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Monday, August 10, 2015

Barely and Brutally Good

Most people in our culture have been cultured in such a way that a picture of depressing Puritans pops into their mind when they think of Christianity. And the Puritans they picture aren’t the real historical thing, but are always in somber clothes, with frowns on their faces, demanding that people everywhere stop having a good time. But, really, is that Christianity? A place where everything you enjoy has to be surrendered to a vague, depressing duty? That isn’t the Christianity of the Bible. Or the Christianity of G.K. Chesterton. There is a slim volume of his that you probably have never heard of, titled the archaic exclamation, Manalive. It’s a strange little book, but one that smashes the idea of a stuffy Christianity to bits, and gives most Christians today a challenge they have never considered.

When was the last time you played in the rain, or wore three hats to the mall? Have you ever climbed a tree because it was there, or howled at the moon just for the fun of it? When was the last time you felt alive, so alive you couldn’t stand not to do something? Something exuberant, and silly, and absolutely ridiculous, because life was just too grand of a romp to pass by! The feeling comes all too seldom in this broken, somber world. When it does come, that’s when the world is greenest, and life feels worth living. But it never lasts for long, at least not in my life. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis speaks of only being able to see the world through ourselves, for we are the only ones that we can ‘get into’ and understand. Using his logical method and looking in myself, I know I only have the briefest of flashes of the exuberant life. But those flashes make me want to keep looking for the next one, watching for it, coveting the sudden overwhelming joy of just being alive. Why do I lose it? Why do I go back to staying alive instead of feeling alive? What is it that saps my bounding enjoyment of the life I love and live every day? Looking in myself, I find the reason easily enough. It’s every day. It’s the routines, the circles, the ‘getting in a rut,’ and getting too used to what I have. And it’s something else that comes with every day, and that runs deeper than just the routines, a surprising something that starts the ruts in the first place.

Spoiler Alert! (If you plan on reading Manalive, you might want to skip this paragraph). Chesterton writes of a man who takes a pistol and shoots life into people; who burgles his own things to be reminded of how wonderful they are; who drops his wife about town and then ‘finds’ her again in a romantic elopement, in order to remember how much he loves her; who walks around the world in search of his own home, simply because he wants to regain that feeling of sheer joy in what he already has. It’s a strange book. At first glance his main character is a strange man, even a very bad man. When you don’t know what he’s doing, he looks like a murderer, a burglar, a dallier, and a deserter. But the point of the book lies in the fact that he is none of these things. The point of Chesterton’s slim volume, Manalive, is that Innocent Smith is, in fact, innocent.

Innocent Smith breaks the conventions. But he keeps the commandments. He lives an exuberant lifestyle of crazy joy, spreading the wonderful sensation of being alive everywhere he goes. He is a “man found alive with two legs.” But there is a secret to his life, and to his consistent, childlike joy.

It doesn’t sound like Christianity, not the way we have been taught to think of it in our Western culture. But the Bible doesn’t agree with that stilted view of a somber, supercilious Christianity. When was the last time you read Ecclesiastes? I mean really read it, not just quoted a verse here and there. Guess what The Preacher says over and over again? “Be happy. Take pleasure in your work. Do what you love, and love what you do. It is God’s gift in this life.” It sounds like the mantra of our culture, “Do whatever makes you happy.” But unlike the world, he doesn’t stop there. The preacher has a logical mind that looks past the now and into the time when all our work stops, and we join both the wise and the fools in the grave. He comes to a different conclusion than the rest of the world.

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

Keep the commandments. This is the key that most people are missing to their joy, that even many Christians don’t understand. Keep the commandments. It is the way to keep out of the ruts, the key to feeling alive instead of just staying alive.

Now before I go on, let me make a quick disclaimer: I’m not naively claiming that doing good will always make you happy in this life, or that if you do good only good will happen to you. That has been claimed time and time again, and always proved to be perfectly fallacious. But I am making the claim that you can’t be truly happy if you are not doing good.

God is good. He is the Summum Bonum, the greatest good. And this God made the world. He made mankind. It is this God Who put a conscience in each one of us. A conscience, and a sense of something higher than the here and now, a longing to do something lasting. We all feel it, though different people call it different things. Our calling, our purpose, our goal, whatever we call it, we all want to make something that lasts. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes laughs at us, calls it vanity, and points out the many ways everything we make is going to leave when we die. And yet in the midst of it he says again and again, “enjoy it.” He even takes it a step farther.

“There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)

It is a gift of God to enjoy what we have. But if our work disappears into a black abyss when we die…how can we enjoy it with that dismal thought to look forward to? We can enjoy it because of one overlooked fact: not everything will disappear. Ecclesiastes is a philosophical treatise, it is a Christian studying the world, giving his findings, and coming to a conclusion. So what is his conclusion, what do we find at the very end of the book?  There is one more verse after the one I quoted above:

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

God is good. God cares about what we do, and He is pleased when we do good. We are making ourselves crowns that will last for all eternity when we keep the commandments, and perhaps even gaining a smile from our good God. This is, of course, the Christian I am talking about here. We only gain that smile if He is ours already, not a hundred thousand good deeds could possibly rectify a single bad one and gain us God’s good pleasure: but if we are already His in Christ, then it is another matter. God delights in those who fear Him. And the smile of an everlasting God lasts forever. Keeping the commandments can be a lasting goal and purpose in itself, and that alone gives us delight and joy.

But there is another reason keeping the commandments helps us keep the joy of being alive, and edges us over the ruts of just staying alive. A simple reason, almost too simple. I have to resort back to C.S. Lewis’ method to explain it, and I urge you to follow me in, searching your own soul to see if it’s the same as mine, as I look at a plain fact of life (another fact that is often overlooked): when I sin, I’m unhappy. It’s as simple as that. Sin makes me dull, and listless, and takes away my joy. Not all the time perhaps, there is often a moment of gratification that comes in fulfilling an unlawful desire. But in the long run, sin dulls my senses. Especially my joy. Sin saps happiness, it sucks it out of me like a vacuum. It isn’t just the routines that kill my sensation of being alive, it’s really the sins that creep in and I allow to stay, usually the ones that are small enough I don’t view them as a threat: pride, selfishness, maybe a touch of a lazy bone… Whatever it might be, the moment I allow it into my life is the moment when my feet begin to drag and the ruts begin to appear. Of course, the ‘rutted’ sensation can certainly come from other sources, not solely from neglecting your duty to God, but my point here is to show they often start because of it. And you don’t have to live like that.

Christianity is the religion of the liberated. We have been set free in Christ, free to be happy, and made alive in our good God. But we can be entangled in the chains again.

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage... For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty;” (Galatians 5:1, 13)

When we are caught up in sin, it begins to choke our aliveness. Christianity is a freeing religion, it is the religion of the awake, the joyful, and the alive. But even the Christian misses it if they don’t keep the commandments! It’s scattered all over Scripture, a call to be good, to follow Christ, even to be perfect. There are so many reasons given to follow our conscience and behave ourselves, but this is one that is almost universally overlooked. God has made us so that being good makes us happy. And being bad saps our joy, wearies us, and begins routines and ruts that kill our sensation of being alive. Chesterton’s slim little Manalive seems idiotic, especially to modern minds, when it states its main point near the end of the book. But when we actually look into ourselves, and examine the moments when we have felt the most alive and happy, and the opposite times when we have felt the most depressed and listless… Well, I know what I usually see when I look honestly.

But I know I can’t explain it as well as Mr. Chesterton, and I’ve likely just confused you by trying. So let me allow Chesterton’s characters to explain it instead of me. Read over his parting thoughts on his main point of Manalive, and allow yourself to be challenged by it. Because it is a challenge, a brutal one; but a challenge that will make us happier than we would ever expect, if we actually dare to follow it.

“If one could keep as happy as a child or a dog, it would be by being as innocent as a child, or as sinless as a dog. Barely and brutally to be good—that may be the road, and he may have found it. Well, well, well, I see a look of skepticism on the face of my old friend Moses. Mr. Gould does not believe that being perfectly good in all respects would make a man merry."

"No," said Gould, with an unusual and convincing gravity; "I do not believe that being perfectly good in all respects would make a man merry."

"Well," said Michael quietly, "will you tell me one thing?

Which of us has ever tried it?"

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