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Choosing Joy

There is a thread of thought that is very common in western religion, even western culture. As a matter of fact, it is so deeply imbedded in our psyche that most of us don’t even realize the deleterious effect it has on our lives. This thought is basically that suffering is somehow “good”, even desirable, if we are to prove ourselves worthy of…worthy of what? Of being saved? Of meeting God, or Jesus? Of not going to hell? Worthy of not suffering? How twisted is that? Worthy of joy, of heaven, of not Hell?

This idea is often couched in the philosophy that we can’t know joy if we haven’t known suffering. Honestly, from my personal experience, I can’t say that there’s not some truth in that statement. However, implicit in that statement is that our joy in life is somehow dependent upon the degree of our suffering, like the more we suffer, the more joy we can know, and vice-versa; that in order to know great joy we have to experience great suffering. There are actually some people/clubs/societies that seek after suffering in a misguided belief that they will reap greater joy in the hereafter.

I have suffered in my life, although I am aware enough to know that any suffering I might have experienced pales before that of many others. I need only look around me for confirmation of that. Honestly, I feel like my personal suffering has been minimal, and most of that was induced by my own choices. However, I reject the idea that I can only know joy commensurate with the degree of suffering I have experienced.

No, I think we can choose joy.

I think we can seek joy, even if that simply means recognizing the joy that exists all around us.

I also think most of us sabotage our own joy.

That’s not to say that the world doesn’t deal us some ugly cards that make it very difficult to experience joy. It certainly does. Ill health, natural disasters, accidents or circumstances of birth, even the decisions of others can make it very difficult for us to “choose joy”.

But I do believe that “…men are that they might have joy”.

And I think there are many things we do, as a result of religious and cultural indoctrination, that impede or even block our ability to recognize and experience – even maximize – joy in our lives. I would even venture so far as to suggest that these things that we do are symbolized by the proverbial “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” that Adam and Eve “partook” of in the Garden of Eden. In this story, this fruit, which should surely cause Adam and Eve to die, is juxtaposed against the tree of life.

In my mind, then, I consider the following thought processes to lead to death – perhaps physical as well as spiritual – simply because they block our access to the fruit of the tree of life – which fruit I accept as being love; the partaking of which is the source of joy. I believe that learning to recognize and reject these thought processes is the key to knowing God – because they actually separate us from God. And we know that to “know thee, the only true God” is equated in John 17:3 to “eternal life”.

In other words, continuing on our merry way, trapped by this destructive thinking, is the surest way to delay our realization and experience of joy; of love; of eternal life itself.

As with almost all of my writings, I submit these things to you for your consideration. They have gelled in my mind, but that matters only to me, unless they also gel in yours. This list is most certainly incomplete. It is one that, as I ponder, contemplate, and constantly repent, continues to grow. Hopefully, you, too, will add your own contributions as you give this list your consideration.

The list:

Fear

Fear carries in it the seeds of death. There is no fear in love. I’m obviously not speaking of immediate, threatening, fight or flight types of fear. I’m speaking of more subtle types of fear, such as:

  • Fear of not existing
  • Fear of not being good enough
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of punishment
  • Fear of not being “saved”

Fear is likely the most insidious flavor of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Consider that this knowledge (of good and evil) implies avoiding evil, and seeking good. Implicit in this, then, is the fear that we will choose wrongly. Yes, we need to choose – I get that – but we must learn to choose good, not fear evil. We must choose good out of love, and not avoid evil out of fear of punishment. The difference is subtle, which is why it is so important to recognize it for ourselves, and in ourselves. Love is life, and it binds us all together. Fear is death, and it perpetuates our separation from God and from each other.

Living in the past (or in the future)

The past is the past. It cannot be changed. It’s only value is in any lessons we might have learned – lessons which we carry with us now. Time and energy spent in regret, or in nostalgia is wasted, and can often prevent us from experiencing the joy that is ours now.

The future has not yet happened. Sure, we can influence the future by the choices we make today. My wife and I, with our friends, are in the process of refurbishing an old manufactured home, which is on a beautiful piece of property with a great view. We hope to have a comfortable home to live in for the rest of our mortal lives. We are making choices in how we expend our resources in anticipation of this. We are planning for the future.I spent some time the past few days collecting various versions of the lyrics to the old blues standard, “Key to the Highway”, which I then consolidated into something I can learn, in anticipation of being able to play this song in the future. I’m building toward the anticipated ability to perform this song.

Looking to the future in logical, cautious, planned, hopeful anticipation is great, as long as it doesn’t prevent us from experiencing joy now. I remind myself constantly of the joy that can be found in building something like our home, or of the joy of learning, practicing, and performing a new song. But we’ve all known people, and we have all done this ourselves, who think, “If only this, this, or this would happen, then I will be happy”.

There is a sign on the wall in a local restaurant that says, “Free beer here…tomorrow.” The past is gone, and tomorrow never comes. We must choose to be joyful now, or we never will.

That said, I must give a nod to the previously mentioned forces over which we have little control. In this case, a healthy, faithful, hopeful “this, too, shall pass” attitude can be essential to experiencing joy even in the face of such trials that do inevitably come.

Being Right

I heard a recorded discussion a couple of years ago of Max Skousen describing “peaceable followers of Christ” as people who had surrendered the “need to be right”. For the purpose of this discussion, it doesn’t matter who Max Skousen is. I mention his name simply in order to attribute the idea to him. What matters, instead, is the impact it had on me. It was like a lightening bolt of inspiration. Let me try to explain why:

First, I recognize the desire to know truth. But that’s not the same as needing to be right. When it comes to seeking truth, it is important to realize that, until I know all things, the best I can hope for is to be partially right. I have only a portion of truth, which means that my knowledge and understanding is at best incomplete, and, at worst, wrong, and I have to be ok with that.

If I do think I’m right, when I’m obviously not, I run the risk of ceasing to seek further knowledge. I block out sources of truth that might be available to me, because I already have the truth – because I am already “right”. This form of “damnation” can, and does, manifest itself in various ways. The “true” church, or “true” religion, infallible and/or exclusive scriptures, following without question men or “prophets”, blind faith…all these are manifestations of the need to be right.

Another aspect of the need to be right concerns a state of contention that results from manifesting the need to be right to the extent that I seek to impose my “rightness” on others. Engaging is such a thought process:

  • Implies that the other person is wrong
  • Tends toward the use of some sort of force in order to convince the other that they are wrong
  • Results in a “spirit of contention”.
  • Perpetuates a state of separation

The use of force, any kind of force, to impose my “rightness” upon another individual or group of people is, to me, inexcusable. This force, of course, can be physical, emotional, cultural, economic, spiritual, social, etc. It can, furthermore, be applied in endlessly subtle ways.

Yet, we humans often invite someone else’s “rightness”. There is great comfort in the belief that I have “found” the truth; to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to seek knowledge of truth for ourselves. And it takes great faith and great courage to go through life realizing that most likely you only know a tiny bit of what is to be known, and that perhaps you understand even less. It is this dynamic that enables what is commonly thought of as a “cult” mentality, but such thinking is prevalent in many more subtle ways in our churches, clubs, societies, even nations. Ultimately this “need to be right”, and thus, by comparison, better, is responsible for all contention, separatism, elitism, nationalism, and ultimately war throughout history.

Mine! Mine! Mine!

The movie “Finding Nemo” contained two of my favorite movie scenes ever. The first was when, after escaping the belly of the whale, where Dory had encouraged and taught Marlin to “speak whale”, the two of them popped up to the surface, and Dory, in her brilliant, joyful, now innocence, declared, “I wish I could speak whale.”

The second was all the seagulls screeching, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”. It was a brilliant caricature of the “in it for myself” and “I’ve got mine” mentality that dominates too much of human interaction. This, of course, not only applies to our “stuff”, but to mental, emotional, and spiritual issues as well.

It’s ok to have stuff, but the problem, the separation, evolves when we fear losing our stuff. Kris Kristofferson wrote in his famous song, “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”.  It’s the idea that our joy is somehow dependent upon our stuff, or the fear of losing it, or the belief that more stuff will magically result in more joy and less fear, that actually blocks joy. Joy…and fear…come from within. Which will we choose? I can think of little that is more contradictory to the Sermon on the Mount than this seagull cacophony of “Mine! Mine! Mine!”.

Comparison

Comparison is likely the most insidious and destructive thought construct that humanity engages in. Few realize the extent to which they do it. Our indulgence in comparison thought patterns manifests itself in multiple ways:

The primary mode of comparison is when we compare ourselves to others, and that, of course, perpetuates separation. If we compare ourselves as better, we see others as somehow less than we are. Conversely, if we compare “unfavorably”, then we feel less, devalued, unworthy, not as good.

Another mode of comparison is when we compare ourselves to some standard. This implies that we are more than or less than perfect. The very term “perfect” implies a standard. For most Christians, Jesus is the standard against which we compare ourselves, yet such a comparison is typically followed by, “But there was only one perfect person”. This attitude is simply defeatist and demoralizing, and can only leave us feeling somehow incomplete and imperfect. It’s also completely illogical. Why would Jesus offer us an example that we cannot hope to emulate?

A revelatory voice once told me – a voice that I personally identify as Jesus – “Do not compare your experiences with those of others”. This was at a time when I was lusting after a Second Comforter type experience – the result of the practice of assessing my worthiness, my goodness by comparing it to accounts shared by some who had experienced a personal manifestation of Jesus in the flesh. This type of comparison, as with all comparisons, imposes limitations and expectations on our relationships – in this case upon my relationship with Jesus. I was basically telling Jesus, “It is my desire that you manifest yourself to me in this way. Do this, and I will be satisfied”. But I then realized that I would not have been satisfied. Had such a thing happened as I desired; had I met the standard against which I was comparing my relationship with Jesus, I would have immediately raised the bar. When we indulge thought patterns of comparison, we will never be satisfied. There will always be someone better or worse, some greater experience, some higher standard. As a result, simple joy will forever elude us, existing only in anticipation of some future achievement or state, event, or occurrence.

In the story of Moses and the burning bush, in Exodus chapter 3 of the Bible, God told Moses, “I AM THAT I AM. Obviously, such a cryptic phrase can be, and has been, interpreted in many ways. One interpretation, one that I subscribe to, is that of the completeness of God. In instructing Moses to tell those who asked, “Who sent you”, that “I AM” sent him – he essentially eliminated the possibility of comparison – whether to other “gods”, or to their experiences, or their expectations, or their desires or fears. I believe that it is just as important for us to honor our own individual “I AM” and the “I AM” of others as it is to honor the “I AM” – the wholeness and completeness – of God. This eliminates comparison, and thus separation, and perpetuates oneness.

I have written before about the “4 C’s” of separation (of Babylon, of the natural man, etc). These “4 C’s”, are “Comparison, Competition, Contention, and Control. Our indulgence in the first, comparison, progressively, and inevitably, leads to the other three – culminating in what I believe to be the greatest “sin” of humanity – the desire to control others. This indulgence is our assurance that we will never ascend beyond this state of unfulfilled existence. You can choose your metaphor – Jacob’s Ladder, Heaven, Zion, Nirvana, Eternal Life, Piercing the Veil – as long as we continue to engage in this “comparison” type of thinking, we will remain firmly anchored in what is commonly called the “fallen state of man”, and it all begins with comparison.

Indulging in Guilt

Have you ever recognized in yourself that guilt can act as a warm blanket? Have you ever gotten on your knees, addressing God, and begun your prayer by confessing all your sins and shortcomings, like you need to cleanse yourself before God will listen? Whatever it was that you did, or thought – whatever it is that you are confessing (to yourself, really – God theoretically already knows) has already occurred. You’ve already realized that what you did, or didn’t do, was not according to your desires. You’ve already done the comparison against your standard and found it wanting. Chances are, you’ve even already chastised yourself and resolved to make a better choice next time such a situation arises. In other words, you’ve already repented.

Yet, somehow we still want to feel guilty. But, you know what, this guilt is actually counter-productive. It does not bring you closer to God – it actually separates you further. It tends to confirm that you are unworthy of the oneness that you both seek; that you are impure and imperfect, and that you will never be good enough.

Frankly, God is above guilt. It is simply not part of His nature. The doctrine of the atonement – the idea that Jesus died for our sins – declares that. Jesus Himself declares in multiple sources that He did so that we may have eternal life. When we cling to guilt we deny the unconditional love of God. And when we assign guilt to others, we actually hold it to ourselves.

My relationship with God has become much closer, much more real, since I ceased approaching Him in an attitude of guilt. But I also realize that, if I wish to be free of guilt, I cannot assign guilt to others. To the extent that I do, I carry the same burden that they do. Since there is no guilt in God, then any guilt that we choose to carry separates us from Him.

Expectations of Others

In my last post, “Love and Hate”, I wrote the following:

…a gift, even if it’s love or eternal life, that’s given with expectations, is not a gift given freely. And the conditions that we attach to that gift become a barrier to our own eternal life. We are not worshiping God in purity when we do this, because the love we are giving – being conditional, is not God’s love…it is our love.

Having expectations of others is not so much a problem. What burdens us in our journey towards ascendance is when we withdraw our love, in any of the myriad ways available to us, because another individual chooses not to meet our expectations of them. We are free only when our friends and associates are free. We only offer love in purity, as a free gift, when it is unconditional.

Justice, Judgment, Punishment, Offense

Religious dogma is replete with expectations of justice to be exacted in the eternities. I can’t think of a more selfish, more prideful, more fear-driven component of religion than this. The fruits of this expectation of justice include judgment, punishment, offense, and even forgiveness.

When scriptures speak of forgiveness, they presume offense. But if we have surrendered guilt – in both ourselves and in others; and if we have surrendered the conditional expectations that we so often attach to our offered love, then offense becomes a non-issue. If we are not offended, there is no need for forgiveness, and certainly no need for justice, judgment, or punishment.

I believe that God, and God’s nature, is so far beyond our comprehension that we, in our desire to understand God, assign to His nature human needs, desires, motivations, and actions. This is commonly called “anthropomorphism”. But if we truly hope to understand Him, to “know Him”, and thus experience eternal life, we must first recognize and then surrender these things. The principles of justice, judgment, punishment, offense, even forgiveness, are at the forefront of these assigned-by-man characteristics of God. There is no place in God for these things – they are contrary, despite the teachings of religious tradition, to God’s nature, even the nature of creation.

Obedience

Think of your most joyful human relationship. You know – that friend, partner, spouse that you swore you would love forever. Hopefully, that relationship is still active, and it still brings you joy. Now consider this – is there any place in that relationship for obedience? Oh, we have such relationships – in business, in the military, where structure and cooperation need to be forced in order to be valid. But obedience – in a loving, voluntary, cooperative relationship?

In my last job, I “reported” to a man, for the purposes of the organization, who earned my respect and friendship very quickly. We worked together, in cooperation, sharing a common vision. We were partners. I told him one time, “I you ever have to act as my boss, then it’s time for me to leave the company”. By “act as my boss”, I meant “force me to act in a certain way under the threat of discipline or termination”.

Fortunately, that situation never evolved. He never had to act as “my boss”. Our relationship, both professionally and personally, remained one of pure respect, cooperation, and common vision. It was an uncommon but priceless experience.

God does not seek a relationship based on obedience. Such a relationship, while preferable to no relationship, or to behavior that is destructive to the individual, is decidedly impure. It is based on the principles of fear, justice, judgment, punishment, offense, sin, and conditional love. This is not God. This is, again, the God that has been created by man.

Actions that are motivated out of a belief that we must be obedient are not pure. They are motivated at least to some extent by fear. I recognize and accept that Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments”, but this love cannot be forced in any way.

It is my personal desire to never, when it comes to God, when it comes to love, act out of obedience. I do not want God to have to act as “my boss”. It is my desire to act out of love, respect, understanding, cooperation, and common vision. That vision, simply put, is love – pure, eternal, unconditional love.

Worthiness

The topic of worthiness kind of wraps up so much of what I’ve shared so far. Whether it’s fear of missing out on salvation, or fear of punishment, or of being wrong, the need to be right; comparing ourselves with others; guilt, expectations, obedience, judgment…it all links to the idea that we somehow have to prove our worthiness in order to recognize and experience the fruit of God’s love – the fruit of the tree of life. It’s like we’re trying to force God to bless us… “If I can just be obedient enough, or humble enough, or perfect enough, I can earn redemption from all of these things that I fear”. This, folks, is manipulation and control. We are trying to manipulate God. It is human nature at its worst – only subtly disguised as worship.

The idea of proving ourselves worthy completely contradicts the concept of “I AM” – God’s I AM as well as our own “I AM”. It places conditions on God’s love, and allows us to structure our relationship with Him. We might say, “No, God loves us no matter what”, or “God’s love is unconditional” and that’s true, but deep in our hearts resides the fear that God won’t love us as much as He loves someone else – and thus He won’t bless us as much as I want or as much as He blessed someone else – unless I can prove myself as worthy as that other person or people. Do you see how this is tied so perfectly to comparison, fear, obedience, judgment, etc.

We cannot make ourselves worthy. There is not even any such thing as “worthiness” in the mind of God. This idea implies that God is putting expectations on his “freely given, unconditional, love”. Frankly, we dishonor and deny God when we place such conditions on our relationship, which relationship is ultimately our very being – our I AM.

Summary

Men are that they might have joy…now.

There are many thought patterns and habits that I believe prevent us from having joy now. They are impure, destructive, self-serving, fear-driven, and totally human. They are characteristic, even the very nature, of the ego, or the natural man. Metaphorically, Adam and Eve introduced the natural man when they partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We each perpetuate that nature when we engage these thought patterns. This fruit is not the fruit of the tree of life, and if we wish to partake of the fruit of the tree of life, we must recognize these things, and seek to surrender them. We think they are life sustaining. We think they are truth. But they are not. They are deception.

None of this is easy. I certainly have not mastered any of it. But in this mortality we experience the trial of choice. Man has sought for thousands of years to achieve enlightenment, or oneness with God and with each other. Religions have sparked, risen, descended into dogma, and died during these millenia. They all seek God, and they all die with man.

The only pure religion is love. God is love. Eternal life is love. These behaviors, beliefs, and practices hide from us the purity that is God, and that purity is our true being. I’m sure the list could be longer, and that I just haven’t discovered and comprehended the additional items yet. I’m sure that, as I make progress with this list, other thought practices will reveal themselves. In the meantime, let us seek to experience joy now. Let us receive God’s unconditional love now. Trade guilt and fear, and judgment of others for the assurance that eternal life is ours to receive, and the only “condition” is that we love.

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