With the exception of those of us who live in a cave or are completely off the grid, we have people constantly trying to manipulate our emotions for their profit. Unscrupulous scam artists play on our fears and anxieties, telling us we owe money or our accounts have been hacked. Websites track our Internet surfing history and throw pop-up ads in our faces: Hey, you looked at this item yesterday, are you ready to buy it now? Easy: just click here. Or perhaps you’d prefer one of these alternatives?
Advertisements try to get to believe that we’d be just a little happier if we spent money on their goods and services. Even if we don’t buy what they’re selling, we begin to internalize the the bigger message: Life is about happiness, and happiness is about owning and enjoying the right stuff.
I became acutely aware of this recently while leafing through a magazine-sized piece of junk mail with my toddler-age granddaughter. It was filled with advertisements for various home improvement services. Each ad was interesting in its own right. But taken together, the pictures all seemed to convey the same message: Don’t you wish you lived in a place that looked like this?
“See?” I said to my granddaughter, jokingly. “This is what you’re aspiring to in life.” For her part, she just pointed at all the windows in the pictures and said, “Window. Window.”
That’s right, sweetheart. Just keep things in your heart simple.
Although each of us may treasure different things, we do have what Jesus called “treasures on earth.” He lived in a world without cars or microchips, but not without “stuff” and the social status and feeling of security that came with it. But none of it lasts. We may not worry about “moth and rust,” but obsolescence is our form of decay. For a time, we love that new car smell; we marvel at the speed and efficiency of a pristine new computer. These pleasures, however, are short-lived. Soon, we take our new toys for granted or even start complaining about them.
The solution? Buy a new one, of course!
And start the cycle all over again.
A better answer would be to store up treasure in heaven instead. But what does that mean?
Jesus was not, of course, suggesting an alternative investment strategy or the ethereal equivalent of a numbered Swiss bank account. Throughout the sermon, he insisted that if his hearers really wanted to know God’s kingdom, they would have to get past some of their former understandings of religion and shift their perceptions and priorities.
What do we treasure? Whatever answer we give, whatever we say we value most, our behavior may tell a different story. Toward what ends do we actually direct our time, our passions, our resources, our energy? And are these ends earthly or heavenly ones, temporal and fleeting or eternal and everlasting?
So much of our energy is directed at achieving short-term goals, even immediate ones like I have to win this argument. It’s possible that winning an argument may serve a higher purpose, but if the truth be told, we may just hate losing, period. In pursuit of what we want right now, we lose sight of broader and longer-term consequences: what winning an argument might do to a relationship; what it fosters in our character; how it shapes the way we treat others, and so.
And an eternal perspective? What’s that?
It takes intentionality and practice to continually evaluate what our behavior says about our passions, and to ask whether we’re seeking God’s kingdom or something else. If, in the midst of an argument, we can slow down or take a break long enough to catch our breath, we might be able to ask ourselves questions that redirect us toward eternity. God has saved me for an eternity with him. I have been redeemed. He has promised resurrection life in a renewed earth in which there will be no sorrow or pain. And he’s wanting to form me even now in ways that fit that future. What kind of person is he making me to be? What kind of person can I be right now, in this situation, that demonstrates the truth of that promised future?
Maybe that sounds hard, out of reach. But it’s not — not for a people who have been blessed with the giving of the Holy Spirit to empower us. And don’t forget: as I suggested in a recent post, Jesus is not portraying God as a strict taskmaster, but as a Father who knows what we need and wants to live without anxiety. That’s the context in which we are taught to seek God’s kingdom.
The martyred missionary Jim Elliot may have put it best: “He is no fool to give what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” In pursuit of his vision of bringing the gospel to an unreached people, he ended up giving his life. His wife Elisabeth, continued the mission after his death.
Again, that may sound a bit lofty; who among us could be so saintly?
The answer, of course, is anyone who has the Holy Spirit.
That said, not all of us are called to traipse through the jungle with the gospel. We just need to live the gospel wherever God has placed us.
And if today that means something like giving up trying to win an argument in order to pursue peace instead — the kind of peace we will eventually enjoy with God for all eternity — well, that’s not a bad place to start.