Saturday, May 5, 2012

Uphill and Downhill

It seems natural that every man wants to improve his lot in life.  Whatever his level of wealth, he wants more.  Whatever his level of intelligence, he wants to understand more.  And whatever man’s inventions, he wants to make those inventions even better.  Man strives constantly to improve his lot.
So why does it seem that in matters of faith and man’s relationship to God, history seems to have shown that man takes actions to decrease his standing with God and decrease his chance for eternal happiness?  Bible history tells us how over and over God reveals Himself to man, shows man how to obtain great gifts to improve his lot in life, and yet instead of using these gifts or seeking to improve them, it seems man so easily forgets or rejects what God has taught.  It’s almost as if man has two minds, one which directs him uphill to improve his lot in life, and another which directs him downhill, to make his life worse.  Why does man seem so confused?
They forgot the things He had done,
the marvelous deeds He had shown them.
                        -- Psalm 78
I was at the chapel for First Friday mass yesterday when a couple arrived.  They looked around the chapel and seeing only me, whispered:  “We’re early.  There’s no one here.”  (What am I, I wondered, chopped liver?)  I think the little statement of these people reflects the answer to my question about man’s uphill and downhill trends towards happiness.  The couple were coming before God in His house, yet their thoughts were first focused on their own level of comfort --- were their neighbors there to affirm their choice to attend this mass?  They came, supposedly, for God, but their words said they valued their neighbors’ presence more.  They came to a party and instead of thanking their host for inviting them, first they ignored their host and asked each other “Where is everyone else,” as if the host were not important.
I think this simply illustrates what seems, to me, to be man’s confusion on seeking happiness.  He doesn’t seek total happiness; he more and more seeks only short-term happiness.  The things of this earth he wants more, and the things of eternity he wants less, because they are not immediate.  He wants heaven, but only if he can have it now.  Man seems unable to be content with delayed rewards, and tons of studies bear this out.  We see it in how few people plan for their retirement, and how many “poor” people demand houses and cars and big-screen televisions as their “right”, and right now.  And we see it in how many people want guaranteed incomes and medical care --- and even free cell phones, and they don’t want to plan to afford these things over some long period.  They want them now.  And although man is very independent, he is content to let others give him these earthly things if that is the only way to get them quickly, accepting a dependency for earthly rewards.
But God has never promised to “give” man heaven.  Some Christian groups strongly believe in “once saved; always saved,” and mistakenly believe heaven is a guaranteed reward, guaranteed now.  They believe they don’t have to work to achieve the reward of heaven; it is given to them merely because they say they want it.  But I don’t believe that is how man’s relationship with God works.  If heaven is given to man and man can assume it will happen, then how a man lives his life doesn’t matter, nor does his knowledge about heaven.  It will just happen, so he may as well do anything and everything to please the senses of his body --- even to killing you if he wants.
No, heaven is not guaranteed, and my making a commitment to God does not guarantee me heaven, any more than my saying “I do” guaranteed me marital bliss.  A commitment not lived out guarantees nothing.
So then, how does man get on a better track, from this divergent one it seems he is on?  If happiness is on a hill before us, man seems to want to climb if the hill is close, for short-term happiness, but is content to not climb or even go downhill from eternal happiness because it seems too far away.  Like retirement planning, how do we get more people to take small steps each day, so that they can reach the “far away” eternal happiness?
There are some who say the government must plan retirements for men --- social security.  But that is some men planning for others.  (Do these same men not ever err in their thinking?  Are they gods?)  I don’t have the definitive answer to retirement planning, but I can see that any answer must have a component which somehow satisfies man’s desire for immediate happiness.  And the same must hold true in matters of eternal happiness.  As we progress toward that reward, little step by little step, we need to feel some rewards of progress --- now.  That is a key question for all evangelists and self-growers in faith:  how to gain that sense of achievement or progress along the way.
There is no magic answer.  There is no way to feel as if you have climbed a mountain, if you haven’t climbed it.  There is no way to get a reward, if you haven’t earned it.  And you must have a faith along the way that the reward will be there at the end of the journey.
I like the movie Miracle on 34th Street, where the little girl at the end says:  “I believe; I believe; I believe.  It’s silly, but I believe.”  And then a miracle happens; her belief is rewarded.  I think that our belief in our eternal reward and actions we take to achieve it will also result not only in that eternal reward --- which seems so far away, but also in more short-term rewards, the ones we need to satisfy our craving for immediate rewards.
I call those immediate rewards “consolations” from God.  Some of those rewards are answers to my prayers, just as I prayed for.  Some of those rewards are periods of peace in my life.  And some of those rewards are periods of peace in the chapel, where I feel very content, believing God is present with me.  In fact, all of these rewards I perceive, which give me the strength and encouragement to go on, are centered on belief.  I step out with a trust in God, a belief that there WILL be a reward, even a short-term one if I need it, but only having confidence in the long-term reward promised by Christ.
So I take actions to achieve short-term earthly rewards, to gain more money, to gain more friends, to gain more short-term happiness, but I also take other actions, actions to achieve long-term happiness.  I give time to the sick and lonely; I donate to the poor, and I spend time before God, only having faith that these latter actions will bring me eternal rewards, but trusting that if I weary of these things along the way God will give me short-term rewards.  And He does:  I have gained unexpected material rewards and friendships for my good works; I have gained wonderful hugs from crying strangers, and I have felt God’s presence --- and most especially in my hours of despair, when I really needed Him.
And all this began when I struck out with faith to do those things not only aimed at my short-term happiness, but long-term also.  And I went forward doing these things, with a dogged determination, even when it was inconvenient or hard to do, even when I didn’t see those short term rewards.  Because I had faith.  That’s where the achievement of man’s eternal, and short-term, happiness begins, with faith.  The rewards WILL be there.
I believe; I believe; I believe.  It’s silly, but I believe.

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