So I wonder how many of you can remember ‘The Good Life’?…
No I don’t mean life before kids… although that was magical…
I’m referring to that wonderful British sit com about Tom and Barbara who give up the rat race and decide to live make their way by turning their back yard into a small farm complete with pigs, chickens and even a methane powered car (that didn’t work so well) much to the consternation of Jerry and Margo, their snobby and pretentious upwardly mobile neighbours.
It was a fun story back in the 70’s but for some it has become their goal – to choose an alternative path – to opt out of the way things work in the world. Barbara Cockburn is one such woman who decided to build a straw bale house (as you do…) and try to live without money for 6 months as they sought to be self sustaining. She wrote ‘Finding The Good Life‘ and has documented her experiences here – an interesting read and she is one of many.
For some this is the good life – running counter to the mainstream – while for others it is to get ahead of the rest – to ‘win’ at this thing we call life. A few weeks back I stumbled on a show called Grand Designs an ABC show that follows the lives of people seeking to build their dream homes or mansions – in pursuit of ‘the good life’. These are massive structures and grand statements about the affluence of the people who build them, but the looks on their faces and the anxiety that is palpable in these shows tells me that these folks definitely haven’t found the good life. Most state ‘we’d never do it again…’
Then this week I took some time to read Hugh Mackay’s latest offering entitled (wait for it…) ‘The Good Life‘ where he does his social commentary thing on Australia and then goes on to offer his own recipe for shaping and living a ‘good life’. Mackay is another one of our secular prophets and we need to hear what he says. He begins by writing of what he calls the utopia complex and says:
Being twenty-first-century Westerners living with unprecedented material prosperity, mobility, convenience and comfort, who would dare say we’re not entitled to the best of everything And yet, the more you examine our Utopian fantasies and our energetic attempts to turn them into reality, the more you wonder if the very things we’re so desperate to acquire as symbols of this imagined good life may be insulating us from deeper and more enduring satisfactions, fuelling our dreams while limiting our vision, encouraging us to settle for the most trivial and fleeting meanings of ‘good’
When we surrender ourselves to the Utopia complex, we can too easily forget who we really are.
Mackay suggests that ‘If you were to espouse happiness as the appropriate goal of your existence, you’d be perfectly entitled to use ‘feeling good’ as the benchmark for assessing whether you were having a good life.’ So if you don’t feel good – if things are not going well for you – then you are not having a ‘good life’.
It all led me to pondering just how Jesus would frame ‘the good life’. What would it look like to really find life and live it as he would hope for us?
I have been reading Ecclesiastes lately – a bit of a mixed bag really – but there the author’s big theme is how achievement, success, wealth etc are all meaningless outside of a bigger purpose. He takes several different tacks throughout his writing, but circles back to one theme that he states more succinctly and clearly at the end:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
That’s what he comes back to.
And my guess is that no one really needs me to explain that we aren’t to fear God like we would a serial killer on our doorstep with a gun… (But I just did…)
The writer of Ecclesiastes concludes that the Good life is not found in what you achieve, what you acquire or what you know, but is found in ordering your life in such a way that it is aligned with God and what he hopes for us.
The reality is that whatever we give our life to will shape who we become and I get the sense that Solomon had given his life to the pursuit of pleasure and happiness and it had left him unsatisfied.
And the pursuit of the good life can take us in more than one direction. Some (perhaps many) give their lives to climbing the ladder, to affluence, wealth etc while others may give their lives to the dream of alternative lifestyle, downward mobility and living on less. While one may appear more noble than the other neither is the source of life.
In one of his other books way back in the 20th C Mackay wrote this of the search for prosperity:
“There’s nothing wrong with a bit of material comfort and prosperity as long as you don’t expect it alone to bring you happiness. If you do you might discover what late 20th century westerners have been discovering in droves – that when materialism is unrestrained when it is enshrined as a core philosophy it rots the soul – but it might take half a lifetime to detect the smell.”
The smell of rotting soul is why suburbia can be such a difficult place to live – or it can be difficult because we become immune to its stench and we just play along.
Its why Tom and Barbara did their thing. Its why Linda Cockburn jumped ship and sought an alternative.
But I think the bigger challenge – the more realistic challenge is to ask how do I live within the every day constraints of the reality we are faced with – because most of us simply cannot do a ‘good life’, alternative, hippy transition. Nor may we want to…
How do we find life in the middle of a very ordinary 9-5, 2.4 kids + mortgage situation?
I believe that the central teaching of the Bible is that the good life we seek is found when we get that its more about an orientation and an attitude than it is about an activity.
Contentment is never found in the next acquisition – nor is it found in asceticism and downward mobility – because its neither the acquiring nor the releasing of things that makes a life.
Jesus didn’t say they will know you are my disciples by your rolls royce, nor did he say they will know you are my disciples by your poverty. (Although I will certainly acknowledge that the most likely source of idolatry in our society is always the former.)
But the key is where we find our hope and our meaning. Most Australian Christians pursue ‘the good life + God’ but what if God is the good life?
What if the life he calls us to is better than anything we can be tricked into believing is good – whatever that looks like… The struggle for most of us is that the illusion of a good life via the Australian dream is often attainable – often within grasp so it would seem.
So its good to hear Paul’s words to Timothy again:
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
You don’t have to live poor. You just need to know where your hope is and live in line with him – to find the ‘life that is truly life.’
It was Paul who said ‘to live is Christ’. To live is Christ… to die is gain… But the focal point of his life was Christ.
Not complicated really…
Jesus said ‘I have come that you might have life – life in all of its fullness’ But his call is also one of submission and of putting ourselves under his authority.
The whole trajectory of scripture is neither to affluence or asceticism but it is towards Christ and in him to find life.
To fear God… perhaps…
As Mackay develops his idea of goodness he finishes up writing of wholeness and notes that it is not far from the biblical concept of holiness.
Of being who you were originally created to be – of giving rather than taking – of being generous and kind rather than self obsessed (which incidentally sounds a lot like what Paul wrote to Timothy…)
Helen Keller said ‘happiness is not achieved thru self gratification but thru fidelity to a worthy purpose’. The call to Jesus is a worthy purpose, but hardly an easy one. To follow Jesus is to pick up our cross. To follow Jesus is to say no to temptations to find life in our own achievements and actions. Its to follow him where he leads and to be his disciples right there.
Or as CS Lewis put it
‘Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Look for yourself and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”