The Conclusion of Desire and the Kingdom

 

Not long ago I sat at my favorite coffee shop here in Charlottesville, VA. Across with me sat a man I have come to respect and appreciate – largely due to a book he authored (which is given some shape to the way I parent). In the course of our conversation he said, “You know – these are anxious times.” I listened to him as he unpacked that statement. He was right – these are anxious times.

So why would Jesus say something like, “do not be anxious”?

Well – like I said before – I don’t think he’s trying to be cruel or ironic. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Jesus understood people – very, very well. I think, in fact, that if Jesus is saying don’t be anxious then he’s probably got a way figured out for folks not to be anxious. It may be worth thinking about. Perhaps Jesus wants to give shape to our image of a good life – and what is really essential for us to know.

All of this began for me with a claim that James K.A. Smith made. He said, Our ultimate love moves and motivates us because we are lured by this picture of human flourishing. Rather than being pushed by beliefs, we are pulled by a telos (end, purpose, goal) that we desire. It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then muster the will power to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons. It is not primarily our minds that are captivated but rather our imaginations that are captured, and when our imagination is hooked, we’re hooked (and sometimes our imaginations can be hooked by very different visions than what we’re feeding into our minds)…So many of the penultimate decisions, actions, and paths we undertake are implicitly and ultimately aimed at trying to live out the vision of the good life that we love and thus want to pursue…This is just to say that to be human is to desire “the kingdom,” some version of the kingdom, which is the aim of our quest. Every one of us is on a kind of Arthurian quest for “the Holy Grail,” that hoped-for, longed-for, dreamed-of picture of the good life – the realm of human flourishing – that we pursue without ceasing. Implicitly and tacitly, it is such visions of the kingdom that pull us to get up in the morning and suit up for the quest.

That’s not to say, as Smith points out, that all human beings desire the same kingdom. In fact, he concludes that the vision of the good life that we have is something that has been pictured for us and there are very different visions of what ‘the kingdom’ looks like. The shape of the kingdom is contested, generating very different stories and thus different kinds of peoples, citizens who see themselves as subjects of rival kings.”

So – if Smith is right – and I think he may be – then why are these anxious times? Why are folks so anxious about everything? Why are children suffering from anxiety disorders – more so now than perhaps previous generations? Why are parents anxious about their kids’ future? Why are seniors anxious about their golden years?

Is there a connection between our ultimate love, our desire for what we imagine to be a good life and anxiety?

I think there is. Think about the fact that the average American family is in debt because we bought cars, clothes, homes, went on vacations, went to concerts, or went to university, sent out kids to camps, etc. Why? Most likely because we were pursuing our vision/image of a good life – but now we are anxious about making those payments in a shrinking economy. A lot of folks have less income now than they did and things that seemed like essentials a few years ago are clearly not essential any longer. But the anxiety is probably still very much a reality – each month when the bills come due.

Perhaps that is why Jesus tells us not to be anxious about what we think are essentials. But he doesn’t just say, “don’t be anxious.” That would be cruel and ironic. What he says is, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

I think Jesus is trying to give shape to our desire – our vision/image of a good life. One of the first things that He says is that “your heavenly Father” knows what you need. That’s a comforting reality – if you understand/believe/ have God as Father. That takes some pressure off – it is not all up to us. God knows what His children need and He provides.

If this is true, and I think it is, how does this impact our anxiety levels? It may impact them a lot – because if we think about it  – it means that God is the one who not only supplies our needs but also defines our needs. What I mean is that we will have to start thinking about what is really essential which will impact our desires. That means that our vision/image of a good life may need to change – which probably means that someone else will have to shape our ultimate love.

Perhaps this is why Jesus follows this up by saying, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Is this the cure for anxiety? Is this the vision/image that people, parents, children, students are supposed to have? What does it mean to seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness?

What if God’s kingdom and His righteousness were your ultimate love? What if that was what motivated you to get up and get going in the morning? What it the notion of God’s kingdom and His righteousness gave shape to the way you raised your children, spent your money, loved your family, did your work, saved for retirement? What if the vision/image of God’s kingdom and righteousness shaped your desires and your understanding of what was an essential and how those things were going to be provided? Would that be an end to anxiety – would it at least curb it?

Jesus seems to be saying so – especially in the next verse (Matthew 6:34). He says, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Wouldn’t that be amazing – to be able to put anxiety aside? How different do you think your life would be – if you could really have no anxiety? Well – Jesus says it is possible. But maybe he is wrong. Maybe Jesus got it wrong and we are supposed to live with chronic anxiety.

Or perhaps Jesus is right, and I think He is, and He is trying to give shape to the right vision/image of a good life. Maybe Jesus is right and human beings really are creatures who desire to live out an image of a good life – but that desire/vision/image is supposed to be shaped a vision for God’s Kingdom and Righteousness.

If he is wrong then we seem to know what we are doing; anxiety is part of being human. That doesn’t seem right though. Anxiety seems to be killing us. But we just have to evolve.

But if he is right then perhaps we need to learn what it means to live out this vision/image of God’s kingdom and righteousness. I think it’ll mean learning a lot about what Jesus meant by God’s kingdom and righteousness. At a minimum I think it’ll mean:

  1. That we care about the things that God cares about.
  2. It means that we pursue good –not just for ourselves but also for others.
  3. It means that we look not only for our interests but the interest of others.
  4. It means that the decisions we make about how we spend our time and our money matter beyond ourselves.
  5. It means that our first order of life is about pleasing – not ourselves – not our parents – not our friends – not our teachers – but God –first and foremost.
  6. It means your life matters more than you actually think because it belongs to God’s kingdom and God’s work in the world – your life has eternal significance – what you do in this world matters because it is part of God’s kingdom.
  7. It means our ambitions need to line up with God’s purposes in the world.
  8. It means that for those who are in pursuit of God’s kingdom are in pursuit of a good life – and one where needs are provided…there is no need to be anxious.
  9. It means that our children will be raised with a different view of the world, and people, and God and themselves.

Let me ask you – as you think about what it is that you desire – what is driving you –when you think about how you would define “a good life,” do you give any thought at all to the fact that Jesus calls people to “seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness?” – is that your first priority when leading your decision making?”

If not perhaps you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Perhaps you need ask if you are part of God’s kingdom and if not why not. The truth is I don’t think you can pursue God’s kingdom and righteousness apart from God. I don’t think you can ignore Christ and just try to be good. I’m pretty certain that if Jesus is the one pointing toward this vision of the world then God intended for people to consider Christ and what He’s saying in the process. I don’t think we get to pick and choose what we like and discard the rest.
  2. If you have put your faith in Christ – trusted Him for salvation and look to Him as your only hope – but you realize that you are not seeking God’s kingdom first – that’s okay – this is a good time for you to pray and ask the Lord Jesus – by His Spirit to help you.

Honestly – even as a pastor – I have to do this all the time because the cares of the world sidetrack me easily…but God is faithful. In my own family I have been guilty of driving my kids to think about their future – not so much because they are part of God’s work in the world – part of God’s kingdom – but as a means to an end – an end toward happiness.

I mean – the vision/image of a good life that I’ve passed on to my sons is one shaped – to some degree – not by God’s kingdom but by, well, perhaps the American Dream. However, I recognize my failure in this. I think life is more than a good education, job, etc. Life isn’t supposed to be all anxiety. I think Jesus is right. I think the right vision is a vision of the kingdom. I want to help my sons have that vision. I want to have that vision of seeking God’s kingdom and righteous – I want to pass that along and not a roll of Tums.


[1] Ibid., 54.

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Part 3 Desire and the Kingdom

Sermon on the Mount - Tewkesbury Abbey see http://professor-moriarty.com

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

This statement of Jesus may seem to contradict what I said earlier about him. Remember, I said whatever it is that you believe or don’t believe about Jesus there is something undeniable about Him. Jesus understands people. It might seem that Jesus saying, “don’t be anxious” to folks could be either ironic or cruel. Because the simple truth is that people are anxious – very anxious – about lots of things. That is not only true of adults – it is true for children and students as well. I am not a professional counselor. I am a pastor who has worked with families, children and students since 1992. In that time I’ve done a good bit of pastoral counseling (I often refer folks to professional counseling). A common concern has been anxiety and children. Some of the anxiety is over children, i.e., the parents have concerns over the child’s future, their attitudes, their grades, their friends, their habits. Some of the anxiety belongs to the kids, i.e., the child is suffering from an anxiety disorder. Some of the parents anxiety may be their marriage, some with their kids, some with family  finances, some with jobs, some with a desire to be happy. I don’t downplay the reality of any of those things and the impact they have on how families work. However, what my experiences has done for me is helped me to be reflective. First – with my family. I wonder how I’m doing as a dad –how my sons are doing with me as a dad (not to mention how I’m doing as a husband). Second – I try to think about what it is that Jesus has said – and here is one of the things he said specifically about being anxious: “do not be anxious…” My first reaction to this is normally – honestly – “well no kidding.” The question that comes up isn’t “why not?” Most people do not like being anxious. It is a human response to want equilibrium. But the truth of the matter is we all have a proclivity for anxiety – even our kids. Something makes all of us anxious. Perhaps we ought to be honest about that. Perhaps we ought to be thinking of ways to deal with it – because it is real. I don’t think it is possible for us to just ignore anxiety. I think we are supposed to deal with the things that make us that way. Because what makes you anxious just might make your kids anxious too. The effects of anxiety are well-known and numerous – and we ought to deal with it. So the question really isn’t “why not?” Rather the question is, how? Does Jesus really intend for people not to be anxious? Well – it might be helpful to notice what it is that Jesus said folks shouldn’t be anxious about. In verse 31 he says, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” Most folks that I know – and most of the folks who will read this – are concerned about what we eat, drink and wear – just not in the way that the first folks who heard this were. It is important to remember that every part of the Bible has a context. What I mean is that every book of the Bible (there are 66 total – 39 in the Hebrew Testament and 27 in the New Testament), and every chapter and verse was written at a specific time with a particular audience in mind. What makes the Bible amazing is that it can still speak into the lives of folks in the 21st century. So –Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – in fact His life and work – was in the first century. As you know those folks actually were anxious about their next meal and how they were going to feed their children. They actually were anxious about what they were going to drink – not only did they have to dig wells – but they had to be concerned about the quality of water – in ways that we don’t. And they were anxious over what they were going to wear – it wasn’t as much about fashion as it was a matter of protection from sun and cold. Most folks were anxious about what they were going to eat, drink and wear for survival. In a sense what Jesus is talking about are essentials. In those days folks were anxious about the essentials for living. So are we. We are just as concerned about what it takes to survive in the 21st century as folks were in the 1st century. I don’t think Jesus is trying to give people a hard time. I think he’s trying to speak truth into our lives. He seems to know that we get anxious – particularly about things that we believe to be essential for living – or perhaps what we image to be essential for living. He seems to be suggesting that we don’t need to be anxious but rather focused on something else. I know I get anxious about things that I have defined as essential for living a good life and I’m passing that along to my sons. I’m not trying to live in the lap of luxury and I’m not trying to pass that on to my sons. And yet I get anxious about the essentials. Do you? Are you passing your anxiety on to your kids? Are you anxious that you will not be able to give them the essentials for the good life that you’ve imagined for you and your family – for your future? Lots of folks are. I think it is one of the things that drives our culture – anxiety, fear, chasing an image – or perhaps what we might call an essential. So Jesus is saying that folks are not to be anxious about essentials for living – even, perhaps, what we image are the essentials for a good life. So why is it that Jesus is telling us not to be anxious? Why shouldn’t we be anxious  about essentials? Well – I think because he wants to give shape to our image of a good life – and what is really essential. I think he wants us to know something in order for us not to be anxious.  Perhaps I’ll share more about that tomorrow…

Desire and the Kingdom part 2

I do want my sons to live a good life. Most parents do. But where does my image of a good life come from? If I am being honest – mostly from surrounding culture.

I just know that if my kids get a good education, they’ll get a good job – and they’ll make good money – and hopefully they’ll marry a great girl – and they’ll live in a nice house in a safe neighborhood…they’ll be happy – and I’ll be happy – because they are living the idea of a “good life” that most folks consider to be a good life. That’s what they are supposed to do – aren’t they? That’s what good parents do for their kids – don’t they?

But then I heard Smith’s claim banging around inside my head…and I thought – what sort of vision for life am I giving my sons?

I actually want more for my sons than just a good job, money, home, etc. I had to stop and think about what I am passing on to my sons because the truth is – I think Smith is right. We seem to be creatures that are driven by our desires to live a good life – to do the things that make us happy. And we gladly give ourselves to those things that we think will lead to whatever we have defined as “a good life.” We give ourselves headlong to that desire and we pursue it. The problem is – we encourage our kids to do the same thing but often without really thinking through what image it is that we are pursuing.

We all want to be happy. We want our kids to be happy. We want to make sure that they have what they need. A lot of the time we also want them to have what they want – and what they want is what they image will help them to have a good life and be happy. There is a vicious cycle and it is being passed from parent to child.

The trouble is that desire and pursuit often doesn’t make us happy at least not like we think it will. And yet we pass this practice on to our children. But chance are good it will make not make our children happy either. How many times have you read about people who – though successful in their own eyes are miserable? It seems happiness evaded them – but they have everything they imagined would lead to a “good life.” How many times have you read the tragic stories of parents who have helped their kids have everything to make them happy – and their kids are miserable – caught up in all sorts of messy things. As a pastor – as someone who has worked with families and students for twenty plus years – I’ve heard it a lot.

A lot of parents are scared to death that they are someone else is going to mess up their child’s future. I know parents who cart their kids all over the place to make sure they are getting every advantage so they can get into a good school. But all of the running and going is really about the desire to live out what these parents image will lead to a good life for their child. In the book The Price of Privilege the author quoted one child who said, “My mom is everywhere but nowhere.”

For many folks parenting has become more about carting kids from place to place and struggling to figure things out – what will make them happy – how to get them in the right school, the right camps, the right sports, the right experiences. I don’t think it has to be that way. I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be.

The question for me has become what image is giving shape to my desires for my kids? How am I passing that on to them?

I think that Smith is right – human beings are creatures who are driven by the pursuit of our desire to live what we imagine is a good life – and we want that for our kids as well – we give our lives to it.

Perhaps that is why so many parents are anxious. Perhaps that is why so many parents are willing to nearly kill themselves to give their children what they think they need.

Recently I read something that the late John Stott – the well known, respected English Pastor and Theologian – wrote. He wrote, “Jesus took it for granted that all human beings are ‘seekers…’ We need something to live for, something to give meaning to our existence, something to ‘seek’, something on which to set our ‘hearts’ and our ‘minds…’ ‘the Supreme Good’ to which to dedicate our lives…(it) concerns our goals in life and our incentives for pursuing them…(it) is what makes (us) ‘tick’; it uncovers the mainspring of (our) actions, (our) secret inner motivation. This, then, is what Jesus was talking about when he defined what in the Christian counter-culture we are to ‘seek first.’”

Whatever it is that you believe or don’t believe about Jesus there is something undeniable about Him. Jesus understands people. As you read the Gospels you can’t help but notice that He spoke right to the heart of the issues with which people deal.

A great case in point is the Sermon on the Mount – which is what John Stott was referring to. Within this great text we discover just what it is that Jesus intends for His people. The Sermon on the Mount – among other things – is intended to give shape to our desires – in fact it is intended to form how we see the world, how we think about God, ourselves and others, how we live, spend our money, our time. In other words – the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to help us understand “a good life” and help us to pursue it.

In fact, if you ever want to know how Jesus intends for Christians to live – just turn to the Sermon on the Mount. You can find it in the New Testament, in Matthew chapter 5 thru 7. If you’ve never read that before you ought to.

But – it is important for you to know – if you don’t already – that Jesus – when he gave this sermon – was seated on a hillside with his disciples close by – and most likely a crowd of other folks stood around and listened in. That’s something else you may need to know about Jesus. He was winsome – he drew crowds – for lots of reasons. Some folks liked to hear him talk. Some folks liked to see him do miracles. Some folks really loved him and wanted to follow him. Some folks hated him. Some folks wanted to catch him in something.

That’s just something to keep in mind as you read this. In Matthew chapter 6 verse 31-33 Jesus said something which for me is important to think about – especially when it comes to this idea of desire and how that is shaping my parenting. Here is what Jesus said,

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
(Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

I’ll have more on this tomorrow…

Desire & The Kingdom – Part 1

James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin College, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, made an enormous claim. He claims that all human beings – past, present and future –all 7 billion people who now populate the planet – are “essentially and fundamentally creatures who are” “oriented” (directed, pointed, aimed) and “defined by…(our) desire”[1] to live what we imagine to be a “good life.”[2]

In other words – at our core – at the deepest part of us – perhaps in ways that we do not even fully understand ourselves- all of us at our core are driven by our desire to live the sort of life that we imagine will make us the happiest. In other words we are driven by our desires to live what we believe to be a good life.

In fact, Smith goes on to say that our “actions,” the “paths we” take are all “aimed at trying to live out” our “vision of (a) good life…”[3] In other words – we are all focused on searching out the things which we image will make us happy. And that vision of a good life is shaped by what we imagine it will be and things like stories, pictures, ads, music, movies, icons, all give shape to it.

What do you think about that? Do you think it is possible to reduce all human beings to simply creatures who are fundamentally, essentially given to pursue what we image will make us happy? Is it true of you?

One night I came to the conclusion that it is true of me – but not in what might be thought of as the usual way. What I mean is that I’m all about not getting caught up in being rich and famous (and with my occupation  – I don’t see myself getting rich and combined with my proclivity for mischief I’m far more likely to be infamous than famous). The folks at Delta have actually played into that a little bit.

On a recent flight I came across this ad on their napkins – it plays right into the weary traveler – who is pursuing their image of “the good life”. All they need is 20% more and they’ll be 100% happier.

I’m not going to fall into that. However, I am just as prone to pursue what I image will be the good life in other ways. Unfortunately it has to do with my family and it has shaped the way I parent.

For instance – on more than one occasion Sherry and I have had the opportunity to discuss with our children the connection between their future and their current educational habits. Now – I’d like to say that it is always pleasant and that they always reply, “Oh thank you dear father for your wisdom. I will at once return to my studies with greater vigor.” They don’t – although even if they did it would not be without sarcasm (I’ve been able to pass that ability to my sons with very little effort).

So a while ago I was having one of those conversations about education and their future vocations. With Smith’s claim firmly in my mental background I heard myself say, “Buddy – if you don’t get your homework done and start doing the right things school – you’ll not have opportunities later. You will not get into a good university – and study the sort of things that you want to study – so you can get the job you want…” That’s when I stopped because I knew where I was going.

I was going to that place in my mind that I imagine will make them the happiest. I have imagined for my sons a “good life.” To get that “good life” they have to do great in school – so they can get a good job – make good money – live in a nice neighborhood – take great vacations – drive nice/decent cars- etc, etc, etc.

I heard myself pushing my sons to live out an image of a good life that I had gotten from somewhere – but I’m pretty sure it isn’t something that a pastor ought to be pushing his sons to do. I’m pretty sure it is supposed to be larger than that…isn’t it? Life is intended to be about more than those things – isn’t it?

There is something more to life than just what I imagine will make me happy…

Part 2 Tomorrow…


[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Volume 1 of Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 131.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid.