I remember coming across a timely poem in my high school American literature class. At the time, reading it was only an assignment, but for some reason it has stuck with me over the years. It is titled Richard Cory, by Edwin Arlington Robinson:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
I guess what makes this bit of verse so vivid to me is that it points out a significant contradiction in the way we live: We know the futility of status, wealth and charm in themselves, and yet we crave them relentlessly.
All of us know a Richard Cory or two: those who seem to have made it and have everything. They are rich, beautiful, successful and admired. They drive their sports cars around in perpetual sunshine with the convertible tops down, while we blunder through the fog in our clunkers. The Richard Corys of the world represent the ultimate goal of so many people: to make it, whatever the cost.
Yet, from time to time, we hear the unsettling news that some celebrity or jet-setter has ended his or her life, either deliberately or through some kind of substance overdose. We hardly know what to think at such times. This person seemingly had it all, but threw it away. What could have caused such despair?
Thinking a little deeper might alert us to the warning this is for all who wish to trade places with Richard Cory. The person who makes it to the top so often goes to bed with the sinking realization that everything they have is– in itself– empty. Beauty, wealth and popularity give only temporary satisfaction and leave a long-term hunger for something more. Hence the never-ending search for deeper pleasures, a more impressive record, an enhanced body, more extravagant vacation or just more stuff. When these things fail to satisfy as well, leaving that gnawing hunger for fulfillment, people sometimes decide that the pain is unbearable.
Fortunately, there is an antidote to such futile living. It can be found in the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”.
In these words, Jesus gives us a piercing insight into the workings of our own souls. He tells us frankly that earthly treasure does not last: it can be eaten up, rusted through and stolen. He teaches us that we can diagnose the state of our soul by examining the type of treasure it craves. When we examine ourselves according to Jesus’ words, we may conclude that we have been seeking the wrong things most of our lives. Jesus’ answer? Acquire incorruptable treasure. In other words, exchange the desire for temporary, shallow things for that which is ultimately fulfilling. But how?
It starts by getting real with ourselves. The truth is that we desire unfulfilling things simply because they make us look and feel good without inner change. They promise that we can bypass the struggle required to actually deserve the admiration of people and the fulfillment, which comes from an approving conscience. In other words, a focused desire for wealth and status points out our insignificance and smallness of character. When it becomes clear that this is what we really are, then we must repent. Repent: such a harsh and unpleasant word. But there is no real shame in this. It is a universal human condition. The sooner we get there, the more quickly we may actually become something and acquire that which will really satisfy our souls.
Then we must seek from God those things, which can give us real significance and make us truly admirable. Things like: the ability to love people; an inner contentment regardless of circumstances; joy which cannot be suppressed by the fickleness of life; and the knack of living in and by the grace of God. The great thing about asking God for things like this is that he is very good about giving them.
Despite his wealth and position, Richard Cory never really lived because he was just a shell. But then, often so are we. Jesus invites us to become truly alive and truly fulfilled by drawing our life from him: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
If I have any regrets related to the years in which my wife and I were raising our four children, the biggest would be that I was not paying attention. Melinda has asked me several times in the past couple of years if I remember one incident or another in the lives of our children when they were small. My answer has sometimes been, “No, not really.”
Of course, she was much more focused on their day-to-day upbringing than I was. I was a busy solo pastor of a smaller church, trying to care for and build a congregation in the midst of acquiring property and constructing buildings. The truth is, I do remember many things about my kids from those days. They were cute and funny and we had some amazing and sometimes hilarious times. But my memories are in the form of snapshots, not video, and it is difficult for me to reconstruct some of what went on more than twenty years ago.
I was always focused on the future–the next Sunday’s sermon, the upcoming business meeting, the next step in the building program, dealing with someone’s urgent concerns, etc. The actual “now” was almost always sacrificed on the altar of the near or distant future. I suspect that my situation as a pastor is not all that different from many people whose lives are goal-oriented.
Recently, I have been in a minor crisis about God’s will for my life. For the past several years I have made my living as a part time adult ministries pastor, part time missions executive and part time college instructor. Talk about fragmentation! In all of this multi-tasking, I have begun to seek God’s will for a more focused future. I have prayed, “Father, which direction should I pursue? Where should I be five years from now (if you permit me to remain on earth that long)? What is the best use of my training, talents and experience?” Through months of prayer, I have received the same types of answers most sincere believers receive: impressions and difficult-to-interpret circumstances. This has led me to ponder the bigger question of what it means to live by faith in a providential God.
In this quest for personal direction, it has dawned on me that my need for more specific guidance is heavily influenced by my American culture. We Americans and other Westerners have come to believe that we have a certain right to know what is happening to us so that we can make informed choices affecting the outcome of our lives. After all, if we are going to be pursuing life, liberty and happiness it is important that we have at our disposal as much information as possible about what may lie ahead.
But as I have thought about it, there is really nothing in scripture which supports this assumption. On the one hand, in several places Proverbs teaches the wisdom of at least tentative planning. Yet on the other, James 4:13-16 plainly says that we are not to be presumptuous about either the ultimate wisdom of our plans or our ability to carry them out,“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.”
Scripture teaches that, though the making of goals is wise, goals should be made with enough flexibility so that God may direct us in ways we do not have the wisdom to plan for. Practically, this means that thinking about the future should never overshadow living in the present. The truth is, we do not know enough about God’s specific purposes for our lives to do that much advance planning. But we do know enough about God’s will to live full and abundant lives. Some things the Bible teaches very plainly and simply: we must honor God with the “now” each of us is given. We must love and bless people around us. We must fully enjoy God’s good gifts–family, friends, experiences, possessions. And any planning we may legitimately do for the future should be done with these very types of things in mind. In other words, we should get our neurotic fingers off the fast forward button and hit play.
If there is something which is almost guaranteed to horrify people in contemporary society, it might be the fear of missing out on some significant life-experience. The thought of going through one’s years without something which many others enjoy is a highly disagreeable one to most North Americans and Europeans. As a result, there is a frantic rush in our society to do all those things which are commonly accepted as making life worth living.
Parents, for example, are concerned that their children not miss out on the commonly accepted activities of childhood. As a parent myself (and now grandparent as well), I have always wanted my kids to have as many positive experiences and helpful tools as can be provided. Many parents share this seemingly legitimate desire. Hence we enroll our children in a myriad of sporting events, music lessons, clubs and enrichment activities. We take them to fairs and outings and spend a significant amount of money on vacations and educational events.
Or what about all the material possessions on the “must have list”? The newer car, the larger home, the more fashionable clothing, the more exotic vacation are always topics of conversation and comparison. For many people these things truly dominate mental activity. I also have experienced the gravitational pull of things on lists like this. I certainly wouldn’t make the claim that the things on such a list are necessarily wrong. Nice things are just that: nice things. To acquire some of them can be quite legitimate pursuits.
Even so, I am wondering whether this fear of missing out on something is in itself the cause of losing other, more lasting benefits. In our frenzy to acquire a chunk of the “good life” we may have lost sight of some of the things, which make life truly good. Consider this: The generations now coming into their own such as GenX (born after 1965) and the Millenials (born after 1985) have clearly had more advantages than any previous groups. At the same time, they are also the generations with the least amount of religious training of any kind. I should know: I have taught young people from these generational groups on a college-level for the past two decades in courses such as philosophy, world religion and western civilization. These younger people certainly have plenty of opinions. It is just that many times, they lack the factual framework and formal religious training on which to base a valid opinion.
I have also wondered whether there is any link between the trend away from religious training and the rising rates of teen suicide, drug use, sexual activity and alcohol abuse by these same generations. Or what about the broken marriages and disjointed lives, which are so common? How about the staggering numbers of lawsuits and the flood of recent legislation designed to ensure that people get what they believe they rightfully deserve?
Now contrast this picture with the profound inner peace, simplicity of lifestyle, and clarity of life-focus which are promised in the New Testament to those who fully put their trust in God. There is also the sense of relaxation about having the things needed for daily living, the ability to weather the storms of interpersonal relationships and the ability to bravely face the uncertainties of life. All of these things are offered to those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus.
Many people are missing these very things because of their desperate desire not to miss out on the “good things of life”. It would seem that the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:24 turn out to be right: A person cannot serve both God and mammon (riches). He or she will end up loving and serving one or the other, but not both (my paraphrase).
Missing out? The comparison of these conflicting pursuits begs an important question: Who is really missing out on things which are of true importance?