If you’ve been to any of my Episcopal 101 classes, then you’ve heard me talk about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I know that is a mouth-full but the term describes the five-basic spiritual and religious beliefs of young people today.
These beliefs are based on extensive research and documented in a book entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. As a side note, I don’t think these tenants apply solely to American teenagers. One of the five tenants of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism states, “the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.”
Now, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the desire to be happy in and of itself. But pay attention to the times when your happiness comes at the expense of someone else’s misery. Pay attention to all the times when your desire to be happy conflicts with God’s desire for justice and truth.
Based on today’s scripture readings, it is not difficult to conclude that being happy and being a Christian aren’t always compatible. Jeremiah rails against God because despite having done everything God asked of him; Jerimiah is a laughing stock and mockery to the people. The psalmist pleads with God, “Surely, for your sake have I suffered reproach, and shame has covered my face."
Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus goes on to say that taking up the cross will tear families apart – not because Jesus is interested in breaking up families but because following Jesus will always challenge the allegiances we hold dear.
And finally, Jesus says plainly, “Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” C.S. Lewis once said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
In a country where Christians occupy the majority especially the majority in power, it is easy to forget just how radical this way of life really is. The first Christians were a minority group with no power who had to practice their faith in secret for the fear of discrimination and even persecution. For these first Christians and Christians in other parts other world today, getting baptized was a really good way to get yourself killed.
Of course, we are blessed in the United States of America with religious liberties that the first Christians did not have and liberties that even Christians in places like Syria do not have today. But that does not mean that our lives as Christians will not be marked with struggle. Jesus never promises that following him will make all our problems go away. Christianity is not the key to happiness.
So, if Christianity is not the key to a happy life, then why bother? If your central aim in life is happiness, then Christianity will surely disappoint you. But if you are looking for truth in a world full of lies, then Christianity is the way for you. If you are looking for love in a world full of hate, then Christianity is the way for you. If you are looking for justice in a world full of injustice, then Christianity is the way for you. If you are looking for compassion in a world full of judgement, then Christianity is the way for you.
The way of Jesus is much more life-giving than the pursuit of happiness. While there is nothing wrong with feeling happy from time to time, we can’t expect that the feeling of happiness will abide. But the good news of Jesus and his kingdom tells us that we can expect that the love and joy and peace and hope of God will abide no matter the circumstances. Happiness depends on circumstance while joy depends on the goodness and mercy of God in all times and in all places.
Jesus is calling us to live in a world where fulfillment is not measured by our happiness; rather, in the kingdom of heaven, fulfillment is found when we give up this pursuit of happiness and find ourselves by giving all of ourselves for the sake of the gospel.
In order to know the fullness of life that the gospel promises, the fullness of love that the kingdom of heaven promises, we must start letting go of our pursuit of happiness, we must start letting go our version of what will the world should look like, we need to die to self.
Jesus doesn’t promise that dying to self will be easy or be de-void of suffering or pain. The way of Jesus will constantly make you re-think what you hold most dear in this world. The way of Jesus will constantly challenge you to abandon beliefs that you once thought were true and even abandon relationships that are antithetical to the Christian way and life. The way of Jesus will humble you to the point where you have no other choice but to surrender and give everything to God.
We live in a world where our loyalties and allegiances are stretched in so many directions. We live in a world where it is easy to get swept away by a particular agenda or ideology or cause. We are often asked to choose sides. A relationship with a friend or family member can change dramatically if we establish that we are on the other side of an issue or on the other side of the political aisle.
This, I believe, is exactly what Beelzebul – a demon – desires to see. Christians and even members of the same Church are often torn over issues that they hold dear. Unfortunately, these issues have become so politicized that the true vocation of the Church has been put on the back burner. In particular, the marriage of church and state in this country has created a system where we tend to follow specific agendas that are attached to a political party rather than following the one whose love separates good from evil like a sword.
In her book The Heart of Centering Prayer, Cynthia Beauregault says, “What you are in Love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.” In other words, if we are not guided by the love of Christ, then we are likely to fall in love with our own ideas of how the world should work – not matter how good our ideas may be.
The problem with our own ideas and agendas is that they are incomplete. Our own ideas are limited to our own experience in the world which is short-sighted to say the least. Even our best human leaders fall short of the glory of God. Even the best political agendas erode with time. Like Robert Capon says, “if the villains don’t wreck it the heroes will.”
Therefore, our only hope is to set aside our own agendas and look for life through the One who guides into all truth. One of the ways that Jesus is guiding our congregation into truth is through our companion relationship with Tabernacle Baptist.
Dion and I have scheduled two dinners in the fall that are designed for faith sharing and fellowship. We hope these dinners will create space where we can learn to have dialogue with people who think and act differently than us trusting, that despite our differences, the love of Jesus will guide us into the ways of truth, trust that the love of Jesus will add depth to our understanding of the household of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “the biggest danger to authentic community are our dreams for it because we will love our dreams more than reality.” More appropriately for today, the biggest danger to authentic community is an individual’s pursuit of happiness because our pursuit of happiness will inevitably come at the cost of another, our pursuit of happiness will inevitably make us choose between happiness and the way of Jesus.
In the end, the Christian way and life doesn’t promise to make your life any easier and odds are your life will be more challenging. But one thing is for sure – the Christian way and life is the way to a peace that surpasses all understanding, the way to a joy and love that surpasses any fleeting human emotion, the way to a kingdom where God shows us life the way God intends. Amen.