The Journey series
This week we consider how "it is better to give than to receive." This idea looms large in my faith journey.
As a young teen, one of five siblings raised by my single mom, I really wanted to be a priest, just like Fr Clifford. He was so cool. A few years later, as I tried to make sense of life, sans papa, I decided it wasn't possible that God’s plan included absent fathers. I could not accept the Anglican teaching on divorce. I was devastated. If that’s not right, what else? I could no longer be a priest.
Like any good Protestant, I began looking for a faith system that includes what I like but omits what I dislike. I examined many religions, sciences, and philosophies, but I didn’t bother with Roman Catholics because I ‘knew’ how bad they are. Everywhere I looked; math, physics, chemistry, karma; there was some equivalent to “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” I even heard bikers say, “What goes around comes around.”
I saw little potential in questioning such a ubiquitous idea, so I accepted it. I thought, “If that’s true, then whatever I give, I’ll receive equal in return.”
I then reasoned four things about giving only after bartering for a return:
1) If no one offers an acceptable return at a time I wish to give, I’ll lose that opportunity.
Some good things will never get done.
2) I'll have all I’m due. If something I want shows up unexpectedly, I'll have nothing in the Bank
of Good Deeds. I’ll have to do something more to get it.
3) God might know what I need better than I do. I might trade my efforts away for many little things
and wind up unable to get the big thing He has waiting around the corner for me.
4) The person I can give to might not have anything to give me and/or I might not have anything to
give the person I want from.
I decided to give whatever I could to whoever I could in faith that my return would be equal, whether it came directly or indirectly. After all, it’s the natural law. So that was me in my early adulthood; give freely because that's how to maximize what you get.
At the time, I was a student with a full course load and part-time jobs which barely paid for my tuition, books, and rent. Much of my food was gleaned (in the literal sense) and my clothes were simple. My theory seemed to work quite well while I had very few responsibilities, little to give, and much to gain. I'd often wonder why God made students so poor but gave them such big appetites. Sure enough, one of my friends would soon come by and share their sandwich, thus affirming my theory. Living in poverty (by California standards), it was also more comfortable to accept what came rather than actively seek particular things. Small gains were big wins.
Next week: What came after college?
This week we consider what it means to trust in God. Many people believe this to mean, if we want something and pray hard enough for it, God will grant our desire. Success shows our will aligns with God’s; failure reveals we merely sought our own will.
We are in the driver’s seat as we go through life from item to item; cool pair of jeans, car, house, bigger house; and from phase to phase; girlfriend, degree, spouse, career, child. God might grant our wish outright or He may present a means to achieve it.
Can we truly steer our own course to a fulfilling life this way? Will we ever be happy with what we have? Or will we get trapped by the ever-growing burden of keeping and maintaining our acquisitions? We slowly and steadily extend our grasp to enclose what we sense is attainable, yet our accomplishments merely deliver us to the next unfulfilled desire. There is always more to want. We can never quite reach ‘more’; it forever remains just beyond what we have.
I propose a different perspective. Instead of praying that God will provide what we need, simply accept that He does. Then (here’s the radical part) consider that we, ourselves, are part of that providence. We are part of God’s creation. Each of us was created for a particular purpose. Instead of praying for what you believe you need; pray that you might discern what God needs from you. Look at your situation and your environment and ask why God placed you in that particular place at that particular time. Look at your skills and interests and ask how they mesh best with what looms ahead. Look behind you and see how your past accomplishments and failures may have prepared you for today.
When Goliath came forth to challenge whoever the Israelites might send forth as their champion, the Israelite warriors imagined the wealth and esteem defeating this giant might earn. Yet none dared face Goliath because they knew no one matched the Philistine’s strength and experience.
David didn’t set out to battle; he was delivering provisions. David knew the Israelites were God’s chosen people and realized Goliath’s challenge offended God. He knew he was just a small shepherd boy, inexperienced in battle. But he remembered how God allowed him to prevail against lions and bears. He knew that whoever faced Goliath would be God’s instrument. He trusted, not that he, but God would prevail. David didn’t seek gold and glory, as other warriors imagined; he surrendered to God’s providence. He sought to serve, not to gain.
Do we trust in God enough to freely serve wherever He wills? Do we have the courage to abandon ourselves to His providence, both in receiving and in giving? Is His mercy enough for us? Or will we live our lives constantly seeking gift after gift?
This week we consider good and evil. God allowed Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of every tree in the Garden of Eden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They disobeyed and men have been loath to accept limits ever since.
Not content to abide within the limits of his strength, stamina, and speed; man harnessed beasts. To surpass even those limits, man created machines. Man’s capacity to exceed all limits and bend nature to his will seems boundless, yet we still have difficulty discerning good from evil.
God created us to love, honour, and serve Him and, by extension, all He created. He brought us forth and our life is a journey back to Him. Along the way we have many particular tasks, but they should not lead us away from our true end. What signs will guide us to the correct path at each fork?
We are often encouraged to follow pleasure, gain, and success, yet none of these is morally better than pain, loss, and failure. The merit of each must be weighed in the context of the situation. It is, in fact, impossible to have these perceived goods without some measure of the perceived evils. As the saying goes, “No pain, no gain.” Every choice we make is a balance of combinations of these values, but these measures do not determine whether an act is good or evil.
The good things we find through our physical, spatial, and temporal perspective more often distract us from, rather than guide us to, our true end. We do better appreciating them as consolations rather than setting them as goals. So our problem remains: who will guide us to the place from which no one has returned?
Since we have no guide to where we haven’t been, our best chance is to move away from where we have been. Our path to good is found by placing evil behind us. We must flee from our sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. We must harness the virtues of humility, charity, chastity, kindness, temperance, patience, and diligence, and riding them to our final end.
Perhaps, that way, we can finally learn to properly love and honour the gifts our Lord has provided rather than merely use them. Perhaps we can learn to tend and harvest our environment rather than rape and pillage it. Perhaps we can learn to live within proper limits. Perhaps we can learn to rein in our wants and service our needs.
I’m not there yet, but perhaps we can make this our journey rather than merely a dream.
This week we consider how desire is a poor measure of need. We need food, drink, clothing, and shelter to survive, and conjugal union to continue our species. How we satisfy those needs is, however, sometimes guided more by pleasure than practicality.
In all choices, we strike a balance between necessity and sensual gratification. On the few occasions we went to restaurants, Grand Dad invariably ordered liver and onions, even when not on the menu. The rest of us chose meals higher in grease and sugar. Memories of the Great Depression held sway over his choice while our selection was ruled by our taste buds. The richer a society becomes, the further choice shifts toward pleasure. We have come to a point where what we choose often runs counter to what we need ― overeating, drug and alcohol abuse, barely-there clothing, rampant violence, pornography.
C.S. Lewis called this disordered appetites; he considered our sexual appetite to be the most disordered. He observed, “You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”
Sex is pleasurable but it also has other consequences; it affects emotional bonds and is potentially procreative. Pleasure is a personal, subjective good and raising it to the highest goal of sexual union robs the act of its greater worth. In my sixty-five years, nothing has been more rewarding than my faith, my wife, and my two sons.
Reserving the marital act for marriage and respecting its nature has strengthened my relationship with all three. Observing and respecting the fertility cycle; both in seeking and avoiding conception, as prudence dictated; enhanced our experience. Artificially barring fecundity has potential to demote sex to entertainment. One’s partner risks objectification as a tool for gratification. Children might be seen as unintended obstacles rather than the gift they are.
Valuing sex primarily for pleasure places it in personal context rather than in its proper setting of mother, father, and children. Children are incapable of self-survival for many years and, cognitively, aren’t fully developed for about twenty-five years. Children do not reach their full potential outside stable, balanced environments. We owe it to our children and our spouse to use God’s gift responsibly and reign in our sexual appetites.
This week we examine two more influences on free will.
The Dead Sea scrolls were found in caves northwest of the Dead Sea near Qumran between 1947 and 1956. The first ones were discovered by a young shepherd after he threw a rock into a cave and heard something shatter. Those scrolls lay undisturbed for almost 2000 years but, after the first discovery, ten more caves containing scrolls were found within nine years.
While no one knew the scrolls existed, no one chose to look for them. After the first discovery, people did choose to look. Finding probably all there are within a decade, archaeologists gradually began seeking more fruitful ventures. Now, sixty-odd years after the last discovery, looking for scrolls is more of a hobby than a serious endeavour.
We find two conditions for free will in this story: