This is the first of a series of articles written for parents, regular parents who are not obsessively religious but who want to be able to discuss Christianity with their children and answer the usual difficult questions in a satisfactory way. I am pleased to say that my wife and I have raised three virtuous, happy young adults with good moral compasses. We knew that we wanted to be involved with their religious development, but it was quite difficult to find anything that explained Christian principles in a straightforward, sensible way. The resources out there tend to be unnecessarily mysterious or to be based on the assumption that religious doctrine doesn’t need to make any sense. I was raised to believe that we had brains for a reason and that we were not intended to turn them off in this important area of life. So, we developed a habit of having Sunday discussions after church, and those discussions evolved into these articles. I hope that other like-minded parents will find them convenient, and that they may help to fill some gaps that you may have puzzled over yourself. I have scattered in some references to movies, TV shows etc. that can serve as springboards for family conversation about these issues. I am not a great religious scholar but I have read widely and deeply enough in classic Christian literature to be comfortable that what follows is both sound and coherent. The content is free, so see if you find it helpful.
PRINCIPLE I: ALIGNMENT WITH GOD
Some of us go through life with a smile whatever the circumstances and some manage to be miserable in seemingly fortunate surroundings. Why? In part it’s due to the personality we are born with, but that’s not the whole story. The main driver, the controllable factor that determines whether a person is as happy as she can be on a given day, is the attitude the person adopts, the things she chooses to focus her attention on. Through our own focus we create our own heaven or hell in which to live.
Think of a family that takes in $40,000 a year. Are they well off? A family that made $20,000 a year might think so, while a family that made $80,000 might think not. Johnny, whose Dad tries to arrange 30 minutes of “quality time” with him on Saturday, might feel cheated by comparison to Billy whose Dad reads to him every evening and coaches him in Little League every weekend, but little Mary who doesn’t have a father in the home may feel cheated by comparison with Johnny.
Since there will always be someone who has more of some desirable thing than you do, those who seek reasons to feel miserable rarely have difficulty finding them. Unfortunately, humans do seem to have a natural tendency to look for misery. The family that makes $40,000 a year is more likely to spend time wishing they made $80,000 than feeling fortunate for being better off than the family earning $20,000. Johnny is more likely to envy Billy than to pity Mary. We spend time thinking about the things that are less than ideal in our lives, and feel unhappy.
It doesn’t need to be that way. People are capable of finding at least moments of happiness under objectively horrible circumstances. Children born into a hell of poverty, abuse and neglect still play and laugh when they can – at the times when they are not forced to focus on all the things that are wrong in their lives. Anybody is bound to feel happier while counting their blessings than while totaling up their troubles.
The Lord helps those who help themselves. The first thing anyone can do to help herself is to focus on the positive. The worst thing anybody can do to herself is to focus on the negative. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. Envy is the rottenness of the bones. The point of these words is simply that we cannot find happiness, much less divine bliss, if our minds are focused on wanting what we do not have. Since people always manage to desire more of things no matter how much they already have (witness the billionaires who remain driven to earn more money when they already have more than they could ever spend), we cannot keep our minds from being focused on what we don’t have by getting “enough”. Instead, we need to adjust our attitudes to keep from actively wanting what we cannot have.
The principle of alignment with God, while based in this simple concept of counting one’s blessings, goes further. Think of three different children, angelic Angela, stubborn Stuart, and Connie the contractor. When Angela’s mother asks her to clean her room, she gets to work willingly and does the best she can, arranging everything neatly, and proudly shows her mother how nicely she’s done. Stuart, in contrast, screams and complains, and when forced he does as little as possible. He drags himself around and spends his energy whining instead of working, until his mother has had enough and declares that he has finished. Connie’s mother offers her a chocolate bar if she’ll clean her room. Connie asks “do I have to clean all of it?”, and after some negotiation figures out what will be clean enough to get the prize. She tidies up and slides as much as she can under her bed in order to get the chocolate.
All three children have, to varying degrees, cleaned their rooms. What distinguishes them is their attitude. Angela is pleased to do the right thing because it is the right thing, and so she enjoys cleaning her room even though it might not have been her idea of a fun activity. Stuart only cares about his own convenience, and so he ends up spending more total time and effort trying to avoid the work than Angela spends doing it, hates the whole process, and feels put upon and unhappy afterwards, besides making his mother miserable. Connie does the right thing for the wrong reason. She does not enjoy the work, but she is better off than Stuart in that she at least is willing to do it to get her prize, and gets some enjoyment from having gotten her prize.
Angela, of course, represents the successful Christian. She manages to take active pleasure in doing a task that the others find unpleasant, not because she enjoys the task itself any more than they do, but because she has aligned her own desires with that which needs to be done. She has abandoned material desires, which are beyond her control, in favor of the spiritual desire to do the right thing, the satisfaction of which is within her control. This change of mindset is the key to a successful Christian life, and is the only possible route to divine bliss.
Understanding the difference between Angela and the other two will give us understanding of the concepts of heaven and damnation, of faith, of good works, of prayer, and of grace, and understanding of the significance of Jesus’s sojourn upon the earth. It will also help us to sort good from evil, to understand what it means to love your neighbor, and to understand the significance of sin – and to detect when the concept of sin is being abused. All this will be explained in later articles, after we have looked at the other two basic principles.
A variety of movies, from Mean Girls and Never Been Kissed to Young Adult, make the point that seeking to be popular and successful does not lead to happiness. It is only when we concentrate on being good to others that we can find that gift. Without alignment with God, nothing can keep you happy.