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I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the connection between the state of our physical bodies and our emotional and spiritual mindset. We may be spiritual beings, but how our bodies feel can greatly effect our emotions, how we act, even how we view God. If we’re cold, hungry, tired, or in pain it’s very difficult to act in a godly fashion towards others or to think about praising God. Of course we’re always told to rise above such things, and it is important to be able to do that when necessary. But what if it’s not necessary, because the source of discomfort is something extremely fixable?
I enjoy reading Gretchen Ruben’s blog “The Happiness Project“, which is her journey to try and create for herself a life which is, on the whole, happier than it had previously been. These sorts of books, projects and blogs are extremely popular right now, and I am very ambivalent about them, as I think many Christians are. The idea that happiness is something you can achieve on your own or create for yourself runs against all Christian ideals, which hold that God is the source of all joy and happiness. And yet, some of the tips and tricks offered are helpful and effective in making many aspects of life easier, more fun, or more pleasant. It’s hard to argue with that.
One of the things frequently mentioned on the Happiness Project Blog is to identify your problem. In other words if you are cranky or sad or anything else, try to trace the source of that feeling back to it’s cause and look for a simple solution. This worked for me earlier this week when I found myself in a state of high anxiety, near a panic attack, really, for several days on end. My heart was racing, I was sweating and nervous. I had several reasons to be anxious, but none of them warranted such an extreme or persistent reaction. I spend a lot of time praying for God to relieve my stress and anxiety, but nothing changed.
Finally, I took a look at my behavior and realized that I had recently changed my beverage habits. In addition to my normal tea, I had added morning coffee and been drinking soda with dinner. Plus, I had run out of advil at work and brought in a bottle of Excedrin which contains tons of caffeine. In short, I wasn’t under spiritual attack, per se: primarily, I was just over-caffeinated. I cut out all caffeine and today I feel fine. All the same stressors remain, and I am appropriately concerned about them, but not to the point where it effects my ability to function or trust God.
God, of course, could have magically lifted my anxiety and physical symptoms and calmed me. But that wasn’t really the problem. It wasn’t a lack of faith so much as that I had, through inattention, put myself in an unhealthy physical situation, and I needed to fix it. Praying certainly helped me think about the problem and find the answer, but the source wasn’t spiritual or emotional – it was purely physical.
The Bible has a lot to say about suffering and sacrifice. Jesus tells us if someone tries to take our coat, give it to him, and our sweatshirt too! Paul tells us of all the things he has suffered to bring the Gospel to the corners of the Earth. Many people are martyred for Christ. However in every instance that suffering or sacrifice is discussed in the Bible, whether it is something we are doing willingly or something God is leading us into, it is always for the benefit (physical or spiritual) of someone else, to spread the Gospel, or as way for us to grow and depend on God more. Despite what certain sects of monks have said over the centuries, the Bible is not big on suffering for no reason.
Going without a coat in the winter because you gave it to someone who needed it an can’t afford a new on is a form of suffering for another’s benefit, and trying to rise past the physical discomfort to still have a good attitude and relationship with God is a noble goal. But going without a cold in the winter because you forgot it and were too lazy to go back for it has no purpose and will probably not result in anyone’s growth or benefit. Fasting to grow closer to God is laudable; skipping lunch because you’re busy and then feeling terrible all day is not. In fact, your discomfort is more likely to make you snappish and unpleasant towards others. Christ is not served and the Gospel is not spread by you taking out your bad mood on friends, family, co-workers, or strangers.
In fact, I would say that needless discomfort is actually a kind of sin, if it ends up negatively effecting you, those around you, and your relationship with God. We are all extremely influenced by our physical bodies, and while learning to not let your mood, attitude, or actions be solely determined by how we feel is a valuable spiritual lesson, there is no point in learning to rise above a feeling that didn’t need to exist in the first place. When suffering has a goal or purpose it is much easier to get perspective on the situation and let God be our comfort and joy. But when you are miserable for no reason, it’s difficult to overcome because you also have to add the annoyance you feel at being miserable for no reason and you know there is no greater purpose to the suffering.
I am guilty of this often. I get very cranky when I am hungry, and I get very sleepy and lazy when I am cold. Often to the extent that I am not even in a frame of mind where I want to pray to get beyond those feelings and instead just give into them. And yet I will wait too long to eat or opt not to bother to go to the trouble of putting on a sweater, even though if I stopped to think about it I would realize that those simple actions would improve my physical and emotional state greatly in a very short time.
The world throws enough unavoidable pain, trouble, and discomfort our way in life, and still more we may choose to help others or to preach the Gospel. Making our lives harder for no reason only depletes the emotional resources we need to deal with actual, inevitable hardship and is a form of ingratitude. We have a hard enough time maintaining a close relationship with God, treating others well, and having a good attitude without putting up more barriers for no good reason.
It is important to know ourselves and know how we react to various situations so we can avoid the things that we know make us susceptible to sinning towards God and others. Just like we would consider it wrong to not seek treatment for a disease, we have to remember that we have a responsibility to ourselves and those around us to take care of ourselves as much as possible so that we are able to sacrifice for others when need be, instead of being a burden on them through bad attitudes, complaining, and ungodly thoughts and actions.
So in terms of happiness projects and self-improvements, I would say that they can hugely beneficial to us as Christians, as long as we aren’t counting on them to provide true happiness where there is none or to make fundamental changes in our hearts that can really only come from God. What these sorts of tips, tricks, and systems can do is help us get rid of habits or problems that turn into unnecessary barriers between ourselves and a full spiritual life. Being a Christian and putting God and others first doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be practical or problem-solve basic things on your own. Rather it means we should do everything we can to help ourselves focus on God and to help others, including not allowing problems to exist that really don’t need to.
Liturgical Prayer Challenge Update – Day 2 February 8, 2011Posted by orualundone in Uncategorized.
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It is day two of my experiment of praying, both freeform and from a prayer book, seven times daily. The past two days have been an unrelenting shitstorm of opposition. From trouble at work to trouble at home to physical illness to anxiety attacks to unfavorable weather, everything seems designed to prevent me from making my prayer time a reality and to make me give up on wanting to do it at all.
I can only assume this means I am doing something right.
Still Here…Sort of! September 26, 2010Posted by orualundone in Uncategorized.
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This is just a quick update to say I’m still here (but not in the Joaquin Phoenix way). It’s amazing how a month can get away from you! I barely remember September, and a new obsession with minimalism led to a lot of cleaning and selling books and other things on amazon, which sucked up most of my internet time. It’s not that I don’t have stuff to write about – it’s that if I spent any more time on the computer I was afraid my eyes would start bleeding! Balance is not my strong point. I hope to re-start regular updates here this week.
Speculations on the Afterlife August 3, 2010Posted by orualundone in Church, Heaven, Marriage, Peace, Questions, Trust, Uncategorized.
Tags: C.S. Lewis, heaven, Narnia
I know things have been a bit intense around here lately, and given where I’m at spiritually they will probably continue to be intense for some time to come. So I thought I’d take a break from the heavy introspection and talk about something a little cheerier: Heaven. Okay, who am I kidding? This involves heavy introspection too.
I don’t really know what to think about heaven. As a young child my mother told me it would be like an endless church service, which was not remotely appealing (particular since our highly-unstructured Pentecostal church services already seemed endless to me). In middle school an overly-cool youth pastor said heaven would just be this awesome place full of extreme sports where we could go “snowboarding with Jesus”. Somewhat more appealing, but seemed rather unlikely. The culture presented a notion of clouds, angels, and white robes which I found silly and insipid. And some people are apparently really attached to the idea of heaven having literal streets paved in literal gold, which just feels like missing the point.
A lot of the things I hear about heaven from mainstream churches seem to indicate many Evangelicals think of it as like earth; only nicer, cleaner, and Jesus lives in your town. But that vision of heaven isn’t really about God, it’s about us and our “reward”. It doesn’t really involve a change; just an upgrade. Derek Webb satirizes this idea of the white, suburban, middle-class heaven in a song imagining what it would be like if a homeless person made it into that version of heaven:
Paradise is a parking lot
A spot up front is your reward
And all the rest walk down streets of gold
To the house they could afford
I got lost in the swelling crowd
I could not afford to eat
You only have what you came in with
So I’m living on the street
Oh I have been to heaven
And I found no relief
‘Cause I couldn’t find a hand to hold
To keep me on my feet
I heard Jesus Christ was there
He had a car that’s bulletproof
That way everyone is safe
From the man who tells the truth
Christians can’t even seem to agree on whether we go straight to heaven when we die, or just wake up at the Resurrection to the “new earth”. Frankly I’m not sure that’s something we can answer and I don’t know that I care – I’ll find out when I get there, I suppose. Although since I don’t believe in the Rapture and am a little sketchy on the whole “new earth”/bodily resurrection thing altogether, I definitely lean towards the “going straight to heaven” camp.
In short, heaven was never a “hook” for me to be a Christian. I’m a Christian because I really don’t know any other way to live my life in the face of an omnipotent God and the sacrifice of Christ that could possibly work out for me. And I’ve never liked the mentality the this whole world is just some kind of test, or that we’re just waiting out our time here until we can leave. I feel like that leads to a really bad attitude about this life and how we should act and treat other people and the planet, a kind of irresponsibility about the world. It matters what we do here. It may not be all we’ve got, but it’s all we’ve got right now. Yes, there’s more to life beyond beyond this world, probably more than we can ever imagine. But we’re here now, and God put us here for a reason, so obviously we’re not meant to just sit back and wait for it to be over.
And as a scientist, when I think about heaven too long I get overly-analytical about things. Where is it? What is it? A physical place? An alternate dimension? How does it work? What are the physics involved? Does heaven have mass and location? Not particularly helpful questions, nor ones likely to get an answer any time soon.
Although the Bible talks a fair amount about heaven, it is notoriously short on details. And unfortunately the book that mentions what appears to be heaven/the afterlife in the most detail is the one that I trust our modern interpretation of the least – Revelation. So in terms of what I feel we can be certain of about heaven, it pretty much comes down to: we will be with God, we will be with other believers, and it will be “paradise”. We can argue for ages about the return of Christ, the resurrection, the rapture, whether there is anything beyond heaven, what it will look like, etc. But it wouldn’t be productive because we just can’t know.
And I feel like we aren’t meant to. Not that it doesn’t matter at all, but that God doesn’t give us details on purpose. Perhaps for several reasons. I think one of them is that, by definition, we couldn’t really understand what heaven is like while we’re still here on earth now matte how much description we had. Words are not adequate, our human language fails. If we could really imagine it, really comprehend it, then it wouldn’t be anything we couldn’t create ourselves. The more that was said, the more misinterpretation and confusion there would be. True understanding of heaven is just not attainable for us right now.
I think another reason God keeps the exact nature of the afterlife kind of vague is that it is not the story we are living in now. We humans have a hard enough time focusing on what we should be doing now, instead of living in the past or trying to create a particularly future. The more we know about the afterlife, the more likely we are to fixate on it to the detriment of our purpose here, now, on earth. We still have things to do and lessons to learn.
Finally, I think we don’t get a lot of details about heaven because God wants us to trust him. He has promised us a place. He has promised he will dwell there with us. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t he enough for us? Now, I personally don’t think that after we die we spend all eternity sitting around with God doing literally nothing else. But I think he wants us to be able to believe that whatever he has planned for us, it will be perfect because he will be with us there.
And yet, when things down here get so hard and so complicated, and when our problems seems so big and insurmountable, I feel like it does help to be able to think of the promise of an eternal life with God and remember “This isn’t all there is. No matter how bad it gets, there’s still something more coming.” I don’t want to use that as a way of avoiding dealing with things in life, but just as an encouragement that one day it will be okay, one day we will understand all of things that happened to us and all our wounds will be healed. It’s a reason to keep on going, not a reason to give up on life.
Of all the authors who have tried to capture the idea of heaven, for me at least, C.S. Lewis has done the best job. Through his Narnia books and other writings he talks of our longing for heaven, our lack of ability to truly understand it, and a little bit about what he thinks it will be like. In “The Last Battle” one of the characters, upon reaching the afterlife and finding it be a world realer and more wonderful than the one they had come from, remarks that all of the things they had loved about the old Narnia they must have loved because they reminded them, a little, of how it was in this place. Lewis describes worlds within worlds, each more real and more beautiful than the last, calling them perpetually further up and further in (presumably to more closeness and joy and knowledge of God).
That is how I like to think of it. That heaven isn’t just a place you get to and then is always the same, but that it’s the beginning of a never-ending journey leading to ever-increasing knowledge and love and closeness to our Creator and more and more understanding of him and the universe and each other. And when I feel a sense of longing for something, or when I have to leave a place or person that I truly love, I try to remember that the reason I feel that way is because that place or person or thing reminds me of something about heaven. Not necessarily that I love the mountains because there’s a physical, Platonic ideal of mountains in heaven that I’m longing for, but that all the good things here are echos of something better yet to come there.
Even if I never live in that place or see that person again, I will someday receive that something better, which is so much more that I cannot even comprehend it except through my longing for the shadow of it on earth. And even if I do get to live in my favorite place on earth and have a perfect, close relationship with that person I love, I will still be longing for something more after that. Because what God has given us here is good, but there is still something more excellent.
I think my biggest stumbling block about the afterlife though, is the verse in Mark about marriage:
When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.
This has always bothered me. Will I not get to be with my husband in the afterlife? Of course being with God is more important, but why should it have to be a choice? That just seems cruel.
But I think (and all this is just my own personal speculation) that what Jesus is trying to say is not that marriage will be abolished, but that marriage will be obsolete. The kind of deep connection and emotional intimacy and knowledge that we can right now really only have with our spouse, we will be able to have with God in person and with all other people. Marriage now, on earth, is a promise of that kind of deep and universal intimacy to come, only more so because there will be none of the walls we put up or unhealed hurts that exist in even the best of marriages. The kind of deep and (ideally) unconditional love we have with our spouse here, as a reminder of how God loves us and how we are all to love one another, will be perfected and put into practice in heaven.
And whatever else is there, I view heaven as a place of joy and of laughter. I think we will be able to at last see everything in perspective, and look at all the things we’ve done, and the ways we tried to control our own lives, or tried to make God love us more, and see how foolish we were and laugh at them. In the same way that we can now look back on things we said or did or believed as very small children and are able to see how funny it all was and how silly we were at the time. We will realize so many of the things we put great importance on now were not really important at all, but we will not feel guilt or shame because we will know how completely loved and accepted we are and we’ll just be able to laugh at ourselves.
The same for when we meet each other in heaven. I think we will be able to look at each other and for the first time, really and truly understand each other. We’ll be able to see past all the hurts, the misunderstandings and miscommunications, the broken relationships, and be able to finally see each other as we really are and love each other as we really are. And we will laugh together at how ridiculous we were to take offense at such small things, or to not be able to say what was really on our hearts, or that we let anything at all get in the way of loving each other. We won’t condemn each other for the things that happened or the ways we wounded each other, but we will at last be able to have perfect joy in being together in the presence of God.
That’s just how I imagine it. And if it’s nothing like that then it will so much better the difference will be, as Lewis (again) said, like a child making mud-pies in the gutter who cannot understand the offer of a holiday at the shore. But I know we will be together, we will be with God, and it will be paradise.