Tag Archives: happiness

“To Be or Not to Be?” Which is Better?

Is it better to exist than not? Don’t answer too quickly! For this is a subtle question requiring careful thought. First of all, it is stated as a comparison between two things that are difficult to compare. “Better” is the comparative of good, and good can mean “good for” for a particular nature or absolutely good, which means something “good for” every possible nature. Only God is absolutely good. Life with food is better than life without food because food is “good for” living things. It is difficult to say that it is better to exist than not, because there is no comparison between nonexistence and existence. Not existing is not a defective state of existing. Indeed it is not a “state” at all. Hence we can’t conclude from this comparison that existing is better than not existing. Nor can you get at the question by asking an existing person whether being deprived of existence would be a loss of good and then concluding to the superiority of existing because of its greater goodness. In so far as we imagine a state of being deprived of all goods, of course we would find that condition worse than our present state of relative contentment. But our imaginations fool us here, because ceasing to exist is not comparable to losing a good while remaining in existence.

Is there a way to answer the question? I do not think so if we limit ourselves to the original question: is it better for me to exist than never to have existed? But there are other possibilities: is it better for the universe or others that I exist rather than never to have existed? We may not be able to answer this question, but at least it makes sense. Perhaps we can ask it another way: was it better for God to have created the world than not to have created it? The only workable answer I can imagine to this question goes like this: God created the world out of sheer love to share his eternal joy with creatures. If so, we can safely assume that God determined that it was better for God’s purposes that the world, which includes us, exist rather than not. But even from a divine perspective how does God know that it is better for you and me to exist than not, since there is no way to compare the two? I can think of only one way. God can know that it is better for me to exist—for myself and not just for others—only if I am not merely nothingness and chaos before I exist in this world and for myself. I must in some way exist for God and be known and loved by God from all eternity even before I exist for myself. I can then understand God’s act of creating me as enabling the me God knew eternally to exist and act for myself as good for the world and good for me.

Hence we can assert that it is good to exist not only because we desire it naturally or when we experience more good than evil but also as in faith we validate God’s decision that we should exist. Since you in fact exist, you can know that it is better for you and for creation that you exist than never to have been. As long as God wills it, then, “To be” is better than “Not to be.”

Note: Recently, a student asked me the question discussed in this essay. I wrote these thoughts in answer to his question, but I thought I’d share them with you as well.

WHEN THAT “NOTHING-REALLY-MATTERS” FEELING COMES OVER YOU

Everyone wants to feel their worth. Everyone hopes to become happy. And everyone longs for significance. But the universe is so big and we are so small. Ages have come and gone before we were born, and the timeline beyond our death stretches out to infinity. Billions of people lived and died before us and others will follow. And even now you and I live among billions of people. Whatever we do and become, most people will never know about it, and the few that do will forget and one day pass into the forgotten past.

Given everything that points to our insignificance are there good reasons to believe that we really are worth something, that our happiness is a real possibility, and that each of us really matters? Some people attempt to create their worth by their individual effort. In my last blog post (December 02, 2017), I wrote about the modern view of the self that sees human worth as the power of freedom to do and become what pleases us. As long as you are feeling this power in action you feel significant. But this strategy will not work in the long run because our wishes and desires are much greater than our powers. Despite our dreams of divinity we are finite, mortal, and small. We cannot make the universe acknowledge our worth or bend to our wills.

Another strategy for securing our significance is to identify with something greater than ourselves. We can forget about our individual smallness, mortality, and weakness by devoting ourselves to a great cause. The greatness of the cause becomes in our minds our own greatness. The great cause most people choose is the state, the most comprehensive and powerful human institution. Politics becomes their all-consuming passion because participating in the greatness of the state is the only way they can feel their worth or believe they matter or create happiness for themselves. But the state is no more divine than individuals are. States are also finite, mortal, and weak. They fail as surely individuals fail. Nor does the good of the state coincide with good of the individual within it. Even for democracies, an individual can be no more than a means to an end. The state’s “greatness” can never really become “my greatness.”

We’ve examined two failed gods, the individual and the state. Is there another way to secure our worth and significance in the face of our smallness, mortality, and weakness? First, we need to specify exactly what we want when we ask for worth, significance, and happiness. We are not satisfied with being worth a little, having limited significance, or experiencing temporary happiness. We want these goods without limit. There are only two possibilities for acquiring what we seek. Either we become God and possess them by nature or God gives them to us by grace. I rejected the first alternative when I rejected the modern view of the self as self-sufficient. And I rejected the state as a substitute God.

God alone can ground our worth, significance, and hope of happiness. God, who knows all things, knows each of us. The Creator of all things decided you should exist here and now. The One who works out his plan for all time and space has assigned you a significant part to play. It does not matter how big the universe is or how many people exist or how long it continues after your death. The infinite and eternal God does not relate to things as big or small or old or young—or even as dead or alive. Our worth to God is not relative to our size or lifespan. To our amazement, God wills us to share in his life and goodness. And if we have God we have all things. So, don’t try to measure your significance by how big a splash you can make in the universe. Measure it by how much love God has demonstrated for you in Jesus Christ.

Eight Things You CANNOT do with 248.5 Billion Dollars

I just read that the combined net worth of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos is greater than the net worth of the poorer half of the population of the United States. These three men possess as much 160 million Americans, that is, $248,500,000,000. Should we be outraged at the injustice? Or, do we have to fight our temptation to envy? Do we resent them or admire them? Do we feel sorry for the poorer half of the nation, or do we make moral heroes of them? All of these and more are possible reactions. But I had another thought this morning.

Sometimes I think of what I could do with Gates-level wealth. I dream of the good I could do and, I admitted it, of the stuff I could buy, the fame I could have, and the influence I could exert. But not today. Today, I thought of all the things I COULD NOT do with $248,500,000,000. Here are my top eight things we cannot buy with any amount of money, not necessarily in order of priority:

  1. We cannot acquire the love of another person. Love must be freely given. If you want to be loved, you must love, love with no expectation of having that love returned. Attempt to purchase it and it will turn to dust at your touch.
  2. We cannot become good people. Virtue is acquired through God’s grace, reason, practice, and humility. Virtue consists in power over oneself to direct the self single-mindedly toward the highest good. It’s not for sale.
  3. We cannot buy God’s approval or sway his judgment. God does not judge as human beings judge. God knows and judges according to truth, and the standard by which he judges is his own perfect justice and love. In relation to God, all we can say is “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Receiving God’s approval should be our supreme desire. And you can’t order it from Amazon.com.
  4. You cannot buy an education. You can buy a teacher’s time, computers, and libraries of books. You may avoid having to spend your time working. You can afford to attend an expensive university. But rich or poor, learning is acquired by study. You can’t get it by writing a check.
  5. We cannot buy health. Being able to purchase excellent medical care is an advantage, for sure. But everyone dies, and cold viruses, cancer, heart decease, and genetic disorders do not distinguish rich from poor. Accidents do not check the financial position of their victims. We need other resources to deal with sickness and death: courage and faith and love. And you can’t charge them to your platinum VISA card.
  6. No amount of money can buy happiness, peace, or joy. In these states of mind we have a sense of fullness, of having everything we need, of wanting nothing beyond what we have. But no finite thing can establish these states as permanent. True and lasting happiness, peace and joy must be grounded in the knowledge of possessing and being possessed by the infinite source of everything good, God. And God is as close to you as your heartbeat. The one who has God has everything, but the one who lacks God will sooner or later find everything else worthless. And God’s purchase price cannot be translated into Dollars, Euros, or Pounds Sterling.
  7. You cannot change the past or buy forgiveness. Only God can work all things, bad and good, for good. Only God can forgive sin and heal sin’s evil consequences. You cannot absolve yourself of your sins; nor can you erase the memory of your guilt. The ghost of regret is immune to bribery.
  8. Banishing anxiety about the future is not within our power. Whatever safeguards you put into place, you cannot exorcize the specter of what could be. The possibilities for evil are as rich as our imaginations, or even greater. There is only one ground of hope, the faithful Creator. And there is only one way to benefit from this Ground, to surrender all hope in yourself and to trust God in life and in death. God’s reliability bears no relationship to our net worth, and trust is not a financial transaction.

I could have turned these eight points around and written about

“Eight Supremely Valuable Things You Can Enjoy Right Now Free of Charge.”

You can love and be loved.

You can become a good person.

You can enjoy God’s approval.

You can learn about God and God’s creation.

You can appreciate the health you have.

You can experience happiness, peace, and joy.

You can experience God’s forgiveness.

You can let go anxiety about the future.

At what price, you say? We don’t have to give up anything of real value. Quite the contrary, we get to trade in our worthless stuff, our pain, sadness, disappointment, despair, self-deception, pride, shame, and fear…. God will take those worthless things in exchange for things valuable beyond reckoning.

Perhaps envying, resenting or vilifying the rich or pitying, praising, or excusing the poor—understandable though they are—are not the most Christian, or even the most rational, responses to economic disparity. Perhaps we ought to learn to make our judgments according to the value system determined by God’s economy.

Ron Highfield’s Amazon author page:

https://www.amazon.com/Ron-Highfield/e/B001JS5TK8/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

 

Succeeding at Success

A few weeks ago I spoke about the “little voice” in the back of our minds that never lets us rest carefree. As soon as we feel ourselves relaxing that very feeling triggers the thought that we ought to be doing something. What keeps the “little voice” awake? What drives the back and forth process between relaxation and anxiety? Is there a state of mind in which our emotions are blended together in a stable harmony? And what unifying force can order the mind toward such peace?

I suspect that the “little voice” means well. Perhaps it is trying to help us toward that perfect balance. But its guidance is only as good as its knowledge and its prodding is only as healthy as its habits. And its ability to succeed depends on its image of success. So, today let’s examine the concept of success.

What is Success?

In general, success is the state of having achieved a goal. Human beings are future-oriented, goal-setting beings. We act to achieve goals. But there are many things we could do and many good things that clamor for our attention. As beings with reason and knowledge, we are able to ignore this myriad of alternative possibilities by selecting and ranking goals. Otherwise, we would become paralyzed into inaction or driven to exhaustion by fear of missing out. Since life demands that we work toward many goals, some serially and others simultaneously, we need a unifying principle to order our goals into a harmonious whole. Some goals seem much more important than others. Some can be achieved quickly and easily while others take longer to reach and require much effort and patience. Some goals are specific, and success is easily measured. Digging up a small stump in my front yard, which I did this morning, took about 10 minutes. Mission accomplished! Training to enter a profession takes longer, but when you graduate and are granted a license, you have succeeded. But why spend 10 minutes working in my yard, and why spend 10 years working toward a professional credential? These goals must be ordered as means toward some even more comprehensive end or they would not seem worthwhile. Achieving them would seem empty and meaningless.

Success at What?

The logic of ends and means leads ultimately to the necessity setting a whole-life goal aimed at the greatest good we can imagine. This one goal becomes the unifying principle that enables us to rank and order all other goals in a meaningful way. The worth of every other goal is measured by its usefulness as a means toward achieving our whole-life goal. But the two-fold problem with most whole-life goals is that (1) they are stated so generally that it’s difficult to imagine actually achieving them, and (2), given their generality, they don’t give us much guidance for what to do on a daily basis. If your whole-life goal is happiness or pleasure or fame or respect or independence, you can never arrive at the destination. And how do these goals impart the wisdom you need to keep on track toward the ultimate destination? This is the soil in which the “little voice” thrives. It sprouts up in the fertile plane between our whole-life goal and our daily lives. It whispers, “Are you sure that what you are doing today is the best way to achieve your whole-life goal? Don’t get too excited about removing that stump and earning that professional credential, because you’re no closer to achieving your whole-life goal.”

God and the “Little Voice”

Is there a whole-life goal that is comprehensive, important, and compelling enough to order all our goal-seeking activity into a harmonious whole but is also specific, achievable, and effective in guiding our daily activity? Is there a supreme end that closes the space where the “little voice” rules? Yes, I believe there is. And you won’t be surprised when I echo the Bible and the entire Christian tradition by saying that God is the greatest good and the chief end of human life. I am sure many will say, “Amen!” to this. But sometimes we’re a bit unclear about how making God our whole-life goal deals with the two-fold problem and the little voice. Unlike other whole-life goals, such as happiness, respect, and fame, God is not a general principle or subjective condition. God is a living reality who knows himself perfectly; God knows exactly what he wills and what he does. God knows exactly what he wants us to do and become. Hence doing God’s will, pleasing God, and living with God forever are specific goals—as specific as removing a tree stump or graduating from graduate school—not vague, unmeasurable generalities. And God knows what he wants us to do each step of the way toward achieving our final goal. The “little voice” thrives on generalities and uncertainties. God does not struggle with the “little voice.”

Succeeding at Success

But is our chief end of pleasing God and living with him forever achievable? If “God” were a general principle like happiness or fame or respect, the answer would be no. Achieving subjective states like happiness—even if that were possible—depends on our own power, and it can be thwarted by unfortunate circumstances. But God is not an abstraction. God is alive, and the achievability of our chief end is grounded in his power and love, not in our power and wisdom. In setting our whole-life goal as becoming and doing what God wills and living with him forever, we are merely accepting his grace and affirming what God has promised to give us. Our success is not in doubt because God’s success is not in doubt. The “little voice” cannot convincingly argue that God might not succeed.

Guideposts Along Road to Success

What about specific guidance for our daily lives, in the big and little decisions we must make? Even if the “little voice” cannot threaten us with ultimate failure, perhaps it can still annoy us with questions about the wisdom of the daily decisions we make. “Is it really best to spend your time reading a book? Perhaps you should have spent more time in prayer this morning? Do you really think you need that new computer?” And on and on it goes. As I said above, achieving our final goal is possible and certain only with God’s power and love. In the same way, God’s power and love alone—not our wisdom—grounds our hope of making the decisions and accomplishing the goals that will lead us to eternal success. If the end is not in doubt, neither are the means. Once again, the “little voice” is robbed of its plausibility. It cannot threaten us with the possibility that our lack of wisdom or the likelihood of making mistakes may lead us irretrievably astray. Trusting in our own power and wisdom, gives the “little voice” its power and plausibility. Trusting in God silences the voice, because then its only option is to question God, and that is not plausible.

Ron Highfield

Author Page at Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/author/ron.highfield

The Power of Forgiveness: Forgiveness And The Christian Life (#2)

Last week we discovered that forgiveness is the act of renouncing revenge for insult or injury suffered. In forgiving those who hurt us we rely on God to do what we cannot, that is, to overcome injustice, restore our dignity and heal all wounds. Forgiveness is an act of faith.

In today’s post I want to consider the positive side of forgiveness. In forgiving, we refuse to take revenge. We don’t act. But in not acting in a destructive way, we do an act of love. The first step in loving your enemy is not returning injury for injury and insult for insult. The loving dimension in forgiveness is the space it gives for repentance. In forgiving wrongs we demonstrate the possibility of freedom from the cycle of “eye for an eye” justice. Forgiving our enemies expresses confidence in God’s power to change enemy. It is an act of loving faith, a faith that believes in the power of God’s love to do for others what it has done for us. In forgiving, we suffer by endure insult and injury for the enemy’s sake. And in suffering for our enemy we become instruments through which the suffering love of Jesus touches the enemy. This activity of suffering love brings us to the joyful side of forgiveness.

Think about the unhappiness we bring on ourselves when we keep a record of every insult and injury done to us! There is no limit and no end to the wrongs we encounter even in one day. The unforgiving, like emotional bloodhounds, can detect insult in the slightest gesture and threat of injury the least movement. The list of negative emotions associated with our sensitivity to injustice is long: fear, anger, hatred, envy, resentment, bitterness, sadness, nostalgia, regret, despair, guilt. Fear anticipates injury, and anger defends against insult. Anger becomes hatred when it is nourished with memories of ancient wrongs. Envy sees injustice in others getting what we would like to have, and resentment turns to bitterness when we feel we’ve been passed over for honors we deserve. Nostalgia unhappily remembers long passed happiness, and sadness settles in when hope of better days fades into expectation of endless disappointment. And these feelings are compounded by the dim awareness that we are responsible for our unhappiness.

But what a difference forgiveness makes! Faith in God’s power at work for us and his love toward us frees us from the power of insult and injury. In place of fear, anger, hatred, envy, resentment, bitterness, sadness, nostalgia, regret, despair and guilt, we find love, joy, peace and hope. The causes of negative emotions have been exposed as impotent. Insults are empty nothings, lies with no basis in reality. Nothing and no one can diminish our worth and dignity because it is grounded in the unchangeable love of God for us. And injury cannot touch our true lives, which are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 2:3). Hence we can forgive all wrongs. Our experience of insult and injury, instead of occasioning unhappy emotions, becomes an occasion to experience the love of Christ acting through us, healing, saving and repairing the world.

Next week we address the question, “How can God forgive?” We can love because God love us, and we can forgive because God can forgive…but what empowers God forgive?

To be continued…

 

Freedom Ain’t So Free After All: God and the Modern Self #7

In the previous post I brought into the open the implications of modern self’s claims about itself and its powers. It claims power to free itself from limits that stand in the way of full freedom and happiness. It thinks that if it’s bold enough, angry enough, clever enough or loud enough it can break through to freedom. It considers all limits to be external barriers and imagines freedom as the absence of those limits. It wants to create itself, free itself, judge itself and save itself.

In a sense refutation of such claims is superfluous, because once you hear them you know immediately they cannot be true. You may be somewhat skeptical about a person whose manner seems a bit too self-confident and whose stories sound a bit too improbable. But perhaps they really are extraordinary. However, if that person looks you in the eye and says, “Don’t tell anyone, but I am Superman on a secret mission”, you know immediately not to take anything else he says seriously. As long as the modern self remains implicit it may seem a plausible view of human nature. But as soon as it begins to claim God-like powers and prerogatives, you know it’s deluded. But just in case someone needs further help seeing the self-deception of the modern self, let’s examine two further points of refutation.

The modern self thinks of freedom primarily as a state in which it can to do whatever it wants. We know that no such condition is possible, but let’s assume for argument’s sake that there are no external limits on our actions. Would this kind of total freedom guarantee happiness? No, it would not. We’ve all done things we thought would bring happiness only to find unhappiness following in their wake. What is this? How can it be that I freely do something, believing it will contribute to my happiness, but having done it I am filled with remorse and disappointment?

 

The obvious conclusion is that external freedom is not enough. There are internal limits from which I need freeing. I need a clearer idea of who I am and what will actually make me happy. If can’t understand myself now, why think I will be able to free myself from my self-ignorance in the future? Can the dark illuminate its own darkness? Can confusion clarify itself?

 

As if confusion about myself were not enough, there is a second problem.  Even if somehow I get free to do whatever I wish and no other hidden power determines my choices, I am limited by yet “other” forces. Suppose I set my heart on a certain goal and nothing stops me from going for it; still, I cannot know that I can make it happen as I imagine. Human beings have great powers of reason, and we can use these powers to predict future consequences of present actions. But these powers are limited, very limited. I may freely decide to take a trip and drive away in my car. But I cannot control myriads of other factors, such as driving conditions, the mechanical components in my car, and the behavior of other drivers. Hence my trip may not turn out as I imagine.

We want freedom so that we can achieve happiness, and the modern self is confident that with freedom to do as it pleases it can make itself happy. However, this is a great self-deception.  Human beings simply do not have the power to make the future turn out as they wish or the wisdom to know how to make themselves happy. Such power and wisdom is beyond the human horizon. And every thoughtful person knows this. The modern self, then, is a fantasy, a wish, a dream of becoming like God.

I end with a very sobering thought from Søren Kierkegaard. In his deeply moving devotional book Christian Discourses, he reflects poignantly on how to prepare to take communion,

 

“I will call to mind that even if I had my soul concentrated in one single wish and even if I had it concentrated therein so desperately that I could willingly throw away my eternal salvation for the fulfillment of this wish—that still no one can with certainty tell me in advance whether my wish, if it is fulfilled, would still not seem empty and meaningless to me. And what is more miserable, that the wish would not be fulfilled and I would retain the sad and painful ideas of the—missed good fortune—or that the wish would be fulfilled and I would retain it, embittered by the certainty how empty it was!”

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 7 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Some Unwelcome Limits on Freedom and Dignity”)

Questions for Discussion

1. The essay argues that making the claims of the modern self explicit is a first step toward refutation of those claims. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.

2. How does experience of regret or disappointment demonstrate that external freedom cannot secure the thing that makes freedom desirable, that is, happiness? Describe your experience of regret.

3. What are some internal limits on freedom highlighted by experiences of regret and disappointment? And what can free us from these internal limits?

4. What limits does experience of a freely chosen action’s failure highlight? Can the self free itself from this limit? How?

5. Evaluate this statement: we desire freedom because we desire happiness, and freedom seems like a necessary condition for gaining happiness. Hence we cannot be satisfied with any form of freedom that does not make happiness attainable.

6. What kind of freedom, if attained, would guarantee our happiness?

Note: The next post will begin the second half of the series on the theme of “The God-Centered Identity.” In this part of the series we will explore a different picture of God and humanity, one that no longer sees them as enemies and competitors.

 

 

 

A God to Envy: God and the Modern Self (Part 5)

Many of our contemporaries have been convinced that freedom is doing what you please, that dignity is indexed to autonomy and that happiness depends on pursuing unique desires and designing an identity that pleases you. How do such people react when hear that God is the creator and lord of all, that he is omnipotent, knows all and is present everywhere and that his laws must be obeyed? In earlier posts we explored three common reactions to God: defiance, subservience and indifference. In this post I want to reconstruct the image of God that exists in the mind of the modern self, so that we can see why it reacts so negatively to the thought of God.

 It may surprise us to discover that the image of God that evokes such a negative reaction in the modern self is an exact replica of the modern self’s image of itself. The modern self thinks its freedom, dignity and happiness depend on accomplishing its will, and it doesn’t readily tolerate competitors and limits. Put a bit more philosophically, the modern self understands its essential nature as pure, arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand itself without limits. It does not want to be limited by nature or law or lack of power; that is to say, the modern self wants to be as much like God as possible.

The modern self sees God’s nature also as arbitrary will whose essential activity is to expand without limits. In the mind of the modern self, God and human beings have the same essential nature. Each is a will that desires to expand itself to encompass all things. And this understanding of the divine and human selves creates conditions that cause the modern self to react in defiance, subservience or indifference. Both God and human beings enjoy freedom, dignity and happiness only as they do their own will because it is their own will. But there can be only one being who always does his own will because it is his own will, and that is God.

For this reason, whether the modern self believes or not, defies, submits or tries to ignore, it sees God as a threat to its freedom, an insult to its dignity and a limit to its happiness. When the modern self hears that God is all-powerful it thinks, “So that’s it: God can do as he pleases and I cannot.” Thinking of God’s omniscience and omnipresence, the modern self feels vulnerable and naked: “Don’t I get some time alone. Can’t I keep any secrets?” Considering God’s other attributes, it complains, “How can I feel my worth when I am constantly told that God is Lord and I am not, that I am dependent, sinful, finite, and mortal and that I owe God my life and my obedience?” For the modern self, God occupies all the space and sucks up all the air. The conclusion is obvious: if only God can be God, only God can be happy! What a miserable conclusion!

Even if we admit that only God can be God and give up all hope of becoming God, we cannot give up the desire to be happy.  Hence we will nurse envy of God’s power and prerogatives and resent his position. In its heart the modern self asks, “Why is God, God? Why not me?” Its (false) understanding of divine and human nature as arbitrary will generates the modern self’s aspiration to become God and provokes its envy of God. And this understanding is the source of the three attitudes the modern self adopts toward God: defiance, subservience and indifference.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 5 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The God of the Modern Self”)

 Questions for Discussion

 1. How are the modern self’s understandings of human and divine nature connected? How does the concept of “pure, arbitrary will” apply to each?

2. How does defining human and divine nature as pure, arbitrary will guarantee that the modern self will view God as a threat to its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness?

3. Have you or does anyone you know resented God’s omnipotence? In what ways?

4. How does contemplating God’s complete knowledge of you make you feel? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever felt resentful or at least discomfort with the thought that God knows completely what you’ve done, what you have thought and are thinking?

5. Explore the ways the modern self’s image of God simultaneously provokes envy and resentment.

6. Discuss how each of the modern self’s three attitudes can be generated by its false image of God and humanity. Defiance? Subservience? Indifference?

 Note: Next we will examine in detail the “secret ambitions of the modern self,” that is, the specific ways in which it seeks unlimited freedom and absolute dignity.