Is it me or has anyone else noticed that we are being bombarded by lists of instructions to ‘Be happy/Be creative/Be patient’ at every turn.
Here is one such list I saw for sale in shop whilst on holiday
These lists pop up all over the place. Twice I’ve seen them on shopping bags (but I didn’t have the courage to stalk the person carrying them just to take a photo) but clearly there is a marketing trend trying to tap into our deepest aspirations – to be happy, good, beautiful, kind, considerate people.
There are several reasons such lists make me say ‘Hmm’ . I don’t mean to be contentious as the qualities we are urged to express are very often worthy but there is a big part of me that says ‘Yes BUT, it’s not that easy.
First objection: It’s not that easy to pin down what are the actual things it would be most beneficial for us to be. One bag I saw said ‘Dance, sing, floss and travel’. Now I understand items 1,2 and 4 but ‘floss’? Really? Will I be a better person if I simply floss consistently? Anyway some of the loveliest people I know can’t dance, can’t sing and have never travelled much beyond their home town. In spite of this (and perhaps to the astonishment of those who think such things as travel or music essential) they still manage to be human beings with big, generous, calm, contented and well-ordered souls.
Second objection: the propaganda behind such lists is a false assumption – and the false assumption is that ‘merely wanting to be a nice person’ will make me a nice person. It really isn’t that straightforward. Who of us doesn’t want to be a nice person? No-one would disagree with the idea that if we could all just be nice/polite/kind/generous etc the world would be a better place. But we aren’t and the world is often a yucky place where children are oppressed and the vulnerable rejected.
Just sitting having beatific thoughts about love, truth, goodness, honesty, compassion isn’t enough to change us.
We are fundamentally and deeply flawed – broken inside- and this disintegration between our wills (our good intentions), our feelings, and our actions is what the Bible calls sin. Paul in the letter to the Romans writes
‘so the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want todo what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead I do what I hate’
Substitute the word ‘law’ for ‘list’ like the one above and Paul is expressing exactly my discomfort with this list. I admire the list, I want to have/demonstrate all those good qualities but some how I simply can’t: I stop short of stealing (clearly wrong) but can I give generously (clearly good)? I don’t like it when people are unkind, or inconsiderate to me or call me names but when I call them names or speak disparagingly about them, I rationalise it ‘I’m not a bad person, they deserved it, they hurt me’. We rationalise all sort of small deceits and slights (‘I’m not really queue jumping or speeding, I’m just a very busy person with a lot of things to do’).
We have what John Ortberg calls a ‘God given ache for goodness’ which is why we admire these aspirational lists but without God reintegrating (‘curing’) our souls we have no power to achieve it. There are numerous lists in New Testament of qualities which God followers should reflect but none of these passages suggest we should just get on with it by ourselves. Every time we are directed to the fact that it is only as we stand in right relationship with the one who made us, that we find the power to live the way that Creator intended us to live.
‘The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control’. Galatians 5:22
‘To focus on my soul means to look at my life under the care and connection of God… to focus on my self apart from God leaves me powerless to change’ but the modern world revolves around the self and not the soul. ‘The self is a stand alone, do it yourself unit while the soul reminds us we were not made for ourselves’ (summarised from a brilliant book I have just read called Soul-keeping: caring for the most important part of you by John Ortberg).
And that’s the problem with all of these lists – they are ‘self improvement’ projects and we can no more self improve ourselves than we can pull ourselves up by our own bootlaces. God offers ‘soul transformation’ but it only comes about slowly and only when God has a proper place in our lives.
That’s why you don’t see the advertising/marketing people mass producing fancy artworked version of the 10 Commandments or even of Jesus’s summary of 2 Commandments (love God and love other people) both of which are impossible to improve on as far as a summary of how humans should live in way that results in a good society. When God gave the first list he as good as said ‘write it down, pin it up on your walls, (he actually said ‘pin it to your forehead’ which is why devout Jews have little boxes on their head and wrists to remind them of the law). But because both of these lists start with putting God in his proper place, they are no longer popular, instead we get these hopeful but fairly vapid, meaningless alternatives. We all want to be nice people but only when we orientate our lives around worship and love for God (what we were made for) do we find that we are no longer alone in the process of transformation. The trouble is most people prefer to be self-directed not God directed.
‘You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe… the most important thing about you is your soul. What you are constructing, the person you are becoming is the only thing that will last. You were made for God, and made to need God, which means you were not made to be self sufficient. Your soul can be right when everything in your world is all wrong. And sooner or later everything in your world will feel all wrong – what will matter at that moment is the soul you have constructed’. (Ortberg)
So ‘be happy/be understanding/generous/patient’ but don’t kid yourself that you can do it on your own. You need forgiveness first for the cracked pot state of your own soul and only then can you find forgiveness/patience/compassion/kindness for all the other cracked pots around you.