I have been working on this thesis:
There are two ways to see the world:
The first is fear, “What can I lose?”
The second is generosity, asking, “What can I give?”
I preface my comments below by remembering a great quote I heard once:
“There are two kinds of people.
Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.”
I try to be more of the latter.
Fear asks these questions:
-Who is out to get something from me?
-How can I protect what is mine?
-What will people take from me unless I shut them out?
Generosity asks these questions:
-Who is in need around me?
-How can I help?
-What can I learn from others that I didn’t see before?
Fear seems to drive most things in our culture. The “get-mine before you get-yours” mentality operates only under the guise of greed or prosperity. The real culprit is fear. We hoard because we are afraid that in the future we won’t get enough. We close our doors because we’re afraid of who might walk in. We objectify the human body because we’re too afraid of how ugly we are inside. We complain about those who we think are ruining society because we’re too afraid to do something to make things better ourselves.
Once this distinction between fear and generosity start to become obvious – I bet you’ll never watch TV, read articles online, or listen to music quite the same way again. I don’t.
It seems to me the great religions of the world try to move our world view from the first set of questions to the second set. I would say that the difference is “God”, but even the secular humanists tend to look at the brighter side of humanity’s potential of doing good rather than our darkest moments. I know plenty of people who would not consider themselves to be religious at all, but look at the second set of questions.
I also know plenty of religious people who only operate out of the “fear-set” of questions, which (in my view) is a big contributor to the perception that religious people are hypocritical, closed-minded, and mean-spirited. Jesus’ constant confrontations with the Pharisees and other religious types in his day seem to confirm this perception to me. If this sounds familiar, Ecclesiastes once said hundreds of years before Jesus was born, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
So maybe there’s something a bit more universal about human nature than our secular / religious divide we try to build between ourselves today. There is still something to learn from other people – including how we are alike, what we fear, and what we aspire to make of life.
As a Christian and a leader in the church, my starting point is the Jesus narrative, so I’ll engage my thesis from that point of view. It seems to me, that Jesus was in the habit of challenging the assumptions of the fear mentality around him. Declaring the year of jubilee for the sick, blind and imprisoned, calling disciples to “pick up your cross and follow me,” healing on the Sabbath, saying “you cannot serve both God and wealth,” any and all of his miracles, so many of his parables, great lines like: “blessed are the peace makers” and the rest of the sermon on the mount, insisting that “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” and constantly hanging around the wrong people – tax collectors and sinners, reveals a generosity of spirit and inclusion of others none of us can ever achieve. His greatest affront to decent religious people trying to play by the rules and live holy lives was having the audacity to say to sinners, “you are forgiven,” and changing their lives. It’s the human side of the story as to why Jesus was executed – he represented everything the religious establishment feared losing – control; over God, over others, even over themselves. We still do this today. Ecclesiastes was right: there isn’t anything new under the sun.
So what are we to do?
When a young rich man approached Jesus, Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give his money away to the poor. When another said he had to first bury his father before becoming a disciple Jesus replied, “let the dead bury their own dead.” He defended a sinful woman before those ready to kill her, “you without sin, throw the first stone” and they walked away. These encounters may not prescribe specific actions. Each of them (and many others throughout the gospels) represent the things that get in the way from living generous lives because we are afraid of what we might lose in the process. After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus gave back four times the money he swindled from people; Jesus cured and raised several people from the dead, and he took a religious zealot, a Pharisee hell bent on destroying the early Christian movement and transformed him into the most prolific evangelist of all time. We know him as the Apostle Paul. If we could ever follow Jesus’ example, it is not only to think outside the box when it comes to interacting with others – it is to see that the box itself doesn’t matter. People matter; and all of us living under fear or the guise of self-importance have one thing to offer one another – ourselves. Jesus teaches us to welcome others who don’t deserve it; after all, we don’t deserve to sit with Jesus either. Yet Jesus opens his arms to all.
From Fear to Generosity
Fear acts underneath so many of the things we do, say and believe. All our greedy tendencies have nothing to do with health, wealth and prosperity; at least not really. Control (or the illusion of it) is what fear seeks. We have a false sense of control when things are going well for us, and feel dire despair when we feel control slipping through our fingers. The answer to fear is not finding enough inner strength or coping mechanisms to sharpen and toughen us up to maintain control; but faith is.
Faith is ultimately relinquishing control. Faith is about turning over all the things we think we manage, including our lives, our possessions, and even our fears. Faith is about trusting that whatever happens to us – even the worst (whatever we perceive that to be) the thing we trust most will catch us. As Isaiah said, “the grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” Martin Luther said that to have a god is to put your trust in that thing completely. The question for us then is what is it that we trust completely? Is it our own judgment and resourcefulness? Is it our things or relationships? Is it our health and resilience? Or is it something beyond us?
The Christian narrative reveals God is that “something.” The story starts with a God who creates the world including you and me and everything in it. The Christian story unfolds revealing a God who continues to be present in the world; by entering the story of a particular people that continued to reject the life we are all called to live – one of generosity and reconciliation by living in fear and rejecting others. That story culminates in Jesus, who shocks and amazes, ultimately to suffer and die at the hands of humanity too afraid to embrace him; only to offer a new life we could never dream was possible before as he is raised from the dead, sending his Spirit to care, guide, and comfort us, as we ourselves are rejected by this world.
God gives us the vision to see the world in a whole new way. It is not ours to conquer, hoard or protect. The world is God’s to create, sustain, restore and share with each of us. We have a new opportunity to see each situation we enter – not as one where others take from us, but where we have something to offer, something to give, just as Jesus gives us everything – our lives, himself, the kingdom. Go and give to others as you are given. Give thanks, celebrate and live.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe. (Hebrews 12:28)