What Do You Want?
May is the month for commencement addresses. All over the country scholars, politicians, celebrities, teachers, and people considered to have something to say will stand up in front of graduating High School and College students to give them advice.
Most of that advice will admonish the students to go for their dreams, reach for the stars, and if they are determined enough they will get what they want.
This is the American dream, the American religion, and graduations are American liturgy.
One of the best examples of this is from Steve Jobs and the commencement address he gave at Stanford.
Most Americans express two ideas about the future. Either the grim atheist vision where the world is disenchanted so “make your own luck because there is no god so it’s up to you.” or the Disnefied world that IS kindly enchanted so just believe. Jobs, who founded Pixar, took the later approach.
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
As proof above and beyond his success in the marketplace he talked about his battle against cancer. This was in 2005.
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I’m fine now.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t fine.
What Jobs failed to mention was that his decision to NOT live by the dogma of his doctors meant that he delayed surgery, which should have cured his rare form or curable pancreatic cancer but his dream of a body unpierced by surgery would cause his own death.
To the horror of his friends and wife, Jobs decided not to have surgery to remove the tumor, which was the only accepted medical approach. “I really didn’t want them to open up my body, so I tried to see if a few other things would work,” he told me years later with a hint of regret. Specifically, he kept to a strict vegan diet, with large quantities of fresh carrot and fruit juices. To that regimen he added acupuncture, a variety of herbal remedies, and occasionally a few other treatments he found on the Internet or by consulting people around the country , including a psychic. For a while he was under the sway of a doctor who operated a natural healing clinic in southern California that stressed the use of organic herbs, juice fasts, frequent bowel cleansings , hydrotherapy, and the expression of all negative feelings.
Isaacson, Walter (2011-10-24). Steve Jobs (Kindle Locations 7827-7833). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
“I think Steve has such a strong desire for the world to be a certain way that he wills it to be that way,” Levinson speculated . “Sometimes it doesn’t work. Reality is unforgiving.” The flip side of his wondrous ability to focus was his fearsome willingness to filter out things he did not wish to deal with. This led to many of his great breakthroughs, but it could also backfire. “He has that ability to ignore stuff he doesn’t want to confront,” Powell explained. “It’s just the way he’s wired.” Whether it involved personal topics relating to his family and marriage, or professional issues relating to engineering or business challenges, or health and cancer issues, Jobs sometimes simply didn’t engage. In the past he had been rewarded for what his wife called his “magical thinking”— his assumption that he could will things to be as he wanted. But cancer does not work that way. Powell enlisted everyone close to him, including his sister Mona Simpson, to try to bring him around. In July 2004 a CAT scan showed that the tumor had grown and possibly spread . It forced him to face reality.
Isaacson, Walter (2011-10-24). Steve Jobs (pp. 454-455). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
To Be Human is to Desire
Getting what we want makes the world go round. Human beings are pursuing creatures. Once a person no longer pursues anything we image they have lost the will to live. To live is to want, to desire, to pursue.
- The American Declaration of Independence claims that we are endowed by our creator with the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.
- The four nobles truths of Buddhism say that desire is the root of all suffering and offers a path to eliminate desire.
- CS Lewis created an argument for the existence of God from desire.
- James KA Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College asserts that Christian theology has spent too little time focusing on desire rather than knowledge because are lives are shaped more by our desires than our worldviews.
Desire pushes the agendas of the world.
The Strangest Commandment
As we conclude our series on the Ten Commandments we arrive at what seems to be the strangest one of all, and possibly the most unique.
Exodus 20:17 (NET)
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
This commandment looks like a thought crime, and so in some ways mirrors the first commandment which may also be construed in that way.
Exodus 20:2–3 (NET)
2 “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
Many scholars have noted that the first and the last are alike in this way, that they make demands on the heart.
This gets us into one of the most offensive aspects of Christianity which is God’s intrusive demands on our thought life.
Many have noted that Jesus’ heightening of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew can be construed as combining some of the other commandments with desire.
- Wanting to kill without killing is anger Matthew 5:21-22
- Wanting to have a woman without touching her is lust Matthew 5:27-30
Now most of us realize that lusting usually does a lot less damage than adultery, unless of course it leads to adultery. Anger does a lot less damage than murder, unless of course it leads to murder.
For centuries scholars believed that this was out of all the commandments a unique commandment. Many of the other commandments could be commonly found in moral codes in the Ancient Near East and around the world, but this one seemed unique. That was until archeologists discovered an Assyrian commandment that seemed to mirror it.
The Assyrians, an empire with a reputation for avarice and ruthlessness imposed this commandment on the Anatolians.
You shall not covet a fine house, a fine slave, a fine slave woman, a fine field, or a fine orchard belonging to any Assyrian, and you will not take any of these by force and hand them over to your own subjects/servants.
Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Vol. 1, p. 236). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
The Assyrians, who understood power, realized that even as imperial overlords emigrant Assyrians living in Anatolia might become victims of the majority Anatolian population. The situation reminds me of the implicit code of the Jim Crow south where a black man could be lynched for merely looking at a white woman in a way that disturbed a white man. It is a commandment impossible for a human judge to justly enforce.
Is God like the Assyrians making threats to keep us away from our stuff? What does God care if we want or even take our neighbor’s stuff? Is this commandment a primitive way of “hedging the Torah”, of creating a buffer commandment to keep violation of the other commandments at bey?
Life Consumed By Desire
Most of us if we live long enough realize that we can recognize chapters of our lives organized by desire.
- When I was young life was all about Legos or dolls
- When I got older life was all about sports and friends
- When I got a bit older life was all about getting sex or romance or both
- After I had figure out how to get sex and romance life was all about building a career and earning money
- After I figured out how to get regular sex or romance, how to make money and build a career, life was all about having a family and raising children
- After I raised my children life was all about preparing for retirement
- After I retired life was all about finding enjoyable and meaningful ways to use my free time and make my dollars stretch
- After my health started to fade life was all about going to the doctor and trying to stay alive.
- Now I’m too old for sex, too old for stuff, too old for fame or a career, and I’m resigned to my health winding down, now life is about getting some attention from my kids and grandkids.
Maybe your list was regrettably shorter
- Life was always about getting sex
- Life was always about getting money
- Life was always about getting positive attention and affirmation
- Life was always about getting high
- Life was always about my family
- Life was always about some political cause
Sometimes these desires get out of whack and they destroy our lives
- Substance abuse
- Personality disorders
In any case you can see how life can be occupied either by one great desire or by a series of commonly approved desires. In any case all you life becomes then is the pursuit of some things that you have, but never fully satisfy you and then you die. Many people say that this is all that life can be or even should be. I disagree.
The Religion Trap
Now being in church you may feel yourself safe from this. Perhaps you have always been about “seeking first the kingdom and its righteousness”. You have always been faithful to church.
Screwtape’s Guide To How To Steal A Person’s Life
The Screwtape Letters is CS Lewis’ imaginary tale of a mentor demon corresponding with his nephew on how to snare a human being. The main strategy that uncle Screwtape employs is to keep a person busy with one agenda and then another all the time keeping him or her from thinking to hard about anything or wanting anything of much substance. Help the human spend his or her life in a myriad of agendas and causes great and small until their lives are consumed in mediocrities, their health is spent and their time exhausted.
One of the best traps he notes is the religious trap. Religion seems to be a safe place to spend one’s life until we realize that the common idolatries of a neighbors house, a neighor’s spouse, a neighbor’s job, or a neighbor’s attainments can similarly take religious form. When CS Lewis wrote the book during World War II naturally the war drew the attention of his English readers.
Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience . Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours— and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here, Your affectionate uncle SCREWTAPE
Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). The Screwtape Letters (Kindle Locations 347-356). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
So what are our options?
- The Buddha says desire nothing and you won’t get hurt and since your individual self is an illusion anyway the best you can hope for is existential individual personal conscious annihilation.
- Secular America says “live your passions, one after another. Fill out your bucket list and check off the boxes. Get them all done and that is the best you can do, and then you die and it’s all gone, until no one remembers you anymore.”
- Political America says “be an activist to save the planet, save the seals, save the whales, rescue the poor, until you go into the grave and no one remembers you and the sun burns us all up anyway but at least you tried.”
- Culture-war Religious America says lots of other things: “Include the sexual minorities” or “keep them out”, “No prayer in school” or “bring prayer back into school”, “stop the wars” or “crush Islamic terrorists” or “fill the land with churches” or “expose the lie of religion for the fairy tale that it is”. Fill in your favorite cause. In every case it isn’t about loving God or your neighbor up to and including your enemy as yourself.
I’m also not saying that the seasons of life and the concerns of our world are unimportant. We all have our callings, but if we are more than our callings.
If you combine the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” and the last commandment “you shall not covet your neighbor’s life” you begin to see that God himself asks to be first in your heart before everything else in your life.
For centuries Christian thinkers have defined sin not primarily or simply as “doing bad things” but rather as disordered desires. The world is full of good things but if any of those good things become ultimate things life gets twisted.
Chuck De Groat is both a psychologist and a Christian minister/teacher. In his new book The Toughest People To Love he notes how messed up we get with this.
People who are afflicted with personality disorders cannot relate as healthy image-bearers who give and receive love. Instead, they’ve developed twisted ways of getting what they need apart from God and through their own control. In the early church, theologians would talk of sin as disordered desire, emphasizing not so much the behavioral act of sin but the habitual patterns and passions which develop over time. We are talking about something very similar — patterns and habits which form over time, hijacking our deepest desire to love God and neighbor.
DeGroat, Chuck (2014-05-29). Toughest People to Love (Kindle Locations 625-629). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.
The Collapse of Veggie Tales
Phil Vischer was on a path to religious heroism in the late 90s when his Veggie Tales sales were going through the roof. He was a Christian deeply committed to changing American culture and God seemed to be blessing Veggie Tales almost beyond his dreams. He was sure he would become the Christian Walt Disney and the fruit of his labors would be many new converts for Christ and his dream of turning the culture back to Christ.
His dream collapsed in bankruptcy court where he not only lost his corporation but lost the intellectual property of Bob, Larry and the rest of the Veggies to a secular media company. You can read about his story in his book Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About God, Dreams and Talking Vegetables. After the spectacular collapse of his unbelievable success he had plenty of time to ponder his life and his relationship with God. Here is his conclusion.
Finally, and I am very serious when I say this, beware of your dreams, for dreams make dangerous friends. We all have them—longings for a better life, a healthy child, a happy marriage, rewarding work. But dreams are, I have come to believe, misplaced longings. False lovers. Why? Because God is enough. Just God. And he isn’t “enough” because he can make our dreams come true—no, you’ve got him confused with Santa or Merlin or Oprah. The God who created the universe is enough for us—even without our dreams. Without the better life, the healthy child, the happy marriage, the rewarding work. God was enough for the martyrs facing lions and fire—even when the lions and the fire won.
And God is enough for you. But you can’t discover the truth of that statement while you’re clutching at your dreams. You need to let them go. Let yourself fall. Give up. As terrifying as it sounds, you’ll discover that falling feels a lot like floating. And falling into God’s arms—relying solely on his power and his will for your life—that’s where the fun starts. That’s where you’ll find the “abundant life” Jesus promised—the abundant life that doesn’t look anything like evangelical overload.
Vischer, Phil (2007-01-09). Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables (Kindle Locations 3705-3715). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.