Friday, October 21, 2011

October 23, Proper 25, Satisfied Characters

Deuteronomy 34, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 22:34-46

Moses had to end his life with one great disappointment. He never got to enter the Promised Land, he never got to enjoy the great goal of his life. He had to be satisfied with God. The rest of the people got to have their dwelling place in the Promised Land, while his dwelling place had to be the Lord. Was his the greater satisfaction, despite his disappointment and his sacrifice?

We’ve been saying for the last few weeks that your losses and your failures serve better than your successes for developing your character. Not that success itself is bad — you need to have some success in life. You can even pray for it, as with the last line of Psalm 90: “Prosper for us the work of our hands, O prosper the work of our hands.” Prosperity is permissible, but prosperity does not build character.

Why is this so? What’s so great about failure and loss and suffering? Is it not because these things force you to learn your limits? You have to learn where you end. You have to learn that you are dust, you have to learn that your life is like the grass — in the morning you are new and fresh, and in the evening you fade and wither. Such negativity is positive for character. “The years of our life are three-score and ten, or by reason of strength fourscore, and we are soon gone, and we fly away, so teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.” Teach us to learn our limits, and we will be better, and happier, and generous.

Not necessarily. We all know people whose loss and suffering make them bitter, unsavory and mean, angry and defensive, or overly competitive or overly acquisitive. They have their reasons to believe that the state of nature for human life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and we have no choice but to live accordingly. We all know people like this.

Perhaps the difference is that to make good from your losses you need to have something outside yourself to hope for, something beyond your limits to believe in. This is why military service builds character when the soldier is fighting for what he can really believe in, but not when the whole point of the battle is uncertain, as we have discovered with our veterans of recent wars. That something beyond your limits to believe in has taken various forms in human history. In ancient Egypt it was immortality — as a compensation for human pain and suffering, to share the immortality of the gods. As pervasive as this was in Egypt, the Children of Israel left it behind them when they left Egypt. The aspiration to immortality is totally absent from the Torah and the faith of the Hebrews. There was no monument to Moses, no pyramid, no obelisk, no sarcophagus, no mummy. They grieved for him for forty days, and then they let him go. They had to be satisfied with God.

On the other side of them was Mesopotamia, and the empires of Babylon and then Assyria, which were dedicated to the accumulation and centralization of political and economic power. Power was their compensation for the pain and suffering of life. In other civilizations the aspiration has been greatness, or glory, or honor, or prestige, or fame. This was the Hellenistic aspiration, and then the Renaissance ideal, and then the Humanist ideal, and in the secular world it’s still held up. It’s what’s behind the Olympics, and it’s the assumption of our schools, especially our private ones, and it is not without its value.

But functionally this classical ideal has been replaced, in America and worldwide, by the aspirations of nationalism, on one hand, and on the other of materialistic consumerism, a double aspiration in a dangerous combination. And so people have come to believe that the primary task of our governments is to grow our economies, our own national economies in competition with those of other nations. The further problem is that because our current economic system requires our economies grow by means of consumption, we end up becoming competitive consumers. I have spoken of this before, but it bears repeating because it’s so pervasive.

  Some consumption is necessary (you need to consume food to stay alive), but we’re in a fix because our system requires us to ignore that there are limits on our wealth, and to keep our economy growing at such and such a rate requires us to keep on buying more consumer goods, and to believe that we need them, and thus keep ourselves from being satisfied. And in this whole mix, the cultivation of the qualities of good character is disincentive to success, as is revealed by the raft of recent books on all the characters of Wall Street. According to Michael Lewis’ latest book, the government of Greece started digging itself into a hole when in order to enter the Eurozone it decided to be deceptive about its national debt, and so they enlisted Goldman Sachs to help them with financial structures which were deliberately deceptive and eventually destructive, but which made a lot of money for Goldman Sachs. It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the characters. It’s not at all simplistic to say that the political and economic problem of the world today are really ethical and spiritual.

God made the world to have enough for all, but not if we’re all competitive consumers. So for the sake of the world and for the sake of those around you and even for the sake of yourself,  one of your jobs as a Christian is to learn how to be satisfied, to cultivate the gift of satisfaction. Let me say it again, it’s a take home: One of your jobs as a Christian is to cultivate your satisfaction. To do this job requires you to learn to discipline your desires. What is that you want? What is that you think you need? These are good questions to ask yourself. If you’re having any trouble in your life, or if you’re facing some big decision, you might sit down and ask yourself all this. What do you desire? What do you require? What do you require to be happy, and what are your standards for success? Ask yourself, What are the limits in your life that you accept?

You might feel in this some resignation. Maybe some disappointment. Let me suggest you rather regard it as reconciliation. Not just with the facts of life, but reconciliation with the God who gave you life. It’s the teaching of the scriptures that you won’t be satisfied with anything unless you’re satisfied with God, and it’s the witness of believers through the ages that when you are satisfied with God, then you will become satisfied with everything else. You can believe it, and I have seen it, and I feel it in myself that even I am coming around to it.

Moses is for all of you. You can see places you can’t get to, you can see things you can’t have, you can even see promises that go to other people than yourself. But those things do not satisfy unless your soul is satisfied with God, and it’s only God that can satisfy your soul.

So here is my resolution of the problem I posed earlier, how pain and loss and suffering can enhance good character when you have something beyond your limits to hope for and believe in. For Christians that is not immortality but a living God who is faithful without limits; it is not power but a God who is righteous and seeks justice; it is not greatness or glory or honor or prestige or fame, but a God who is loving to the point of sacrifice and calls us to be servants of this love. Desiring this God is the aspiration past your limits which helps you develop a character which is fitting for the Sovereignty of God, a character characterized by satisfaction. Isn’t it lovely that when Jesus commands you to love God and to love your neighbor, he’s commanding you to do what satisfies you most. Yes, you do need to learn your limits, but you also need to recognize your gifts, and a very great gift that you have been given is the capacity to know the love of God. In order to be satisfied, let yourself be loved by God.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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