If you haven’t yet recognized your abject needfulness; haven’t yet plumbed the depths of your prideful self-satisfaction with your comfortable, predictable existence as your greatest and most challenging failure, then you haven’t approached the door of God’s Kingdom, nor, perhaps, do you know where to look for it.
We Americans (most of us, at any rate) are raised to prize self-sufficiency; hard work (at least for previous generations), and pride in our accomplishments (grades, awards, jobs, promotions, material possessions). None of these things are “wrong” in and of themselves. On the contrary, without such society-endorsed norms of “success”, the economic health of the society would be decidedly less robust than with them.
However, there is a certain price to be paid by societies that embrace these norms. Perhaps first among them is societal cohesion (labelled in this website “Power Distance”). Societal cohesion (a.k.a “social capital”) is the extent to which one member of a society sees himself in solidarity with its other members, despite their apparent differences, say in economic circumstance, or educational attainment, or race, or whatever.
The American experience of the last 60 years is one of decreasing societal cohesion into groups of “have nots” compared to the group(s) experiencing societal success. And, with this fragmentation has come disparate politics – one hardly recognizable with another – predicated on redressing the material inequalities and redistributing the “successes” observed between the different groups.
This is a fool’s errand, based on faulty understanding and worldview, and will be the undoing of any society’s unity if history is any guide. People that believe that one’s circumstances at birth (wealth, race, sex, location ) overwhelmingly determine their potential for fulfillment, material success and happiness in life are doomed to give up and get angry if they don’t see themselves with the right pedigree.
History shows us that resolving such disparities by force within a society leads not to uniform success, happiness, and sense of well-being, but universal subjugation. Pick any country (including China) that has endured a “people’s revolution” in the past 200 years and have a look for yourself. The social results are uniformly disastrous.
So, what are we doing wrong? How should we be building societal coherence?
The answer is quite simple: we should accept the reality of and devotion to Christ and His teaching. But, importantly, we don’t just need Christ: we need a worldview in which Christ isn’t just a teacher of profound moral truths, He is essential for life as it is intended for us[i].
Before you simply dismiss this prescription, consider this: For at least the first 100 years or so of this country’s history, this attitude of the heart was shared by the majority of its citizens, whether they themselves had ever walked through the door of a church. When a neighbor had a need, his neighbors met that need. Boom! Instant societal cohesion. And why were the neighbors who met the need led to do so? Because that is what they were taught that people did; that it was expected of them by no less than God. And, they believed it. It was a part of their worldview, the DNA of every community because virtually all these communities were comprised of people who had been taught, by lecture or observation, Christ’s principles of living.
Such “social capital” was the lifeblood of these early communities. For them it was natural. It was how people lived, with one eye on their own situation, and one eye on their neighbors’.
Now individual achievement was still prized. Those who had been able, through their own efforts to lift themselves “by their bootstraps”, to a higher level of achievement and accomplishment were admired by their society. I remember being taught about such people in glowing tones; people like Cyrus McCormick (the reaper), Henry Ford (mass production), Jonas Salk (polio vaccine), Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Einstein, not to mention the scions of the country’s history like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln – all bigger than life people.
So personal achievement and individual excellence were not the acids that eroded our initial store of social capital away. It was something else. It was the loss of identity within our society as a brotherhood of mutual care. It was, simply, our own unbridled self-interest.
When one cares primarily about himself, he loses his social value to his society. And, when a whole society cares preeminently about themselves individually, that society becomes bankrupt of its social capital. Neighbors in need are either ignored or just passed off for the government to take care of. They are not holistically built-up and sustained by the community’s love and care. The account that holds the community’s deposit of social capital has a balance of zero.
As a society (not to say that there are not thousands – maybe even millions – of individuals today volunteering in local food banks, and service organizations to care for their neediest neighbors), this is where we are today. We have consciously anesthetized our concern for our neighbors in deference to our own desires. We have become selfish, and the culture of our society has underwritten this selfishness by marketing it back to us as normal, perhaps even praiseworthy (e.g. “You deserve…”, “You’re worth it”, “You owe it to yourself…”). We’ve replaced authentic concern for others’ well-being with pious, fatuous memes and public statements (the more public the better) of hypocritical care and concern for “the oppressed” (note: a political designation, not a category describing actual human need).
How do we turn this around?
Recognizing that we have unmet spiritual and social needs is the key. We, as Americans, are so self-satisfied, so smug in our own ability to sustain our standard of living and well-being, that we have almost no awareness of our abject spiritual poverty and emptiness. We’ve been trained by our parents, schools and culture to think that whatever we are or have is to be esteemed by others – that in the lottery of life, we are among the “winners”.
External conditions, like the current pandemic, can disrupt our lives enough that our needs and lack become more apparent to us. Suddenly we’re wondering: “Why am I so depressed?” We may also face a sudden change for the worse in our health, or our business fails, or our spouse gets seriously sick, or dies, or one of our children needs us to sacrifice our savings to support them through some crisis. Life is full of challenges that, more often than not, force us into a deep introspection in an attempt to make sense of our lives. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these kinds of worldly tragedies often lead their victims to cry out to God for His mercy, leading the victim to deeper, more perceptive awareness and appreciation for the goodness of God that is made clear to them in the simple, everyday things of life all around them, and their own lack. Suffering has the habit of exposing our lack, our neediness, and forcing us to confront it and reevaluate ourselves.
But, without the experience of personal tragedy, why should we entertain the notion that we have unmet needs – that our souls are “needy”?
Well, no reason, if the focus of our worldview is founded on our self-worth and value (as we have been trained to think). But, is this view truthful? Do you really believe, deep down, that you, among all other people, should be esteemed; thought of as a “good person”? Why? What do you point to that convinces you?
If you’re good, are other people bad, or perhaps less good? If you say: “No. Everybody is generally good”, then what does the word “good” mean? What about you does it describe? With whom are you comparing yourself to come to that conclusion – Adolf Hitler? Mother Teresa? Joseph Stalin? Jesus of Nazareth?
In other words, what are your credentials for goodness? In thinking about them, can you identify any others who you believe have more of them than you? If so, is your reaction: “Oh well”? Or, do you experience some nagging uncertainty about your status?
To make progress in rehabilitating oneself, one needs to first see his need for rehabilitation — that he is lacking something. (Most are familiar with the greeting taught to their customers by Alcoholics Anonymous: “Hi, I’m <fill in your name> and I’m an alcoholic.”) Acknowledging our frailty can be hard to come to grips with for anyone, but especially for today’s generations that have grown up in the echo chamber of empty accolades and formulaic acceptance for perhaps their entire lives. Hubris is their lifeblood.
Despite this, many have a nagging, uneasy feeling – some would call it fear – vaguely focused on their ultimate inadequacy. Those who have attended a friend’s or loved one’s funeral – especially of the open-casket variety, have established an indelible vision in their minds of their ultimate end. How does one’s ego overcome its inevitable, cold death? How does it deal with this lack of control? We want it to go away, but know it won’t.
How do we recognize that we are lacking in something, especially if it is something about which we have only the vaguest idea, and no previous experience? Well, maybe you do have some previous experience with it, but you just don’t remember.
Many of us have had the experience, primarily as children, of unequivocal, loving acceptance. The scenario usually involved our behavior where normally we would expect reproach or discipline. But instead, we were met with enveloping love and forgiveness. And, if you’re like me, you may remember thinking: “Why am I being received this way after what I did?” It literally didn’t make sense. Often, we experienced this non-judgmental love from a relative once-removed: typically a Grandmother, or Aunt. If we’re very, very fortunate, we’ve experienced it from our spouse or parents.
But, I think we’d all agree that it is quite an uncommon experience. If we’ve ever felt it, we know it’s real. What we can’t, perhaps, figure out is why there is so darned little of it. We’d like more of it. We’d feel better, certainly about ourselves, but just in general, if there were more of it. But there just isn’t.
There are those of us who need a bit more from others, and to give more back, than a never-ending stream of small talk. For some of us, this lack is an ache that just won’t heal.
Concern for You’re Wellbeing By Others
Is there someone who truly cares about your wellbeing? I mean a person who would come to your aid if you were in need? Most of us who are married would say “Yes! My spouse.” But are there others if s/he is not there? Maybe a sibling, or child, or good friend? Do you have complete confidence that they would step up to meet your need? Or, is it a kind of muted concern in the back of your mind that maybe they wouldn’t? Maybe you’d be on your own?
This raises, perhaps, a fear-inducing concern: when it’s my last day and I’m on my way out, which literally no one else can share with me, I’ll be totally on my own. Maybe my spouse or my lifelong friend wants the best for me at that moment, but they won’t be able to do anything for me. I’ll be on my own. Will I be consoled by the fact, as I fade away, that a few people in my life were concerned for my wellbeing?
Experiencing the Faithfulness of Others
Once again, for most of us, we have fond memories of our parents being our models of always being there for us. Some of us didn’t have faithful parents growing up. Or, perhaps we had a childhood where one parent was faithful for some days of the week and another parent was faithful for the others. But our human need was (and is) for people who honor their commitments to us.
Spouses exchange vows that typically contain an oath of such commitment. But tragically, 4 in 10 couples break those vows and 60% of second marriages, and 73% of third similarly break up. So people hoping to find faithfulness in a life-long partner are likely to be sadly disappointed.
While marriage is probably the most obvious of relationships in which we seek faithfulness, we look for it too in the workplace. If I have people working for me, I expect their faithfulness in performing their job. I don’t expect them to lie about being sick, come in late or leave early, or sneak in a couple of hours of video game-playing during work hours.
Similarly, if I’m an employee of a company, I expect them show faithfulness in our employment contract: to accurately calculate and pay my wages, to provide a safe working environment, etc. Our human need is for those we deal with to live up to their commitments to us, not abandon them when they happened to be disadvantaged by them.
Trustworthiness and Justice from Others
And of course we expect integrity and trustworthiness from all of the people we trade with, from our teachers, our political leaders, and our faith leaders. Sometimes it feels like literally everyone is trying to personally gain at our expense – that everyone is, to one degree or another, a con man. Even those we call “friends”.
Increasingly, we find ourselves disappointed in these relationships, as one after the other proves to be less than trustworthy. The human need we have is to interact with people having integrity – a measure of “goodness” – who are not, therefore, out to simply maximize their own benefit, potentially at the expense of ours. We have a need to trust those we care about to be honest and to deal justly with us. We know instinctively that this is how it is supposed to be.
Probably the most crucial thing today’s generations are lacking is inner peace. Inner peace is the state of having confidence that things for you and those you care about are and will be “OK”, no matter your or their circumstances. This is a feeling born not just from a sense of security, but that you yourself are “in the right” – on the right side of morality and “goodness”.
Many of us experienced the security piece of this peace as children. Mom and Dad had us. No worries. No threats. I can remember falling asleep with my head in Mom’s lap and feet on Dad’s as we were driving home at night from one of the Grandmas’. There wasn’t a threat or care in the world that could have penetrated that car for me as I drifted off, listening to the AM radio and the whistle of the wind in Dad’s slightly cracked vent window (remembers those?).
But what about the peace of doing “right” – being “right”? For myself, I don’t recall that feeling, at least until I became a Christian. However, with today’s indoctrination of our youth, I don’t have any trouble believing that they have experienced this feeling simply because they’ve been taught that if it’s their behavior, then it’s good, almost by definition.
We don’t evaluate behavior based on moral standards anymore. On the contrary, today we say: “If that behavior represents you, we celebrate it!” (Short of, perhaps, first-degree murder, or cannibalism, or toddler rape.) So why on earth should anyone brought up this way question whether or not s/he is living or doing “right”? We’ve gone out of our way to indoctrinate them that whatever they’re doing or however they’re living is perfectly fine.
But we do have this thing called a conscience. And, try as we might, unless we’re sociopaths, we just can’t turn that darned thing off (Romans 13:5). Drugs or other chemicals can help mute it. But, when we regain our right mind, there it is, condemning us that what we’ve been indoctrinated with as fine is not fine. We don’t feel “good” about it.
You can decide whether this conscience thing is God talking to you or simply your own humanness. For now, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that it is a disturbance of your peace – your confident assurance that what you’re doing and how you’re living is “OK”.
Living on Our Own
In these and other measures of unmet human need, the modern, secular American adult finds him or herself increasingly on their own. Of course they have friends, perhaps a “crowd” they run with. But those friends typically aren’t deep-water soul mates; those who would drop everything to come to their aid if that was necessary. So they find themselves increasingly going it alone.
In that position, aside from just some wistful memories of how things were in their childhood, they increasingly sense that something about their existence is profoundly wrong. And for them it’s not just a matter of being happy Vs being unhappy. It is rather that their life is “off”. There is a lack of contentment. There is a lack of confidence in the future. There is a lack of trust in the integrity and faithfulness of those in their sphere of “friends” and relatives.
And on a much deeper level, there is a kind of sadness that, while they can perhaps remember it from childhood, they feel a lack of true love and acceptance. There is a lack of peace within; a sense that all will be OK – that it will all work out for the best. And, for some, there is a faintly gnawing but growing perception that at the end, they’ll be all they have. Totally alone.
As I mentioned above, the answer is Christ. Christ, and His prescription for life, is missing. Every need and lack mentioned here is not only met but overflows in abundance when you trust and follow Christ.
The reason many don’t know this stems from a couple of things:
- The power of the human ego in controlling the actions of a person is profound. It wants its control of us above all else. So it is not about to cavalierly concede that it hasn’t been providing all we need to be “happy”. It’s going to continue, even in the face of our inner doubts, to tell us that we’re fine; we’re in control; and the world loves us.
- Very, very few people have seriously researched the message Christ brought. They know what they remember from whatever Sunday School they spent some time in. But they have not studied As a result they don’t know what it has to say about life apart from God, its consequences, its remedy and why Christ is not only its key, but through Whom it is possible at all.
I won’t here get into an exhaustive presentation of the case for Christ supported by stacks of Bible verses. The thing is this: If you’ve read this far and you have seen yourself in some of these portrayals, and you find yourself feeling that you have one or more of these “needs” – some hollow place in your life that so far you have not been able to fill – then it’s up to you to dig in and do the work.
To get you started, consider just these few teachings on the needs we’ve looked at here:
- Loving Acceptance –Paul’s “love chapter”. (1 Corinthians 13)
- Concern for Your Well Being by Others – The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)
- Acting Faithfully, and Experiencing the Faithfulness of Others – Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:21)
- Trustworthiness and Justice from Others – Parable of the Unforgiving Slave (Matthew 18:21-35)
- Inner Peace – A promise of Christ (John 14:27)
See for yourself why it is that any life apart from God is destined to be unfulfilled and, to a significant degree, empty. If you’re intimidated by jumping into Bible study from a standing start, may I suggest that you pick up “Mere Christianity” by CS Lewis and start there? (There are other “beginning” texts like Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ”, “Knowing God” by J.I. Packard, as well as this little starter I’ve written: “Christianity for Dummies”.) But wherever you decide to start, start.
[i] If you’re interested in how Christ makes a difference in his followers lives, I’ve written a few pieces that attempt to explain the changes made in the life of the Christ-follower: Hearing the Good News, Don’t Waste God’s Time, Seek First the Kingdom of God, Being a Disciple, Living Christ.