Illusions, delusions, disillusionment, vision, dreams, hallucinations, nightmares, fantasy, daydreams, grim reality, foresight, insight—people see things in many ways, and how they see determines much of what they say and do. Some see the world divided into “left” and “right” or conservative and liberal. Those who see and talk that way are a powerful few. Most people do not see much further than the walls of their apartments, the edges of their yards, or the routes they travel back and forth to work or go to school. For many, their world is divided into “mine” and “not mine” from which they hope to acquire more.
The measure of a person’s perspective seems to rest on feeling—good, bad, sad, angry, unhappy, happy, lonely, unloved. A kind of love is part of that spectrum, but it is often measured or valued by the good feelings it produces, often literally good physical feelings, in other words, sex. In this realm, life becomes a mission to feel good. Since good feelings tend to be brief and increasingly rare as people grow older, life itself becomes a disappointment. Anger and depression seem to become increasingly common. People feel anger because they believe others threaten their happiness or prevent them somehow from becoming happy. They are victims who are angry at those whom they blame, even at themselves although their self-directed anger often turns into depression. Most stew in their anger and lash out at those who are close and convenient—family members, co-workers, or neighbors. Some, too many in fact, turn to violence either to take what they think they need or simply to direct their pain onto someone else. Others express their anger publicly as crusaders and politicians. They may even attract others into their angry movements, despite the reality that anger is not an effective tool. The few changes it may promote are reactive, destructive, and easily reversed by angry reactions.
Sadly, much of news, talk, and political activity, even education and religion, have been caught up into this sort of negative feeling. Anger seethes out of every kind of activity and competition from talk shows to sporting events. Both conservatives and liberals express anger for fear that they will lose, are losing, or have lost their power, the ability to win agreement, financial support, and ultimately votes. Every kind of interest group trades in fear and anger despite their use of more agreeable concepts like justice, family values, or prosperity. Even the threat of a common and determined enemy does not interfere with the vitriolic rhetoric. Furthermore, since anger doesn’t really work, lies, manipulative tricks, ethical misdeeds, and criminal behavior are all in play in order to achieve the ends necessary, or so it is thought, to feel good and be happy.
A very few take a different path. Their vision is hopeful and optimistic. They are subject to the same frustrations and tragedies, but they live less in the chaos of emotion and more in the realm of reason and wisdom. For them, words like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control represent a less selfish agenda, one that seeks the good of all, others as well as self, one that recognizes that progress comes from working together. Such people laugh at themselves because they try not to take themselves too seriously. They are good humored with a sense of humor that rises above bodily functions and out of the bathroom and bedroom. They like stories with nice people and happy endings, even if they are not completely realistic. They would rather think pleasant thoughts when they prepare to dream and face the ugliness and anger when they are fully conscious and capable of rational response. They know they are fallible, recognize they don’t have all the answers, but believe in progress and a better future for their children. Sin and evil are real to them, but forgiveness and grace are more powerful because God is loving, just, and sovereign.
The first step into this better, more effective and hopeful way is to come to know and trust Jesus Christ, whose death made a way to get from the chaos of anger and despair to the realm of joy and hope. Faith in Christ is sufficient to move from death into life, from hell into heaven, from the futile present to a progressively glorious eternity. It takes a little more to avoid falling back into the pit of discouragement, depression, and anger. Too many churches, groups, and individuals slip back. A church can be just as confining as an apartment if those within never look beyond its walls. Self-centeredness can use Bible verses and religious jargon. Pastors, priests, and church elders can build factions, fight for money and power, and be as political as any Democrat or Republican. Godly people need to keep worldly values out of church life every bit as much as they should seek to take godly values out into public life.
How hard is it to distinguish one way from the other (and, in fact, there are only two ways!)? Wolves are dangerous, even dressed like sheep; they may even “baa” like sheep. Goats and sheep are often found together, but the goats will eat anything and drive their heads into you when you’re not looking. Sheep themselves are often stupid and too easily led into trouble. Therefore, don’t look at their coats or trust what you hear. “By their fruits, you will recognize them,” Jesus said. What fruits did he mean? Some would say converts, but that is incomplete. Sheep do have sheep; but wolves also have wolves, goats bear goats, and the world already has plenty of both. The fruit is the fruit of God’s spirit listed above. Compare that list to this one: acts of immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Paul calls these “deeds of the flesh” in Galatians 5. The contrast between these two lists, written nearly 2000 years ago, matches almost exactly the difference between most of the highly emotional ways of contemporary culture and a few seeking to live sensibly and rationally.
We need to be careful what outside voices we follow. We also need to be careful about which inside voices we trust. Feelings are strong and immediate, and the culture tells us they are reliable and important. Experience shows otherwise: dark days feel sad, illness causes depression, and everyone has “bad hair days.” Many learn to feel ugly or stupid when they are children, perhaps from a bad experience or unkind remark. Teens feel inadequate and insecure, and many continue to believe those feelings reflect the truth about themselves, an error in judgment outsiders often see more easily.
Truth, reason, understanding, and wisdom are better voices to follow. When a person thinks and decides wisely, they will find that better feelings will follow. Living subjectively, going on feelings, is common everywhere, especially in religion, where it is the most absurd. If a person cannot read another’s mind (Nobody “knows” what someone else is thinking unless they share their thoughts), then certainly creatures cannot figure out the thoughts of the Creator. Both trendy, popular religious ideas and deep personal doubt come from wrongly trusting subjective thoughts and feelings, whether of pop heros or of oneself. Faith in God anchored in what He has chosen to tell us is a safer course, and it leads to security and contentment. These qualities are ultimately more gratifying than an illusive, short-lived something we call happiness.
A well-prepared meal of my favorite foods or a concert of the music I enjoy most can make me feel really good. Some days just go right, and I seem to get things done and feel a great deal of satisfaction. I can spend a day or an evening with my closest friends and feel a certain sadness when the moment ends and I must return to my home alone. I can feel like “God is in His heaven and all is right with the world,” but the feeling is rare and doesn’t seem to last very long. Many chase after those feelings, trying to recapture moments gone forever, or they live in the past, dwelling on the memory of those moments. I prefer to accept and enjoy the blessings when they come and look forward to new experiences. In the meantime, I am content trying to live right, be a good friend and neighbor to those around me, and trust God to provide for my needs. As a result, I am not angry or disillusioned. Fear and loneliness do not cripple me. I am tempted, as is everyone; sometimes I fail. God still loves me like any loving parent loves his or her own child, even when the child stumbles. He forgives me when I ask, and I move on. I remain hopeful about the future, even as I recognize the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that seem to threaten us and our culture. I have bad moments but they pass, just as the good ones do; but, amazingly, I find I remember the good while the bad fades. One winter day, I feel like the cold and darkness is unbearable; then it passes, as do the dreary days until suddenly it’s spring. Life is good. God is good. I am content.