Happiness 3: Congruence (8/24/03)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
After a week away, I will conclude out three-part series on happiness this morning. In week one I expressed my surprise at the fact the word “happiness” does not appear in the New Testament. Instead, we find the word “joy,” which is referring to something much greater than the everyday happiness we seek as we go through life. Then, over a two week period, we looked at three words that make a great number of appearances in the New Testament: faith, hope and love. Those words appear a combined total of 531 times. Assuming Jesus and the authors of the New Testament intend for us to be happy, and further assuming they would not expect us to go through every moment of our lives in a state of ecstatic joy, we concluded that faith, hope and love must have something to do with our everyday happiness.
The first two weeks of this series dealt with faith, hope and love. We also wrestled with why it is that some people are happy and some are not. Of course we all have days, weeks, or even years that are better than others; but generally speaking, happiness seems to come easier, and more naturally, to some people than to others. Why is that?
I’m sure we could fill this room with the books of philosophy, biology and psychology that attempt to explain our differences in general attitude toward life. But since I am a minister, as opposed to a psychologist, physician or psychiatrist, I want to examine this phenomenon from a theological perspective.
I ended the sermon two weeks ago by saying there are four figures from the Bible who we can use to point us toward happy lives: Paul, John, James and Peter. Each of these figures represents a part of us—a part of each one of us. Paul, who devised some of the most brilliant theological arguments for the Christian faith, represents our minds. John, who is the most spiritual and mystical of the New Testament writers, represents the spiritual and mystical aspects of each of us. James, whose famous words, “Faith without works is dead,” represents the work we do in this world. And Peter, whom Jesus called “the Rock upon which the church would be built,” represents our religious life—the way we worship.
Mind, spirit, work, devotion: Paul, John, James and Peter.
I have a theory about happiness, which I call congruence. Congruence is the quality of agreeing. In geometry, if you have two congruent triangles, that means you could lay then on top of one another and they would match perfectly.
My theory goes like this: We are happy when all aspects of our being—our minds, spirits, work and faith life—are congruent—in sync. When all four of those elements are congruent—in agreement and pulling us in the same direction—we are happy. To push the metaphor, we each have a bit of Paul, John, James and Peter within us, and it is when one of those four characters starts marching to a different drummer than the others that we find ourselves conflicted, uneasy, and unhappy.
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Now, I’m going to make a statement, and many will disagree with what I say. And that’s okay. I’m not the holy and infallible guru here, speaking words which emanate from the very truth of God. But since I am wrestling with how our faith relates to our happiness, I have come to this conclusion: the happiest people are those who have surrendered themselves to God on all four levels—mind, spirit, work, and faith practice. In other words, the only way to get all those aspects of our lives working together—congruent—is to surrender each of them to God. And then, Paul, John, James and Peter are all marching along, side by side.
Okay, I admit that sounds like a pile of theoretical hooey. So let’s apply it to real life. I think we’ll start with Peter, who represents our religious life, our actual practice of faith. I would think this is the easiest area to surrender to God. We find the church that fits us best. Most of the people in this place would have a very difficult time surrendering themselves, in the way they practice their faith, if they attended a fundamentalist church. They might attend a church like that to please a spouse, or a parent. But because of the way people drawn to this place think about religion, they would be unable to make an intellectual assent to what they were hearing from the pulpit.
Because their faith life would be in conflict with their reason, they would not be happy. Or at least the foundation for happiness would not be there, because, to use my metaphor, Peter and Paul—the faith and the mind—would be pulling them in different directions. It would not be possible for people to surrender both mind and faith practice to God in those circumstances. No matter how sincerely they wanted to surrender to God, and no matter how important they were told it was to believe what they were hearing from the pulpit, their minds would rebel.
So not everybody finds the right place to worship. But because there are such a variety of places available, it seems to me that this is the aspect of our lives that is most easily surrendered to God. We get to choose where we worship. As we will see, we don’t necessarily get to choose how we think, or the depth of our spirituality, or the place we work. And that’s where the problems usually begin.
Let’s turn to John—our spirituality. If we’re trying to get our four friends to march along together, John and Peter shouldn’t have too much difficulty. John represents our mystical side, that deep yearning for meaning and understanding that transcends all our mental gymnastics. We can’t think our way to inner peace. We can’t work our way to inner peace. This is the most hidden aspect of our being. This is that area so deep inside that nobody else ever sees it, and we ourselves ignore it most of the time.
This is that deep itch that we try to scratch at church. And while it is the most difficult of the four aspects to define, one thing is certain: we won’t feel comfortable at a place of worship if it is not scratching that itch. There is something within us crying out for meaning, for purpose, for answers to the unanswerable questions. Our worship life must be congruent—in step—with our spirituality, or we won’t be happy.
Well, I got the two easy ones out of the way first! Peter and John—our worship life and our spirituality—go hand in hand without very many arguments among themselves. But now things start getting a little more difficult.
Let’s turn to Paul—our minds. I will not spend this morning bashing fundamentalists, but allow me to make an observation. Fundamentalists tend to be unhappy people. I’m not talking about the joyful person who asks if we’ve heard the word of the Lord and proceeds to tell us about God’s love. Telling people that God loves them does not make a person a fundamentalist. Fundamentalists are people who have reduced their faith to a set of rigid beliefs—beliefs others must accepts lest they be condemned to hell by an angry God.
I think I know why these people are not happy. Like everyone else, they have within them a spark of the divine. They have within them a love that is so pure, so perfect, that it calls the universe into being and holds the universe together moment to moment. They are a creation of God, and God’s love is beyond our ability to envision with our minds. We have that spark of divinity within us—represented by John—and yet the fundamentalist’s mind is in rebellion against that love.
They may say that “God is love,” and they surely feel the truth of that somewhere in their souls, but they haven’t bought into that idea intellectually. In their minds, God is angry, and judgmental, and more than ready to send everybody to hell unless they worship in precisely the manner the fundamentalist has decided is appropriate. For these people, Paul and John—mind and spirit—are at war with each other. And they try to cover their unhappiness by convincing everybody else that their way of thinking is the only way of thinking that pleases God. And they insist that others make an intellectual assent to their arguments. They want to do this so badly, not because they think they are saving your soul, but because it vindicates their own hatreds and prejudices.
But we should not pretend that fundamentalists are the only folks who have an ongoing struggle between head and heart. For those of us in the modern liberal church, we tend to think we’re pretty smart. And we are. We are intelligent, well educated, and we do not have to hide from the truths of the natural world—the scientific world.
We grow to understand some important truths: that the Bible is more poetry than science; that the way God is portrayed in parts of the Bible is not so much God as it is one human being’s distorted image of God; that we have to choose between taking the Bible literally and taking it seriously.
And all that is good. But then some of us get to the point where we decide we’re a little too smart for God. We pray for miracles on and off for most of our lives, and often come to the conclusion that the laws of physical science are what they are: unbreakable, by humanity and by God. And Jesus—well, that Jesus was quite a teacher. What a great guy. But we’re far too smart to buy into anything remotely resembling the traditional Christian confessions of faith.
And when we allow ourselves to get to that point, we can be just as conflicted, just as unhappy, as the fundamentalists. Because like the fundamentalists, Paul and John—our heads and our hearts—are pulling us in different directions. Our head tells us that Darwin had it right—evolution is a reality. But our heart rebels against the notion that there is no direction, no purpose, no ultimate meaning to life. Our head tells us that this universe is too big, too vast, for anything called “God” to be a part of the picture, and yet, our heart cries out that we just need to imagine a bigger God—a God who is everywhere and in everything. Our mind tells us that human beings are biological organisms that exist for a time and then return to the dust; but our heart cries out that we are more—much more! We are beings created in the image of God, much more than the sum of our physical parts, held not in the hands of time alone but also in the arms of eternity.
Oh yes, we in the modern liberal church have quite a conflict going on between head and heart, between Paul and John. But as is the case in every other aspect of our lives, the answer comes in surrender to God. Surrendering our minds to God does not mean we quit thinking. It does not mean we turn away from the truth. The surrender of our minds to God means we reconcile our minds with our hearts.
For example, consider evolution. One person says all life is a meaningless accident, that we evolved through a series of unpredictable mutations. Another person says the Bible explains exactly how creation came into being—in six earth days, with God resting on the seventh. But honestly, I don’t think either of those two people is living a congruent life—a life with head and heart, with Paul and John, pulling us in the same direction. For a person to be truly surrendered to God on this subject, he would have to look at the facts supporting evolution and say, that appears to be true. God must be working through evolution, because my heart tells me there is meaning and purpose to my life.
That is, I believe, true surrender to God. It is having faith that we need never hide from the truth, because God is going to be waiting for us right in the middle of every truth we ever discover. To approach life in any other way is to assure inner conflict.
The biblical characters Paul and John never knew each other in real life, but they have fought many battles within each of us over the past two thousand years. But they can be reconciled. With a bit of effort, and a lot of prayer, we can get Peter, John and Paul all lined up and moving in the same direction. But that leaves us with one other biblical character who has haunted Christians through the ages: James.
“Faith without works is dead.” Those words are found in the Book of James. Martin Luther didn’t care much for the Book of James. In fact, he called it “straw,” indicating it was worthless, or at best, should be fed to horses—but certainly not to Christians. It has often been pointed out that of all the books in the Bible, James most resembles the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was big on faith and prayer, but he was a doer in the truest sense of the word. Jesus didn’t just tell people how to live—he showed them how to live: Pray like this, forgive people like this, love your enemies like this, turn the other cheek like this.
The author of the Book of James was obviously upset by all the first-century Christians who said all the right things, and believed all the right things, and then stood back and watched while the world went to pot. And of the four aspects of our lives—mind, spirit, works, and faith practice—I think works is the most difficult to get lined up with the other three.
We have a million reasons for letting James go marching off on his own. And I’m talking about the totality of our work life—not just charitable work. Because it is the day to day living of our lives that expresses who we are. To begin with, we have to make a living. And I understand that. We spend a large part of our lives trying to scratch out a living. I’ve done everything from work on an assembly line at General Motors to playing in and managing a band; from grunt labor construction jobs to sales; from stock-boy to corporate management.
There have been times when the work I did was not congruent with the rest of my life. Paul had my mind in the right place, and John kept me spiritually alive, and Peter had me at church every Sunday, but James—well, James needed to make a living. When baby needs a new pair of shoes, and the company says, “Sell 50 thousand widgets by next month or go find another job,” you don’t worry so much about how well the widgets work, or whether they’re worth the asking price. You just sell the darn things. Of at least I did—for a while. And I know I am not alone.
I reached a point where I lost faith in the integrity of the Fortune 500 Company at which I spent many years of my life, and which was providing me with a very good living. So I surrendered my work life to God. I took the biggest chance of my life, and walked away from a great job into the complete unknown. As it turned out, I didn’t starve, and my kids still had shoes. But I didn’t know how things would work out, and I really understand that it is easy for us to compromise James—our work life.
This is not to say everybody should quit work and enter the clergy. But until we reconcile the way we earn a living with the other aspects of our lives, I don’t believe we can be happy. We can pursue any field we desire. I know people in virtually every profession, every field, who live faithful and congruent lives: salesman, attorneys, doctors, businessmen, teachers… It doesn’t matter what you do; it’s how you do it. The way we conduct ourselves as we earn a living always needs to be congruent with what our mind tells us is right, and what our heart tells us is worthy.
Well, I’m going to bring to a close this little series on happiness. I know as well as anybody that there is no magic formula to insure a happy life. But I really believe that congruence—that looking within ourselves and having John, Paul, James and Peter all surrendered to God and working together—is essential to happiness. And we all have work to do. I have yet to meet the person who has all aspects of his or her being marching in perfect step. But I am convinced that together, we can grow in faith, hope and love; and when that happens, anything is possible.