This is the grill of a semi pressed up against Ade's passenger side window.

If you got the chance to read last week’s article, you’ll find that this week unfortunately started out in similar fashion for the Hein family.  I woke up at 7:15am on Monday morning to a phone call from my wife saying, “James, I need you to get down here.  I’ve been in an accident.”  Those are awful words to hear come from your wife’s mouth.  I was at least relieved to hear this news coming from her mouth and not from that of a police officer or first response personnel.  So, I got dressed, hopped in my car, and headed down highway 52.  By this point Adrian had called again and I understood that she, despite being naturally a little shaken up, despite the fire department taking her to the emergency room mostly for precautionary measures, was in pretty good shape all things considered.   She didn’t have any cuts or broken bones.  She wasn’t knocked unconscious.  Her neck was expectedly sore and we got some x-rays taken just to make sure nothing was broken, but she was remarkably unscathed.  It was abundantly evident that God’s angels were guarding her as the front, back, and entire passenger side of her car were annihilated.   

Due to her phone calls, I had the peace of mind that my wife was alright.  If I didn’t have those calls, I can’t tell you how upset I would have been.  I’m not even talking about wondering what might have happened to her.  That would have been more of apprehension I’m sure.  My ire would have been produced at frustration over everyone else on the road.  You see, as I was travelling down Highway 52, traffic was backed up worse than it would ever get in Rochester under normal circumstances.  It was Monday morning at about 7:30am and people were livid that they were going to be late for work.  At one point when I was stuck in the traffic I remember looking around and seeing someone on their cell phone in front of me, in back of me, and on both sides, all clearly upset as they were talking to someone on the phone (I assume they were notifying their work that they’d be late).  The saddening part was that this was right under a sign that said “CRASH AHEAD.  EXPECT DELAYS.”  I can’t imagine how angered I’d be if I knew my wife was in an accident ahead but didn’t have the knowledge that she was okay, and all people around were concerned with was being 10 minutes late for work.  What was further frustrating was that people became so impatient that the traffic spilled over into the emergency lane on the right hand side.  All I could think was, “If my wife was dying in her car right now and an ambulance couldn’t get to her because of the anxious workers clogging the emergency lane next to me, I’d have trouble forgiving their carelessness.”   

Now, as I mentioned, my wife was okay.  Her car was totalled.  She was the victim of a terrible multi-car accident that ultimately wasn’t her fault.  The insurance reports are kind of a pain.  It’s frustrating, no doubt.  But she was okay.  We had a lot to be thankful for.   

I couldn’t, however, seem to shake the disgust that I had, however, over the other drivers on the road that day.  I’m not talking about those perhaps responsible for the accident.  I’m talking about the casual “inconvenienced” observers.  I don’t know if I’ll ever forget the looks on some of their faces.  Without the ability to see their hearts, my honest evaluation was that their only concern was clearly the delay this accident had caused for them.  Now that’s probably an unfair generalization on my part, but from being at a dead stop and getting the chance to look around, it seemed to be obvious.  The thought of someone suffering or dying up a mile ahead either hadn’t crossed their minds or simply hadn’t concerned them.   

A little perturbed, as I thought about this later in the day, the question crossed my mind, when was the last time my first reaction to being stuck in traffic was “I hope everyone is okay.”?  I realized then that I really had no experiential right to point fingers here.  I remembered the many, many times I’d been stuck in traffic travelling from home to school and back.  At times I’d get stuck in traffic in Chicago for 2+ hours.  My concern at that point, truth be told, was probably not primarily for the well-being of those ahead.   

Let’s just be honest for a minute – our default position as human beings seems to be one of self-interest.  And we’re okay with that.  Supposedly this is even one of the tenets that makes a capitalist economy work.  Self-interest doesn’t, however, make us “nice people”.  Franklin D. Roosevelt, like him or not, was a uniter during a difficult time in our country’s history.  He once famously said, “Self-interest is the enemy of all true affection.”  Agreed.   

There’s one Bible story that leaps out of the pages of Scripture when it comes to the interest of others ahead of self.  Although the many examples in Jesus’ life would illustrate the blessing of brotherly love, it was a story that Jesus told about neighborly love that perhaps paints it clearest – The Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus was prompted to teach this parable as the result of some comments from a clearly misguided young man who was under the impression that he was a “pretty good guy”.   

You may know how the story goes.  If not, check out (Luke 10:25-37) http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2010:25-37&version=NIV.  A Jewish man gets mugged on the way down from Jerusalem.  He’s beaten, stripped, and robbed.  Two church-going Jews (clergy no less!) happen to come by the half-dead victim.  They pass by on the other side of the road not wanting to inconvenience themselves with the problems of their Jewish neighbor.  Then, a Samaritan, a natural ethnic enemy to the Jews, comes to the victim and shows love, compassion, and mercy to him.  He tends to the victim’s wounds, transports him to a nearby inn for recovery, and pays for the man’s stay at the inn, coming back later to check up on him.  Self-interest?  No way.  This was else-interest; God-glorifying interest;  Christ-like interest.   

There’s a fascinating (almost eerie) similarity that’s been coming up recently for me when I talk to those who haven’t traditionally been church-goers that’s led me to this conclusion: There’s perhaps nothing that turns people off of church or Christianity faster than Christians who don’t act like Christians.  The apparent hypocrisy just leaves such a bad taste in the mouth that some people want nothing to do with it.  I’m not simply talking about immorality here either.  As much or more so it’s the loveless way we Christians sometimes talk about others or the loveless attitude we sometimes project when we’re just more concerned about ourselves than anything or anyone else.  It’s interesting that non-believers don’t always understand Christianity, but they often understand what Christianity is not or should not be.  And when they see Christians acting in such a way, it only confirms their negative preconceived notions.  

The converse is also true though.  When non-believers see the love of Christ in our concern for one another and for mankind, they often recognize something special is there.  When they hear the message of the most selfless man who’s ever walked the planet, Christ himself, and when they understand he did it because he personally loved them that much, they know why we’re motivated to speak and act in love.  

I’m not condemning everyone who was southbound on Highway 52 on Monday morning :).  I get it.  I’ve been in traffic jams too.  I understand how frustrating it gets.  I am saying though that I personally have a fresh perspective on what Jesus’ taught about concern for my neighbor.  I hope I’ll have a new appreciation for the trouble others may be in ahead of the inconvenience I may experience.  And I’ve realized that if I can keep my heart on the cross and my eyes on my neighbors, my mind won’t worry so much about myself.

How God Feels About His Dependent Creatures

Meet Poptart

It’s been a tough week.  It’s been tough for several reasons, but probably most difficult is the loss of a loved family pet.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I fully understand those who don’t particularly sympathize with the loss of a pet.  Many who grew up on farms have a vastly different perspective on animals.  Many who haven’t had/don’t like family pets or those who have bad allergies wouldn’t likely sympathize too much either.  To be honest, prior to having a cat, I didn’t particularly like cats and so probably wouldn’t have understood myself.  Furthermore, it wasn’t technically even my cat.  My wife got “Poptart” (yeah, I know, I had trouble introducing him to visitors and maintain family credibility) approximately a month before we got married almost 3 years ago.  It was as though it was her last gesture of total independence that was challenging me – “you’re not going to call off the wedding over a little kitten are you?”  Of course she knew I wouldn’t.  

Over the years I was surprised at how attached I got to this little critter.  He was naughty, fairly selfish, and at times downright obnoxious.  I still have scars on my legs because, for whatever reason, every night when I walked from my bathroom to my bed he’d jump out from behind something and bite my calf.  And every night it was not only painful, but humiliating to be once again outsmarted by a stupid cat.  This was followed by every morning him licking my knuckles to wake me up, and when that wouldn’t work, biting my knuckles, and when that wouldn’t work, sitting on my head – all to let me know he wanted food.  Every day, same routine.  In addition to this, Poptart scratched every piece of furniture in our house, shed, stuck his face in all of our food, urinated in every piece of luggage we own, and tried to kill our pet rabbit multiple times daily.  Finally, I’m not even convinced that he liked us all that much.  Well, despite all this and as independent as cats seem to be, Poptart was dependent on us.  And we felt very strongly about him. 

This past Saturday he clearly wasn’t feeling quite right.  He started howling in the evening and my wife and I talked about taking him into the animal emergency clinic.  We’d done this once before and it was an expensive trip.  We thought that we’d see how he felt the next day and see if he can’t make it till Monday, as the normal vet visit is about 4 times less expensive than the emergency care.  He was clearly still sick and uncomfortable on Sunday and not going potty, but he wasn’t howling, so we assumed he might be a little better, so we set up an appointment for first thing on Monday.  That morning when I got there, the doctor examined him for a minute, looked at me and said if we don’t anesthetize him right now, put a catheter in, and have surgery, he’s going to die in the next 10 hours.  I immediately felt sick to my stomach.  Understanding this sounded like a major treatment, I naturally asked “How much?”  She said that it could be a couple thousand dollars.  So……..with a heavy heart, I called Adrian.  She came over from work.  We prayed about it.  We saw what pain he was in.  We deeply regretted not taking him into the emergency vet on Saturday.  And we decided to put him down.  It was awful.  Holding a creature in your arms, no matter how small, no matter how naughty it’s been, and making a decision about its life WILL affect you.  

Poptart held a special place in our hearts (particularly my wife’s) in part because of what he’d symbolized in the past 3 years.  When we got married, my wife had to pack her bags, leave her friends and work, and move over to WI with me while I finished school.  9 months later she had to again pack her bags, leave new friends and work, and move to our new assignment in MN.  Any of you who have been uprooted (due to external circumstances) and forced to move understand how difficult it can be.  Any of you who have had a pet be somehow particularly expressively sympathetic when they sense you’re going through sadness (not sure how God implanted that into dogs and cats, but I’m convinced he did), you too understand how emotional that is.  Poptart was a comforting constant in my wife’s life (and mine) throughout the seasons of change.  A familiar, friendly face that you know what to expect from is enormously welcoming.  This weekend we felt like we’d let him down, like we hadn’t been good managers of the blessings God had given to us, and suddenly he was gone.  

Okay.  For those of you who say “I can only listen to a grown man ramble about losing his pet cat for so long” I totally get it.  Perspective is important.  After all, he was a cat.  It’s not being unsympathetic to have a healthy perspective on the relationship between animals and humans.  I don’t begin to pretend that losing a family pet is anything like losing a true human family member.  It’d be ridiculous to suggest they were in the same ballpark.  As it is, Americans probably have a somewhat unhealthy and disproportionate attachment to animals/pets in relation to humans (cf. PETA).  In fact, I just read an article yesterday on US News & World Report.com that suggested that despite the fact that although Americans have cut back in their own lives during the recession, the “pet industry” has been one of steady growth – gourmet food, expensive toys, clothes for animals, etc.  One could probably debate the merit of a pet emergency clinic in the first place.  All that said, what I’m finally driving at here is that the loss of a little dependent creature like this can be terribly painful.  We cared for him.  We cared deeply about him.  

As a pastor, naturally thoughts tend to drift towards the spiritual.  Intellectually I could understand that this was “just a cat” and a pretty poorly behaved one at that.  But I was still deeply affected.  This all got me thinking about God’s care of his dependent creatures.  How deeply does he feel about us?  

Now some of God’s human creatures (at least claim) to love him and are somewhat obedient to him.  Others flat-out openly rebel against him and deny any relationship or acknowledgement of him.  And yet, God still provides for all of his little human critters.  He still causes the sun to rise on us all.  He still generously provides clothing, shelter, and food for us all.  He doesn’t throw lightning bolts from the sky for their destruction, but rather he himself descends (finally in the person of Christ) to us to let us know how he cares for us and how much he cares about us.  He does all this and puts up with all of our garbage simply because he is a God “who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).    

If I, as a sinful creature myself, am capable of feeling so strongly about the loss of a little semi-dependent creature that I’ve partially cared for, what then does it feel like for God when he, a perfect being capable of perfect love and concern, when he (spiritually) loses his totally dependent creatures forever.  Now I can’t fully harmonize in my brain how God can have a heavenly existence and at the same time be sorrowed by humans, but losing those who should be his children has to tear him apart in ways that you or I experiencing the loss of a cute pet can’t begin to understand. We’d all have to admit (and this past week has been eye-opening for me in this respect) that we haven’t begun to comprehend how deeply God feels about us humans.  If we knew how much it sorrowed him when we speak poorly about one another would we ever dream of doing it?  If we knew how much it saddened him when we dismissed studying his Word or praising him or praying to him, would we ever consider it an option?  And the one that truly gets me now – if we understood how torn up inside God must be when he loses a would-be child to lack of faith, would I be as “okay” as I am with not having the foot on the accelerator around the clock when it comes to spreading the news of Jesus my Savior?  Hmmm…… 

Having gone through a little bit of a tough emotional stretch, maybe the silver-lining lesson learned was the depth of God’s concern about me and all of his little dependent creatures.  I’ve heard of his love before.  The 3:16s of John I’ve always thought are the basics of God’s love: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16) & “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16).  Not having any children of my own (as God does) though, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had to be in a position before where I felt I could completely relate – where I saw such a desperate condition in someone I cared about that I truly wanted to trade places.  In its own strange way (and again, yes, I understand he was a cat), when I heard/saw Poptart in so much pain, I couldn’t help but think, “Man I really wish that I could take this from him, do more for him, or even experience this for him.”  And shortly later, he was gone.  It was pretty painful.  

Now project this to the cosmic scale of God’s family.  God can’t possibly do any more for us than what he has already done.  In our place, he DID experience what we deserved so that we won’t ever have to worry about eternal suffering.  I can’t imagine him caring for us any better than what he’s done.  I can’t imagine him caring about us any more than what he does.  Despite some temporary sadness, that’s an important lesson to learn.

5 Great Reasons to Live Together Before Marriage & 1 Better One Not To

The better question today is "Who isn't living together?"

It can take quite a bit to develop a new “norm” in culture.  Take the last 40 or so years of the way people listen to music for example.  With billions and billions of dollars to be made and musical and tech minds working around the clock, we’ve moved from vinyl (or gramophone) records for most of the 20th century to cassette tapes in the 80s to cds in the 90s to iPods carrying mp3s in the early 2000s.  It’s an incredible change when you think about it.  We’ve gone from having rooms dedicated to controlling the music we want to listen to, to now having portable, miniature music studios that file 100,000 miniscule song files that we can carry on our waistband as we work out.  We’ve come so far in 40 years that we almost have to consciously look back to realize what a change in “norms” it’s been.  And the current generation learning only the new “norm” might never know what a vast change it was. 

A similar argument could be made for the way intimate relationships are approached today in contrast to 40 years ago.  The most recent info I could find through a little digging (a USAToday.com article) indicated that 30 years ago there were less than 1 million couples “living together” in a non-married relationship.  In 2007, that number was over 7 million couples (or 14 million people) and at the time was expected to start going up at the rate of nearly a million per year.  Keep in mind this info reflects couples who are living together, not couples who have lived together or people who would be willing to live together with another person outside of marriage.  That number would obviously be significantly higher.  Non-married co-habiting couples now make up 10-20% of all opposite-sex U.S. couples.  Shrink the demographic down to those 40 and under and the percentage skyrockets.  Is it safe yet to say there is a new “norm”? 

How has this affected faith in America?  Well, let me ask you this, how many couples 30-40 years ago do you think would have been comfortable openly living together and then going and talking to a pastor and asking him to offer God’s blessing through a wedding in a church?  That would have taken some guts.  (Granted, there have always been plenty of proverbial “shotgun” weddings when young couples became pregnant, but that’s a different issue – that’s mistake and repentance vs. living in sin – apples and oranges.)  Today, if a couple comes in and sits down with me to talk about getting married, and I don’t know their background, I have to make an unfortunate assumption – there’s more than a STRONG possibility they’re living together.  It’s the new “norm” that kids are learning and society is totally okay with.  

And I guess I’d like to make one more statement of clarification here – when we say “living together” let’s not be so naive as to think there’s a possibility that a sexual relationship is not taking place.  “We’re regularly having sex outside of marriage and we’re okay with everyone knowing that” never really caught on as a way of describing it.  Understand, the terminology “living together” is somewhat the mind’s way of placating the conscience.  It’s like saying we’re “sleeping together”.  Really?!  What you’re doing together is more than an extended nap.  Call a spade a spade – you’re having “not God-pleasing” sex.  You call it “sleeping together” because when you honestly label it what it is, your conscience makes you uncomfortable.  Collectively, over time, a society’s conscience tends to numb. 

Obviously it’s a case by case basis, but one way that I deal with couples who are living together, rather than just say “they shouldn’t be doing that” – which is true, but can come across as me (or the church) trying to control their life, moralizing, or simply becomes an argument of my opinion vs. theirs – is that I begin by acknowledging that “living together” makes some good sense from the standpoint of logic.  Yes, I could make a convincing argument that people with the morals that tell you it’s okay to live together before marriage are consistently the same people with morals who think it’s no big deal to get a divorce, and this is the reason why studies reveal that those who live together before marriage indeed have a MUCH greater likelihood of divorce.  (If you’d like to take a look at other compelling logic of not living together pre-marriage, there’s a pretty extensive list at http://www.leaderu.com/critical/cohabitation-socio.html).  However, despite that logic, the couple could retort by making a number of arguments as to why co-habiting makes good sense.  Most of these co-habitors that I meet are intelligent, ambitious, friendly, likable people.  Dismissing their logic outright probably wouldn’t be respecting them as humans.  So, I start by agreeing – there are a bunch of “logical” reasons to live together before marriage.  I’ve narrowed it down to 5 here.  

Reason#1 – It’s financially responsible.  Where I live, an apartment can run you somewhere between $700 and $1400.  Dropping an extra $1000/month seems like throwing your money down the drain.  If you’re a particularly “committed co-habitor” (yep, I like the term too :)), you might even be building up equity in a home you’ve bought together.  Saving for retirement, paying off student loans, or who knows, maybe even giving it to charity all sound like considerably more responsible things to do with your money than pay double rent (not to mention utilities).  

Reason #2 – You spend all your time together anyways.  Like wasting money with rent, wasting time is equally frustrating.  You drive to each other’s places many times during the week.  You help each other with cooking and cleaning and laundry and bills.  Traveling back and forth, virtually living in two places, is kind of like the inconvenience of living out of a bag on a business trip.  It’s annoying.  If you want to be together, why all the running around?  

Reason #3 – It seems like a good next step in the relationship.  Consumers that we are in America, everything exists with a try it before you buy it clause.  Every infomercial promises that you can try it and return it in 30 days for a full refund.  And the bigger the purchase, the more you want to make sure it’s just right.  What kind of fool would buy a car before thorough inspection and testing?  Thankfully, marriage in our society today does, to a degree, maintain some semblance of “a big deal”.  Couples don’t want to rush into that.  Well, what about a “____ day money-back” transition period to see if this relationship truly feels right?  These test periods make sense in every other aspect of our lives, why not our relationships? 

Reason #4 – It’s so common.  By definition, nothing will make something seem like “not a big deal” faster than commonality.  I guarantee you know couples that are living together outside of marriage.  In fact, many of you, especially if you tend towards the younger generations, might know more couples that are living together than not.  It’s the age old, after-school-special argument of “How can it be that bad if everybody’s doing it?”  It was not, at least statistically speaking, common 40 years ago though.  Imagine that, after the sexually open-minded 60s, co-habitation was still considered fairly taboo.  People that lived together outside of marriage (particularly women – a strange double standard in our society that’s more appropriate for another article) developed reputations.  People don’t like bad reputations.  Regardless of ethnicity or religion, there is one word out there that young women don’t want to be called more than any other word.  Young people don’t call young girls promiscuous or even “skanky” anymore.  They call them this word – a word that will make a girl feel more worthless than any other – a destructive word that I guarantee is used at your child’s school.  40 years ago, living together with a man would earn a woman a label like this.  Not anymore.  In fact, if she’s only sexually active with one man, marriage or not, she’s virtually safe from labels today.  It’s just so common that it won’t warrant a subjective label like that.  

Reason #5 – We love each other.  Love is a funny word.  It’s a fascinating biblical word.  When a young couple chooses to live together because they love one another, I have no doubts that they truly do feel very, very strongly about one another.  I feel very strongly about many things in my life.  I love Diet Coke.  I drink it all the time.  I love good movies.  In fact, there are few moments, oddly enough, when I feel more like myself than when I’m engrossed in a nail-biting movie.  However, though I love them, I haven’t professed lifelong commitment to them.  I’m actually drinking Diet Mountain Dew as we speak, a tasty alternative that I’m not ready to give up.  I’ve only professed lifelong commitment to one person in my life.  Lifelong commitment would seem to indicate a greater love.  I have no doubt that many of the couples living together sincerely love one another.  I don’t doubt that they would even be willing to die for their partner.  It makes good sense to be with someone you love.  However, in a very non-committal world, if a couple is not willing to commit to a lifelong love in marriage, they either are misunderstanding what relational love truly is designed to be, or they don’t have it to the degree that they profess.  Moving in together might seem like a greater step in commitment, but young couples also need to recognize what it’s not – a statement that I’m willing to commit to love you for the rest of this life. 

I’ve heard all of these and many more as logical reasons for couples to live together.  I’ll admit, rationally speaking, I can see where they’re coming from.  However, I’d like to throw in just one better reason NOT to live together.  

Only Reason Necessary – Living in sin paves a road to eternity in hell.  It’s interesting to me that when I sit down with couples or email with them I don’t usually have to lay out 20 passages from Scripture that indicate that premarital sex is not okay in God’s book.  I do for some.  By and large though, most already understand from the God-given moral law written on their hearts that “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer (i.e. married people having sex with someone who isn’t their partner) and all the sexually immoral (i.e. unmarried people having sex with anyone, since they don’t have a marriage partner yet) (Hebrews 13:4).  Unfortunately though, and largely due to the logical reasons listed above, many couples just don’t seem to think God will actually do what he says he’s going to do – judge those who dismiss his will, and therefore Him.  We are a people that are so myopic, so engrossed in instant gratification, that we often fail to think about the consequences of our actions – a sign of immaturity in general as well as spiritual immaturity.  The Apostle Paul writing about a group of people who were clearly struggling with the issue of premarital sex, said in 1 Corinthians 7:9 “if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”  Notice the interesting double entendre – “burn with passion”.  If it’s not clear, I’ll spell it out: 1) lusting for immoral behavior, 2) burning in hell for repeated willful sin that kills faith.  Sometimes God’s law is simply to (pardon the expression) “scare the hell out of us”.  

Couples that are “living together”, being okay with the regular abuse of God’s gift of sex, are in danger.  Premarital sex is not the unforgivable sin, but willful sin is not compatible with faith.  When Jesus appeared to convert a murderer of Christians named Saul, who became a faithful Christian named Paul, he said to him, “I am sending you to them (unbelievers) to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16).  God wants us to turn from our disobedience to his will and he wants to personally forgive us for our sins.  However, if we’re not repentant of our sins, but living happily in them, faith is clearly not there, nor then is the hope of eternal life.  Another way of putting that is……hell awaits.  Brutally harsh.  No one wants that.  And if you truly love your partner, how can you contribute to that for them too? 

If you know someone stuck in this sin, pray for them.  Let them know how much you love them and care for them and want to exist in relationship with them forever.  Let them know that you’re certainly not perfect, that you’ve made many mistakes, but that you’ve asked God for forgiveness and are so thankful for Jesus love and payment for your sins that you don’t ever want to fall into them again.  

If you happen to be someone reading this who is caught in this sin or was caught in this sin and hasn’t yet confessed it, forgiveness is sitting right there and waiting for you.  And then the sin is gone forever.  The angels in heaven love to sing glorious songs over repentant sinners.  God loves to welcome home his lost children.  Simply pray, “Lord Jesus, I’m sorry.  I want to be with you in heaven.  I need your help right now in this life to get me out of this.”  Forgiveness awaits.  Heaven awaits.  The eternal marriage of Christ and his bride, his believers, awaits. 

Why We’re So Unhappy – Part IV: Sin

In this life, happiness will always be limited by sin. That's not the case in the next life.

Okay, so what happened to Part III?  Well, in essence, I already wrote it, only under a different title…https://pastorjameshein.wordpress.com/2010/04/08/is-that-what-i-really-want/.  It’s about a Christian’s list of priorities and how mixed priorities (i.e. priorities incompatible with faith) will always make us unhappy.  In fact, that article was the one that got me thinking about doing this series of Unhappiness.  Hopefully it’s been more of a pick-me-up than a downer.  And, by the way, if you’re wondering where I became qualified to give anyone instructions on how to not be unhappy…..good question.  It’s been more of a personal reflection of experience than anything.  It’s a combination of being a student of God’s Word, a fairly ardent fan of psychology as a hobby, and a past that has at times, allowed me to experience what I perceived to be “rock bottom”.  I remember in those low moments telling myself (and God through prayer) that if I got through this (i.e. depression) I would do everything I could to help other people not go through this too.  Years later, the end result was not the book deal I’d anticipated :), but a quaint 4 installment blog.  But if any of what I’m saying here helps one person not face the lows of sadness that I recall, then it was worth it. 

Part IV of this series is the killer.  It’s the reason the others exist – sin.  The other installments to this series chronicled items that, to a degree, we have a greater sense of control over.  And yes, in our personal lives, we have been empowered by the Spirit living in us not to sin.  And yet we’re still sinners.  And yet we still live in a world saturated by sin.  That we can’t control.  You know why I’m convinced that we can’t control this?  Here’s one example: no matter how much sun (or other potentially lethal rays) I avoid, no matter how few cigarettes I smoke, no matter how little I abuse alcohol, I might be able to avoid one of the most common killers: cancer, but I can’t avoid death.  No matter how safe I drive, no matter how many multi-vitamins I take, no matter how few empty calories, fat grams, or cholesterol I resist, I can’t resist death.  I’m not advocating careless management of the body God has given you.  But I am boarding us all on the boat called death.  You can’t avoid it.  It’s the final evidence that there’s something really, really terribly wrong with this world.  And no disarmament of nuclear weapons, no march on Washington, and no Congressional legislation is going to stop that.   As a species, we wanted to be like God, we ate the fruit, we were banished from the perfect Garden, and now we walk around in a wilderness so sick and depraved that the reality is that at any minute we’re a mere “thief in the night” away from God saying “enough is enough”.  It’s time to be honest: our world is crippled by sin.  And the effect of that sin, in the end, is death (Romans 6:23).  

As ironic and pessimistic as it sounds, one of the things that keeps Christians from a certain sense of peace and happiness is the failure to recognize how sinful the world is and how we’re not only victimized by it, but that we too fall for it and even contribute to the problem.   

One of the questions that I hear Christians struggle with most when facing pain and sadness in this world (whether or not they actually come out and say it) is “Doesn’t God want me, as his child, to be happy?”.  The answer to that is…..absolutely!  Of course your Heavenly Father wants you to be happy.  Here’s the catch though – he doesn’t just want you to be happy for 70 or 80 years, but he wants you to be ETERNALLY happy.  If that means that he has to allow some bumps on the highway to salvation in order to keep you repeatedly turning to him – to keep you safe on that highway – then that’s the most loving thing for him to do.   

In recent years there has been a surging trend in American Christianity towards what’s called “prosperity theology”.  Don’t know what this is?  Check out a list of top-selling, top-broadcasted Christian ministers in the past 10 years – Joel Osteen (far and away the closest thing to “America’s Pastor” today and very, very different from Billy Graham), Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, Creflo Dollar – all of these people promote the concept that “you don’t have because you don’t believe hard enough”.  In other words, your life here and now can be much, much better (from a material standpoint) if you just have more faith.  All of this is simply a misunderstanding of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring to us – a heavenly kingdom, not a material kingdom on earth.  And one of the reasons why this prosperity theology is so appealing to the masses is that it pushes aside the concept of living under the weight of a sinful world and says that if you just believe in God enough, your earthly problems will go away.  While I admire the trust in God to help, because he promises to help when were in need (Psalm 50:15), I resent the thought that Jesus came to make us rich here on earth.  

My home is in heaven.  My treasures are in heaven.  None of us is immune to this thinking that, as God’s children, we deserve more glory in this life.  The Apostle Peter himself wasn’t immune to it.  Look at the Transfiguration account in Luke 9:28-36.  When Peter saw the glory of God on earth, he wanted to set up some tents and make it last, thinking to himself “now this is what life is all about”.  God has to remind Peter (as Jesus had done earlier in the chapter) that this life is often painful.  God’s glory belongs in heaven, where you’re going, but not quite yet.   

Christians today still want the glory of God here on earth.  Prosperity theology, although it encourages a healthy sense of trust in God’s benevolence, fails to understand Christ’s assessment of this world as flawed and painful.  Some who live by this prosperity theology have discovered this the hard way.  A friend recently clued me in to a couple of very interesting articles on speculation that this prosperity theology thing has actually been a great contributor to the housing market collapse of the past 2 years (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/12/did-christianity-cause-the-crash/7764/).  Is it possible that God could bring about calamity to try to straighten his people out spiritually?  I think so (see Old Testament).  

All of this boils down to a statement that Jesus once made to his disciples that we have recorded for us in several of the Gospels:  “Then he (Jesus) said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:23-25).  As followers of Christ, we are never going to know the pain that he suffered on the cross for us as he took the world’s sins upon himself.  However, at times we experience “cross reminders”, a little personal suffering that may come specifically from being a follower of Christ (as those in Communist countries or the Middle East at times have faced) or more generally, simply being a child of God and yet suffering from sin in this life.  It’s gonna happen.  Jesus told us it would happen.  We’re sinners in a sinful world.  The fact that we experience any pleasure in a sinful world is a testimony to God’s grace.  Now I’m not suggesting we carry ho-hum, pessimistic attitudes throughout life.  That’s not going to make anyone happier nor is it going to be an accurate reflection of the hope that we have in Christ.  What I am suggesting is that we maintain a realistic standpoint of what living in a sinful world is going to be like, and understand that we won’t even truly know what happiness is until we enter the gates of heaven.   

Jesus said to his disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).  Because Jesus conquered this world (and my sins with it) on his cross, I can look forward to the hope of a new world.  When I have the proper perspective on the next life, guess what, I stop caring so much about the things of this world that in the grand scheme of it all don’t matter nearly as much as what they sometimes feel.  If I don’t get the job, who cares?  If I don’t get the girl, who cares?  If I don’t get the win, finally, who cares?  Why do I care about the things of this world so much?  Because I’ve lost sight of the things of the next world.  Again, it’s not that this world is not important.  It is.  Live it to the full and live it to God’s glory.  But, a healthy understanding of how a sinful existence stacks up against a perfect eternity will make you happier.   

It shouldn’t surprise us that when God’s children live in harmony with his will, they’re at their happiest.  That’s how he created us to live.  Will we be problem free?  No.  Will we be rich?  I don’t know.  What kind of job do you have?  Can we be happy, joyful, and contented?  YES!  In a sinful world, holding on to God’s promises and molding our will to resemble God’s revealed will is the greatest shot at happiness that we have.