoted to (God and Godliness).

To follow Jesus is to be devoted to not just His person, but to His cause. Certainly, like in the previous analogy, we need training before we can start be effective. But, nevertheless, we must mature towards and grow into the responsibilities of being devoted to God and therefore Christ – knowing it is part of the road that takes us to being mature Sons and Daughters of God.

So, the followers of Jesus have similar responsibilities as Jesus. Having Godly ambitions and character is essential to fulfill our role to lead, nurture, care for, help, love, and fulfill loving friendships with God and others. Following Jesus is not about getting God’s favour and a free ticket to heaven, but far more about cultivating the Godly relationships with God and others that I believe are the central meaning of our existence.

Jesus did this, and so should we. If we say we follow Him, let us be like Him. And if our actions evidence that we do not follow Him, let us not bring His name into disrepute by saying that we do.