Today I plucked a book of Christian teachings by an American Pastor off the bookshelf of a friend. I was waiting for the kettle to boil and, as I’d been wrestling with a writing project for a few days, I hoped I might find a bit of spontaneous inspiration by leafing through its pages.
I came to a section called ‘Getting rid of weight’ and it caught my eye because the writing problem I’d been wrestling with was starting to feel a bit like a self-imposed weight. And, in a way, it did inspire me because what I read made me say “No!” out loud and prompted me to put aside the project I was struggling with and to tap out this blog piece instead.
The sentences I read that stirred my reaction were:
“Everything that makes you happy is not good for you. Everything that is good TO you, is not good FOR you“.
It sounded like the kind of Christian teaching that I’ve spent most of my life trying to get away from and, maybe, will spend the rest of my life trying to counter with what I write. Who knows? Only God, I suppose. But it also brought to mind a memory from many years ago, about the influence of the instruction that we receive as children and how it has the power to inspire our lives or to burden them, depending on how a belief system is taught.
The memory related to a training course I attended at the start of my working life. It was a course about ‘Assertiveness’; how to communicate our views, needs and beliefs in an open, honest, respectful and direct way, without allowing ourselves to be overly-influenced or pressured by more dominant voices and personalities than our own. One of the course attendees was a sincere, open-hearted, earnest and authentic young man. He had recently got married, had started a new job and was an active member of his local Church. Unlike the rest of us, who were being paid to attend by our employers, he’d paid for the course himself because the combined strain of the demands placed on him by his life were beginning to affect his mental health, and he was trying to find a positive solution.
In one of the ‘breakout sessions’, where we sat in small groups and talked about real-life experiences we were facing and how we’d like to be more assertive in them, he shared a basic belief that he’d carried with him throughout life, and that stemmed from the way in which the Christian doctrine had been taught to him. His belief was that he always had to put other people’s happiness before his own. That any ‘free time’ he had, when he wasn’t working, should be given to others first if they made requests of him, rather than ‘selfishly’ doing things that he would rather do, would like to do, or would enjoy purely for himself.
My heart went out to him when he said, simply, “I’d just like a bit of time to myself, but I don’t know how to get it, because it’s wrong to put my needs before others. I just don’t know how to say ‘No’ to other people.”
The idea that a life centred in faith is somehow a marathon trial of self-deprivation and that forfeiting our personal happiness is a prerequisite of serving others, is so contrary to the life of deeply-rooted faith that I’ve found for myself, by actively searching for it, that I feel forcibly moved to speak out.
It was going in search of true happiness, several years ago, that led me back to faith in a creative, wise, loving Being greater than myself. It was trusting the wisdom and presence of that Being (which I now know as, and call, “God”) that taught me to stop passively accepting experiences and treatment that were making me unhappy and to recognise that a desire to feel true happiness was neither selfish nor a sin.
The teaching that tells us we are no more than ‘servants’ or ‘slaves’ to God’s will, and that we only have real value if we subjegate our own wishes and desires to that will, in favour of others, is the teaching I consciously chose to walk away from as a teenager, as countless others have done and continue to do, when they leave the established Church. The ‘learning’ that brought me back was the realisation that, when I began to value my own need for happiness and sense of meaning, and to follow what my heart was urging me to do, God brought people into my life who I was naturally able to help, just by using the skills I already had and by having the confidence to be myself.
This is the God that I am in daily relationship with . This is the God that I talk to others about, whenever I have the opportunity or the encouragement to do so. This is the God who I sometimes hear being preached from pulpits, but would love to hear talked about and understood, so much more. This is the God who says:
“Your happiness matters as much to me as everyone else’s. I love you all equally. I have given you skills and abilities and, when you begin to have faith in them and to use them, you will find that people who need your help will appear on your Way. Just by doing what your heart and soul move you to do, you will naturally be of service to others. By helping them, in sharing your gifts, you will find happiness in the work itself. There will be no need to sacrifice yourself and, if sacrifice is called for, you will do it willingly, not because it’s what I, or any of my teachings, expect or instruct you to do but, rather, because you love what you are doing so much, even when there is a personal cost involved, that you feel happy and willing to do it without complaint.”
If we choose to defer happiness in this life in the hope or expectation of eternal happiness in the next, or worse, to avoid the risk of eternal damnation, I don’t see that as selflessness, I see it more as a spiritual insurance policy founded on fear. And one thing that the Bible repeatedly tell us is “Do not be afraid”. To do things for others out of a pure sense of Love – for the thing being done (because it brings us happiness) and/or for the person for whom we do it – with no real thought or guarantee that we will receive anything in the Life hereafter…or even with any firm belief that there IS a Life hereafter…that is truly doing God’s will. I believe. Because that is action motivated purely in the here and now, by Love.
It’s a way of using our own will that rises up, inspired, from the natural well-spring of authenthic Love that lives within us, and it’s a balanced, healthy and life-enhancing Love: for ourselves, for what we do, and for others. I see God’s beautiful, symmetrical, grand design in the dove-tailing of our happiness with that of others and of the co-creation that takes place when we honour the gift of Free Will we have been given, and when we use it in God’s service: the service of pure, whole-hearted Love.
“I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance.” – John 10:10
“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” – John 15:15
To me, the 'business of God' has only one purpose: Living lives that reflect true, balanced, Universal Love.