If Only …

I once read an article that blamed the plague of modern discontent on the internet. Facebook flaunts vacationing friends sailing the Caribbean, or their “perfect” kids topping the honor roll, or we drool over the mansions of the rich and famous. And our hearts whisper, “If only….”

Others argue that it is advertising that supercharges our unhappiness:

Marketers have turned television into an instrument of dissatisfaction. The shows bring an idealized, expensive world into the homes of people who can’t afford it. And the ads remind everyone that their lives are incomplete and unhappy—unless …. (Seth Godin)

It’s not that everything in our lives is bad (after all, we live in the safest, healthiest, and most prosperous time in history); we just wish our environment could be a smidgeon better:

  • If only I could lose twenty pounds.
  • If only I could work thirty-five hours a week instead of forty-five;
  • If only my husband listened more, or my wife was better looking (or I was better looking).

While the internet and advertisers intensify our discontent, Scripture says the human heart has an almost unlimited capacity to pin our hopes on the tiniest of changes in circumstances. As one spiritual writer put it:

The terrible fallacy of the last hundred years has been to think that all a person’s troubles are due to his environment. That is a tragic fallacy. It overlooks the fact that it was precisely in Paradise that mankind fell. (Martyn Lloyd Jones)

Spiritual Insanity

A few years ago, a twenty-eight-year-old woman shared with me what she called her “unseemly struggle:” she was dissatisfied … with most everything. Growing up, she had simple desires for life: a decent husband, a nice family, and a moderate house.

restless couple

Soon after college she married a good guy; they both found jobs in their fields; they bought a nice house; and within a few years they had a healthy baby boy.

She had every significant aspiration she had ever desired. Yet she was restless.

So they bought a new car, repainted the house, added granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. They were promoted. Her husband got an MBA. She quit her job to become a full-time mother. It felt good. For a bit.

Soon she felt restless all over again. “Is this all there is?” She saw the same unease in her friends, pursuing raises, cars, promotions, and kids. Then she heard an Einstein quote,

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.

She said to me, “I wonder if we’re all spiritually insane.”

Hearing God to See Him

Thirty-three years ago I took a woman to a Gilbert and Sullivan play as a first date. Before the evening of our get-together, I had a collection of facts about her: she was a farmer’s daughter, she was a Social Worker, and she was cute. After the evening of our get-together, I told my parents that I had just met the woman I would marry.

Seeing

What happened during those few, short hours? I had known she wanted to be a missionary, but over a glass of wine, she told me of her longing to help internationals. And I fell in love. I didn’t get new information; somehow, something I already knew became real.

She breathed life into the facts I already possessed. A personal connection trumped my data.

Western nations—Americans in particular—are information junkies. The Self-Improvement market guzzles ten billion dollars a year as we gather more info on health, personal finances, and relational well-being. Yet we remain over-weight, under-saved, and highly-divorced.

Christians likewise are data collectors. We download hundreds of sermons, stockpile libraries of books, frequent retreats, and memorize verses. Yet we remain anxious, timid, and lonely.

We don’t need more information; we need what we already know to become real.

The Self-Love Trap

I had a high school friend who was insecure, socially awkward, and overweight. He envied the skills (and good looks) of classmates; he vilified himself for his frequent social blunders; and he castigated himself for his shortcomings.

Sad student r2

My friend, however, was in the top five percent of the honors class of a magnet, honors high school; he just never reached the top one percent. And he was the second chair trumpet of a nationally recognized orchestra; he just never made first chair.

Despite his many successes, he saw others do better and it discouraged him. My heart went out to him. We became friends, and in the lunchroom I listened as he told story after story of how students, teachers, and his parents misunderstood him.

His discouragement deepened into depression, and he finally sought a counselor. The counselor said his problem was self-hatred, and that he needed to grow his self-love.

I thought he loved himself too much.

And I still think so

Spiritual Insanity

A couple years ago I met with a twenty-eight-year-old woman who told me of a struggle she faced. She was dissatisfied. Growing up, she had sensible desires for her life: a reasonable husband, a nice family, and a moderate house.

Soon after college she married a really good man; they both found good jobs (in their fields even); they bought a nice house; and a year later they had a healthy baby boy.

She had everything she had wanted yet she was restless.

restless couple

Then they bought a newer car, repainted the house, added granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. They were promoted. Her husband got an MBA. She quit her job to become a full-time mother. It felt good. For a bit. It didn’t last.

Soon she felt restless all over again. She asked herself, “Is this all there is?” She saw the same restlessness in her friends, going after raises, cars, promotions, and kids.

Then she read an Einstein quote,

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.

She said to me, “I wonder if we’re all spiritually insane.”  

Dominating Discussions and Ignoring God

In 1989, the company I worked for was dying. A multi-year sales drought had dried up our bank accounts, and our owner’s cash cistern was dusty as well. I was asked to demo our software to one of our sales prospects (actually, our only sales prospect).

If the demo failed, I would lose my paycheck and my prestigious, corner … cubicle.

The night before my demo, the client’s consultant told me that our competitors Booringhad badly bungled their demos, wasting half the time showing off “cool” but unneeded features. When the client asked to see solutions to their problems, our competitors ignored them, and continued showing off the coolness of this or that particular feature.

Our competition failed because they wouldn’t yield control of the conversation to the client. They doggedly stuck to their agenda, completely oblivious to the client’s needs.

The consultant suggested I start the presentation by asking the client to describe what they needed. He suggested I then use the rest of the demo to show how our software solved those problems. I did. They liked it. We got the deal. And I kept my cubicle.

What does demoing software have to do with hearing God? Everything.

What Can Westboro Baptist Teach Us About Grace?

I once talked with a group of college students, and one of them asked, “How do you explain Westboro Baptist? I can’t stand Christianity because of churches like them.”

Westboro fan protests

Westboro fan protests

Have you heard of Westboro? They picket military funerals in protests against gays. Their website is, God Hates Fags dot com (I can’t bring myself to type the link).

Westboro Baptist is a tiny church. Where they fail to attract many members, they excel at attracting the media. And where they fail to represent the True Church, they excel at representing what’s wrong with the church.

I’ve never met a soul from Westboro—and I’ve never met anyone who’s met someone from Westboro—and I cannot say anything about any of its members’ hearts.

But I can say this: if we don’t understand churches like Westboro, we’ll never understand grace.