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 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?
Would you like to be rich? A great many people would answer “Yes!” to this question without a moment’s hesitation. To some, riches are the ultimate goal in life because they are the ticket to all of the things people enjoy – fine food, designer clothing, spacious homes, hot cars, vacations, and all the toys that go with the “good life”.
Getting rich is a mania with us. How else do we account for the success of the lottery, the TV game shows or the fixation with the lifestyles of the rich and famous? At this point I’m not really speaking of those who dabble in gambling or the money games. What I am here concerned with is the unabashed striving for wealth for its own sake. I think of a young man I once knew whose goal after finishing college was to begin making $85,000 a year in sales. This is the love of money in its most obvious form.
There are all sorts of arguments for why having wealth is a good idea. For one, “Just think how much happier I would be and how much better off my family would be. We could do all those little extras that make such a difference.” Or how about, “If I had money, I could be generous in my contributions to charitable organizations.” The truth of the matter, however, is that wealth doesn’t usually either free us from unhappiness, nor truly raise the quality of life, nor give us the motivation for generosity. In fact, it oftentimes does just the opposite.
Let me insert a small disclaimer before I go on. There is no natural virtue in poverty either. As Tevye says in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “It’s no shame to be poor; but it’s not great honor either!” The answer to the problem of riches is not to do away with them completely, but in the seeking of something that is of real value. As Jesus said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33).
I have known one or two godly individuals with wealth. The Bible plainly says that type of person is rare. Those people will tell you that their knowledge of God has come not because of there money, but rather I spite of it. It is probably their greatest source of temptation.
If not wealth, what should we desire? As Proverbs 30:8 tells us, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” Jesus bids us pray likewise in the Lord’s prayer, “…give us this day our daily bread…” We are to ask for enough to maintain a lifestyle that allows us to joyfully serve Christ with every ounce of strength we possess. When God answers this prayer either with the basic essentials, or with a bit of surplus as well, we can be content because our hope is not in money, but in the motto printed on our money – “In God we Trust”.