Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Briefing

June 15, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, June 15, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

How the psychotherapeutic revolution has led us to the dangerous belief that unhappiness is a problem that must always be solved

Sad headlines about suicide and other issues have raised some even more fundamental questions about humanity and human life. David Von Drehle writing for Washington Post asked one of the most important questions. He says this, “Our culture assumes happiness is the normal human condition. The question is why?” Von Drehle is on to something very important. One of the background dimensions of our cultural fascination with the cultural moment is asking what the normal human condition is to be.

Increasingly, we have reached the point as Americans where we believe that something has to be wrong with us if we are ever unhappy. Furthermore, we have raised successive generations of Americans who seem to have little ability to understand that unhappiness is sometimes a normal and natural human condition. They seem to have no skills or tools for understanding how to handle unhappiness.

Now, before turning to Von Drehle’s article, it’s really important to ask what we should know as Christians from Scripture. The Scripture does speak of happiness, but one of the interesting things to contemplate is that Scripture doesn’t place a great deal of value on happiness. In the New Testament in particular, there is a far greater stress upon joy. As the Apostle Paul makes clear, joy is not dependent upon circumstances. Happiness most often is.

The distinction between happiness and joy is that happiness may happen in the human life, but joy in Christ by the power of the gospel is eternal and constant. The Apostle Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content to find joy.” The joy was not in his circumstances. His joy is in Christ. The Apostle Paul never claimed to be continuously happy. As a matter of fact, he spoke about his conditions and he never suggested that he was in anyway happy about those conditions. He spoke about an underlying and more important joy.

Reading the Old Testament, we not only have historical narratives, which are certainly a mixture of happiness and unhappiness, we also have psalms of lament. Numerous dozens of psalms within the Book of Psalms that indicate this almost depths of despair and depression. His lament and his sadness, but again, that’s over against the background of a greater joy that is found in the one true and living God.

The book of Ecclesiastes can hardly be described as a book that celebrates happiness. The book of Proverbs also understands that happiness can sometimes happen but happiness is more often the result of wisdom than it is of some kind of external circumstances.

The Apostle Paul said to Christians that we are to learn to count it all joy. He never said to consider everything happiness. The psychotherapeutic mentality however has so infected us that we come to understand that as normal human beings, we are not to experience unhappiness. If unhappiness happens, we are to find some kind of therapy or pill or mechanism or change in circumstances that would make us happy.

Back during the 1980s and 90s, one very prominent televangelist in the United States associated with a theology of positive thinking actually wrote about the Beatitudes as the be happy attitudes. Jesus in the sermon on the mount and in the Beatitudes wasn’t telling his disciples even how to be happy, much less giving them a mandate that they must be happy.

Furthermore, the Beatitudes really aren’t so much about attitude at all. Von Drehle’s point in this article in the Washington Post from a secular perspective is that modern people just can’t handle unhappiness and they even feel guilty about being unhappy. As if happiness should be the normal human condition, unhappiness is a problem that we have to solve. It is some kind of embarrassment we have to overcome.

Von Drehle points to the fact that many figures throughout Western history have been known to suffer depression, just think of major figures such as Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States or Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Something to remember by the way about Churchill is that armchair psychiatrists and psychologists have gone so far as to suggest that he actually suffered from something like a bipolar condition. His highs were very high, but his lows were very low.

Abraham Lincoln both before and during his presidency was known for struggling often in an enduring and elongated way with the depths of depression. In his article, Von Drehle writes, “Few leaders speak now of pain as a positive good. Their scant room in today’s prosperity gospel for Paul’s notion of the kind of comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” He’s there directly quoting the Apostle Paul.

Von Drehle went on to say, “It’s hard to imagine a president writing as Abraham Lincoln did to a despondent young West Point cadet.” “Your good mother tells me you are feeling very badly in your new situation. Allow me to assure you it is a perfect certainty that you will very soon feel better. Quite happy if you only stick to the resolution you have taken.”

Now, what Abraham Lincoln was pointing to there by his own personal experience is that moments of pain and suffering and despondency and unhappiness can often be followed in fairly short order by moments of happiness. What was understood by Abraham Lincoln at one level and by the Apostle Paul at a far deeper level is that happiness is actually not an enduring human condition, it’s not the normal default of humanity.

Furthermore, sometimes unhappiness is simply an honest understanding of reality. There are realities that should cause us not to be happy but to be unhappy. There are situations and experiences that should make us not happy but unhappy. It is profoundly distorted morally and spiritually distorting to suggest to persons that if they are unhappy, they are the problem or they simply have to get over it.

Now, the obvious background of Von Drehle’s article is the highly publicized suicides the week before by Chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade. Now, every one of those situations is undoubtedly complex, but Von Drehle is really onto something when he suggests that a part of our modern condition at the cultural moment is that people have fewer skills and tools than in the past to understand how to understand and how to experience and how to endure unhappiness. Even temporary unhappiness.

Von Drehle cites James Davies as arguing that we live in a culture “That assumes happiness to be the normal healthy human condition deviations from the blissful path,” he says. “Sadness, anxiety, disappointment are thus treated as illnesses in search of a cure.” He then cites Davies directly who said that this “Harmful cultural belief that much of our everyday suffering is a damaging encumbrance best swiftly removed.” As Von Drehle says, “Gets in the way of a more robust response, namely approaching unpleasant emotions as …” These are Davies words. “Potentially productive experiences to be engaged with and learnt from.”

Thinking about this question leads me also to understand and to remind us that some of the greatest pieces of literature, in particular poetry but also some of the most important works of literature in the world of novels and narratives. Some of the greatest music in the history of humanity has come out of heartbreak and lament and sadness, not out of anything that could be described as artistic happiness.

This is a really important word for all of us, but I think today it’s a particularly important word for Christian parents. Parents must be honest with children about the reality not only of happiness but of unhappiness. As a matter fact, sometimes the responsibility of a parent is to make a child unhappy rather than happy.

Believing that it is a parental responsibility to make children constantly happy has led to children who are indulged but children who then emerged emotionally warped, stunted development. They are unable to deal with the reality of unhappiness when it happens as it will inevitably happen and thus they find themselves often depressed when they should be merely unhappy. Unhappy for a time.

Christians also understand at an even deeper level that as God deals with us individually and together, sometimes it is clear that God wills for us a certain unhappiness. That unhappiness may be for our good and for our health. It could be an unhappiness that leads us to a greater dependence upon Christ. It could be an unhappiness that leads us to a new insight from Scripture.

It could be an unhappiness that can only be dealt with by the confession of sin and by repentance. It could be an unhappiness that is pointing to an even deeper spiritual need and, of course, that deep spiritual need that can be satisfied only in Jesus Christ.

Part II

Can money buy happiness? New survey says yes, but this type of happiness comes with regrets

Then that leads me to another headline that shouldn’t be headline news, but it was a headline nonetheless in the New York Times on Saturday, June the 9th. A headline in the business section asking the question, “Can money buy happiness?” Then the headline offering the answer yes, regrets they’ve had a few.

The subhead in the article, many struggle to balance the benefit and the burden of affluence. This according to a new study that comes from the group known as Core Data Research and research was undertaken on affluent Americans aged 25 to 65.

Now, asking that headline question, “Can money buy happiness?” Interestingly, the data cited by the New York Times says that money can buy a certain kind of happiness, but that certain kind of happiness often comes with regrets. Particularly, this survey of affluent Americans all of them by the way, American adults, indicated that many of these affluent Americans had deep regrets about the toll on their families that had been undertaken by their accumulation of wealth.

Reporter Paul Sullivan writes, “Affluent Americans ages 25 to 65 were asked a series of questions about their attitudes toward wealth. Respondents were categorized by age, wealth level and whether they were business owners or employees. The more the responses were parsed by category, the more complications arose. About half of all respondents said the sacrifices they had made to accumulate such wealth meant that they had spent less time with friends and family. That regret,” says Sullivan. “Rose to nearly two thirds for people at the higher end of the wealth range in the study. More than half of business owners felt it too outpacing people who had accumulated their wealth by working for someone else.”

David Murphy, head of Wealth Advisory at the group known as Boston Private said, “It’s the guilt over the time it took away from the family. There’s a lot of emotion built in to growing the business and the time it takes to do that. The employees also become part of the extended family.” The survey by the way was known as the why of wealth and Sullivan says it hints at what the most sophisticated advisors, that is financial advisors, already know. “The days of focusing solely on investment returns are on the wane.”

Now, what does that mean? It means that in this article, in the business section of the New York Times, financial advisors are themselves advised that wealthy Americans are now increasingly less concerned with more wealth and they are more concerned with time with family. They’re more concerned with what wealth can’t buy and what often is spent on the way to accumulating wealth.

This secular article is pretty honest, pointing out that wealth can bring a certain kind of happiness. Now, remember again, we’re talking about happiness where Christians understand the more fundamental issue as joy. Of course, money can buy a certain kind of happiness. It can buy a life free from the concerns that people with less money might have. It can bring all kinds of creature comforts and it can also, as this article says, represent a certain kind of freedom. The kind of freedom that affluence can bring.

From a Christian worldview perspective, what’s more interesting in this article is the kind of good that can’t come by any kind of economic advance or by any kind of affluence or wealth. It turns out that in this article, even financial advisors are here told, they are clearly advised that having more money sometimes isn’t enough. That having more money sometimes doesn’t even add up to more happiness. That trying to find happiness and wealth is likely to be a very frustrating quest.

The Christian understands that money and affluence can’t bring joy but sometimes might bring happiness, but that happiness doesn’t come without a cost and that happiness won’t last. The goods that bring the most lasting happiness and point to eternal joy are goods that money simply can’t and never could buy.

Part III

The quest for inner peace: Competitive meditators and their unmindful mindfulness

Next, as we’re thinking about related issues, one of the most eccentric articles I’ve seen in a very long time that is oddly and powerfully revealing about modern Americans was found on this Wednesday’s front page of the Wall Street Journal. In the article below the fold, the headline was this. “Competitive about meditation, relax. Everyone else is too.” The subhead in the article, “Hard chargers descend on ancient practice tweaking quest for inner peace.” The author of the article, Ellen Gamerman.

Now, just as you might expect, this article turns out to be exactly what the headline indicates. Americans, hard-charging modern secular Americans are giving themselves increasingly the meditation, but they’re competitive about it. Gamerman writes, “Type A people are descending on the ancient practice of meditation and tweaking the quest for inner peace to suit their hard-charging needs racking up streaks and broadcasting the running tallies to the world. The result for some, meditation has never been more stressful.”

Now, the reference to streaks and tallies here has to do with the kind of monitoring and the metrics of meditation now made possible by apps on smartphones. Apps, that in many cases, in the most demonstrable way, indicate that the meditators don’t understand meditation and have no clue what they’re dealing with or what they’re trying to do.

The reporter writes, “Streaks are rampant on apps such as Headspace and Calm, which are designed to log and display the consecutive days a user has meditated or practiced mindfulness.” She then goes on to write, “Meditation, which can mean different things to different people is a more focused state than mindfulness which is a state of calm, attention to the present.”

Now, if you’ve caught on to the irony of this article, it is that every word used to describe either meditation or mindfulness is absolutely contradicted by the kind of competitiveness that is demonstrated in publicly logging your streaks and tallies about daily meditation or mindfulness in competition with those who are supposedly in the quest with you for mindfulness and meditation. This is the ultimate example I’ve seen recently which we might call adventures and missing the entire point.

Gamerman writes, “On Mindful Makers, a private online group have roughly 250 meditators, members can check their streak ratings daily. Robin Koppensteiner we are told was in second place with 71 days at the start of the week. Members are trusted to report their own meditation updates.” “I have to admit, I check every day to see if I’m still at number two or if I’ve gone up to number one,” said the 29-year-old author from Vienna, Austria.

As we’re talking about missing the point, consider this paragraph in the article. “To maintain their records, some people just let the audio for an app’s meditation session play on their phones while they’re, say, watching TV.” The award for great understatement goes to an authority cited in the article, that would be Benjamin Brose, associate professor of Chinese religions at the University of Michigan. He said, “I’m fairly certain that there’s no precedent for this in traditional Buddhist practice.” He went on to say, “Many monks meditate every day for decades and I’ve never heard of anyone keeping track.”

Now, Christians understand the biblical exhortation that we are to meditate on the word of God day and night, but that’s not what is referred to here as meditation, much less is mindfulness. What we see here is a certain kind of Western syncretism, that is people in Western societies borrowing the idea of meditation or mindfulness from Eastern or Asian religions as if it comes with no theological baggage.

What we’ll also see here is the false spirituality. The plastic artificial spirituality to which so many modern secular Americans are clearly attracted, but they’re not really even attracted to either mindfulness or meditation. If they were, they’d have to turn the television off. Furthermore, the idea of competing in mindfulness or meditation is an oxymoron. It is so ridiculous that it makes no sense whatsoever. There is no such category as competitive mindfulness. That’s irrationality.

Part IV

Not dying will not work: How the fear of death drives us to desperation which can be satisfied only in Christ

But leaving the competitive meditators in their unmindfulness mindfulness behind, we turn to an even more important story. This one also appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a report by Alison Gopnik. It’s far more important. The headline indicates so. “Who’s most afraid to die?” The subhead in the article, a surprise.

Alison Gopnik writes, “Why am I afraid to die? Maybe it’s the I in that sentence. It seems that I have a single constant self. The same I who peered out from my crib is now startled to see my aging face in the mirror 60 years later. It’s my interobserver, chief executive officer and autobiographer. It’s terrifying,” she says. “To think that this I will just disappear.”

Then Gopnik points to the fact that looking across world religions, many people would come to the assumption that those who are believers of Asian religions, the Confucian world, the world represented by Hinduism and Buddhism and other forms of Eastern religion, the religions that see history in a cycle and even believe in reincarnation. She said it will be natural that those religions would have adherence that might have less fear of death.

Then she points out, “That’s not the case.” She writes, and I quote a recent paper in the journal, Cognitive Science has an unusual combination of authors. A philosopher, a scholar of Buddhism, a social psychologist and a practicing Tibetan Buddhist tried to find out whether believing in Buddhism really does change how you feel about yourself and about death.

She goes on to say, “The philosopher, Sean Nichols, of the University of Arizona and his fellow authors studied Christian and nonreligious Americans, Hindus and both everyday Tibetan Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhist monks. Among other questions,” she says. “The researchers asked participants about their sense of self. For example, how strongly they believed they would be the same five years from now. Religious and nonreligious Americans,” she said. “Had the strongest sense of self. The Buddhist, especially the monks, had the least.”

Now, that would lead persons to the assumption that the least sense of self might lead to a lesser fear of death. Then it turned out in this research that it was the Buddhist monks of all the groups who were actually the most afraid of death. Gopnik then writes, “Why would this be? The Buddhist scholars themselves say that merely knowing there is no self isn’t enough to get rid of the feeling that the self is there.”

What’s that referring to? It’s referring to the Asian religious understanding that there is no self. That the self is an illusion. That after death in particular, the self simply disappears to emerge as a different self or to go into nothingness. As Gopnik points out, it turns out that even denying the reality of the self doesn’t lead to a lesser fear of death. Contrary to that, it leads to a greater fear of death.

Later, Gopnik suggests that it might be that these Buddhist monks are most afraid of death because they are encouraged to meditate on their mortality. Here’s where Christians understand that the affirmation of mortality certainly doesn’t lead in the Christian worldview to a greater fear of death but to a greater dependence upon Christ. The understanding that the self not only exists as real, that’s a very clear biblical affirmation, but that the self will continue after death. Furthermore, that, that self will be judged by the righteous creator King. Also, the understanding that, that self will spend eternity either in hell or in heaven.

In that sense, the Christian understands that our mortality is naturally to lead to a fear of death. It’s Jesus who didn’t say that we’re not to fear death, but he said, “Fear not the one who can destroy the body. Fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

It’s not irrelevant by the way that Gopnik points out that another final reason why these Buddhist monks might fear mortality more than others is, as she said, the fact that they have no intimate attachments. They have no children and grandchildren. She writes it this way. “Our children and loved ones are an extension of who we are. Their survival after we die is a profound consolation even for atheists. Monk,” she said. “Give up those intimate attachments.”

Here’s where we note that the kind of comfort that might come by having children or grandchildren and loved ones to atheists can’t be a very lasting comfort, because after all, those same relatives, even children and grandchildren are just as mortal as we are. Now, the Bible tells us that our security as a self can be found only in Christ and can be found only in the eternal God and in the eternal gospel.

Gopnik concludes her article with an anecdote. She says, “I once advised a young man at Google headquarters who worried about mortality. He agreed that a wife and children might help, but even finding a girlfriend was a lot of work. He wanted,” said Gopnik. “A more efficient tech solution like not dying.”

Well, headlines have told us in a succession of stories over the last several months that many of the billionaires in Silicon Valley are spending, no doubt, billions of dollars trying to come up with new tech solutions that would lead to not dying. To put the matter bluntly, not dying is going to not work. This is where Christians must understand that the fear of death comes naturally to mortal human beings and the fear of death is intended by the God who will judge us to drive us to desperation, which can be satisfied only in Christ.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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