In every one of us, no matter who we are, there is a longing, an insatiable desire to claim more for ourselves. We want more acceptance, more money, more influence, more friends, or more esteem. It seems against our nature to settle for any less than everything at once. And yet, no matter what we receive, the longing does not decrease. Often times, our longings seem virtuous and spiritual, like when we desire to share ourselves with people around us. We want to love and be loved in return. It’s very important that when we invite friends to dinner that everyone have plenty to eat with more to spare. “Are you still hungry? Take some more!” We may even long to help the less fortunate, simply out of a desire that all stay right in our own neighborhoods. We can’t bear the thought that we are warm and they are cold. And so setting things right becomes an extension of ourselves. I fix my roof, I mow my lawn, take out the trash, and I write a check to a local nonprofit to ensure that the homeless stay downtown and not in my backyard (NIMBY). Or I may show up in my car as the great white well-off savior ready to clean up every addict, house and support every miscreant and employ and educate anyone willing. But all will still not be right, and the longing will remain.
You may notice that within all of this longing I have not even mentioned God. That is because, God or not, the desire for more and better is ever present. The divine will need not be consulted in order to dream bigger. And the question becomes, where will this longing lead? I’d like to look at two words used in the Greek New Testament, one for longing or desire and the other for love. Epithumia, is the word for desire that could be for evil things, or for good things. But most often it is used to describe the kind of desire that is overpowering and against the will of God. Jesus warned against the longing in this world that chokes out the Word of God in those who have faith in his parable of the sower and the soils.
“ And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19, KJV) But then he told us what we should desire in Matt. 5:6, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled.” That righteousness is justification before God, to be right in God’s sight. And Jesus can tell us what we should and shouldn’t desire, because he came not as a great moralist but as the world’s Savior. In laying down His life for us on the cross he did just what was needed for our justification. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves right, any more than we can finally satisfy the longing in us for more, better, faster.
There is another word in the New Testament, Agape, that translates into a very confusing word in the English language. . . . love. In English when we say love it can mean any number of different things in poetry, literature, psychology, sociology, or religion. But in the New Testament it has a very unique meaning. It is usually a reference to God’s relationship with Jesus, and the gift we are given when we obey God and live with each other. Even when the New Testament is read, take for instance 1 Corinthians 13, (known as the love chapter), the common reaction is to apply it only to persons we most easily share space with. It is assumed Paul must mean between husband and wife, or between good friends. But Jesus made it clear in the gospels that the love of God is meant to be practiced even toward our enemies! (Matt. 5:43-48)
This enemy-love has been deemed impractical, apolitical, and even suicidal by many people. They think that Jesus has set up an ideal that’s impossible to practice and so these gospel sayings are often ignored by Christians. But this Agape love has the power to turn this world upside down. It is the only power capable of overcoming evil with good. This love is what God wants for us and is the missing treasure that all of our desire-longing-lust cannot seem to find. So many adults consider themselves survivalists. They feel they must make the most of a bad situation with nothing but the very little they have. They’ve been through the school of hard knocks and graduated with honors in the art of self defense. Whatever they get they win by keeping themselves free of messy entanglements with other people, and so long as most contact can be controlled or avoided, life won’t quite be so bad. This would all be fine if they didn’t need more. And so, together we all scrape and struggle along to get more, better, faster.
It was about two years ago now that my fifteen year old son decided he was going to be like his hero Bear Grylls from the show Man vs. Wild and go live in the woods for a while alone to see if he could survive on his own. I don’t remember exactly when it started, but at school his scout leader had been showing the boys these programs about this former British SAS trooper who leaves himself stranded in uninhabitable places like jungles, deserts, and arctic areas. He demonstrates how to survive with nothing but a nice knife. Chris Aaron became so taken with survival that all he wanted for Christmas one year was survival books and a flint and steel kit with char-cloth so he could light fires. The local army navy surplus became his favorite haunt and he’d use any excuse for me to walk him over there.
So by the spring following that Christmas he was convinced he was ready to go it alone in the woods. I’m sure he would stay up late at night thinking about how he was going to do it. He’d been reading his army survival manuals about how to set up a shelter made of only materials collected in the immediate area. He had his knife, he had is backpack, he had his flint and steel and charcloth. But as the days grew nearer to our vacation he began to doubt himself. We’d have these conversations where he’d openly worry about being alone without mom and dad in the woods. What if he got hurt or something? Would his knowledge of first aid be enough? He made a new friend who was visiting from Germany, and this new friend had an interest in survival too. They encouraged each other in it, and the boys decided they’d survive alone together.
The first night we arrived on our vacation in rural Illinois the boys decided to demonstrate their fire starting ability. Now bear in mind, Chris Aaron had lots of practice using the kit. It was all we could do to keep him from practicing in his room on the seventh floor in Chicago. Starting a fire was basic, even beneath his abilities, so he didn’t have to give it much thought. But that night when we all sat there together, for some reason, the flint and steel just couldn’t get the fire going. He was growing increasingly frustrated. His fingers were red from gripping the magnesium bar so tight. But he wouldn’t let me do it for him. He was so angry at himself that here, in front of his sisters and his best friend, he couldn’t get that fire started! What was wrong? He had all the book learning! He’d seen Bear Grylls do it in one simple stroke in the jungles of Vietnam where everything was soaked with rain. His anger and frustration at himself finally turned to tears and he stomped off for the night. There was no more talking about it. He’d have to overcome this frustration if he was going to continue on with his plans with his friend. But for now the we all had to let him be.
He had a longing to perform what seemed easy on the television and in books. His longing was to demonstrate an ability not everyone had. He had a passion that would give him something to talk about with his friends, something different. But now all of that seemed to be falling apart. The next night he actually got that fire started, and what seemed impossible went back to being common place. He and his friend built their own shelter and didn’t use a tent, and they stayed out there for twelve hours, nowhere near anyone else who could help them. In time he finally came to see enough Man vs. Wild episodes that he didn’t have to watch them everyday anymore. And gradually the survival books weren’t referred to anymore everyday.
We moved down here to St. Louis last year and Chris Aaron’s big request was that he be able to transfer his Boy Scout membership to a troop down here. We did that and he took to the regular meetings and camp outs easily. A few months ago he was actually inducted into the Order of the Arrow, a local honor society for scouts. He is now considered leadership in the local troop, teaching newer scouts to start fires, set up their tents, and learn skills from the book. His love for scouting has proven much more than a passing interest. He’s fully invested, and can be counted on to be on time in uniform, willing to do whatever is needed. The beautiful thing to me in all this is that my son has followed a longing, and it has grown into a love for something that is bigger than he is. If he had given up on himself that evening when he couldn’t start the fire, and had just thrown away his interest in survival, he would have never continued Boy Scouts and certainly would have never excelled in it. For my part, I could not force him to keep trying. Demonstrating the right way to hold the striker and the magnesium didn’t work. He had to come to it on his own.
There is a big difference between longing for something, and becoming the kind of person capable of self confidence, patience, and faithfulness in Christ. It takes time, it takes commitment, but most of all it takes a willingness to admit I need help. Jesus does not expect me to take on my enemies alone. I am only capable of loving my enemy in the context of a loving Church that is obedient to God. One of the most amazing love passages in the gospels is where Jesus looked at a young rich man and loved him. (Mark 10:17-31) Why is this so amazing to me? Well, let’s look at the story.
A man suddenly falls on his knees before Jesus, calling him a good teacher, asking him what he can do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus asks the man why he called him good, because only God is good. He directs him to the law, saying “You know the commandments,” do them. The man replies that he always has done them, since childhood. This is where Jesus look at the man and the text says he loved him. Jesus said, “OK one more thing. Go sell everything and give it to the poor so that your treasure is in heaven.” Then we are told that the man’s face was fallen. He came to Jesus on his knees, willing to do anything. But he went away empty. Why? Because, as the story goes, the man had great wealth.
Jesus looks at his disciples and says that it is very hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And his disciples get the message. They got it and we today very often miss it. His disciples were not rich, but they asked the question, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus words are the ones on which we pin our hope. “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Jesus loved the young man so dearly even though he could not get past his longing for more, better, faster. And today we must realize that we are all like this rich man, desiring eternal life but not at the cost of losing everything we’ve achieved, earned, fought for, and accumulated, certainly not at the cost of getting more. Some of us lose everything and are convinced that its only a matter of time until we get it back again. But Jesus is saying, “Your treasure is in heaven.” But don’t forget that Jesus loves us even with our misplaced desires. He’s calling out now, “Forsake all the longing and receive my love.”
There is a price in longing for things that are not God’s will. If we want it bad enough, the love that is in us that is meant for God becomes a love for this world’s order instead. “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.” 1 John 2:15-16 (NIV) In the gospels Jesus says similarly, No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stand by and be devoted to the one and despise and be against the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (deceitful riches, money, possessions, orwhatever is trusted in).” Matt. 6:24 (Amp)
There is a spiritual reality behind the American Dream. The four freedoms outlined in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom to worship God in our own way, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear, reflect a modern liberalism that is an end in itself. There is no need for an all powerful God within these human rights. We may have freedom to worship, but no need to worship anyone but ourselves and the freedom itself.
Now that statement might make me a lot of enemies, but I would submit that the longings inherent in this expression of the American Dream have no real limits, because we humans have no way of curbing our appetites. We can live with a guilty conscience, knowing a lot about ourselves, but refusing to change. And this is the predicament we’re in today.
We are rich with rights like no other nation in the world. Everyone is entitled to everything, and yet our prisons are full to capacity, the gap between rich and poor has never been greater, and there is no end in sight for the War on Terror. Nothing can save us now, but the Agape love of God in Jesus Christ. But in order to receive it we have to give up looking elsewhere. The economy of God is all that we need. It is an economy of abundance for all who would work within it. This economy has the whole person in mind because we love God with our whole person. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Matt. 22:36-40 (NIV)
This kind of love is not possible when we’re only partly present. There was a time in my life when I was so overcome with self pity, shame, and fear that I could not be present physically. I went to my factory job and put in up to fourteen hour days and I came home and slept and got up and did it again every day. I didn’t talk to anybody, I just wanted to be left alone. And alone was what I got. The money didn’t make me happy. All I wanted was to watch TV and movies and be left alone. And my life was a living hell. For six months I was walking in a daze. I drove a forklift in a daze, I soldered galvanized gutters and scuppers. I cut myself and bled and laughed about it. And then one day, when confronted with my true self by my coworkers, I admitted that I had a problem and I started on the road to recovery. I dare say there are many people today who live that way. Numb in their senses, no context for right or wrong, living in their heads but calling it freedom to be what they want.
I don’t ever want that kind of life again. I’m learning that the kind of life worth living takes a lot of work and a lot of help. I’m becoming the kind of person willing to receive help. I’m not a terribly patient person, but I’ve had a lot of patience shown to me and I want to become that kind of person.
If you want to be what God wants for you, pray this prayer with me now, based on 1 Corinthians 13.
“Father, I receive the fullness of your Love in me today, for without your love I am nothing! Regardless of all I do or all I give, without your love I am nothing!
I receive from you, a supernatural love that is patient and kind – a love that is not envious, jealous or boastful – a love that is not arrogant, conceited or displays itself haughtily or rude.
I receive your love in me that does not insist on its own rights or way, for it is not self-seeking, it is not touchy, irritable or resentful, it takes no account of the evil done to it. I receive your love that does not rejoice at wrongdoing and injustice, but rejoices when right and truth prevail.
I receive your love that bears up under anything and everything that comes – it is ever ready to believe the best of every person – its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances and it endures all things!
Father, I receive your Love in me that never fails!”
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice