I ended my last essay with a question for the reader: just how much are we willing to suffer for true, eternal happiness? I want to highlight what I believe to be the answer to this question in the story of an Ethiopian man known as John (I’ve removed his real name for safety reasons). Through several conversations in mixed Amharic and English, I have dug deeply into his story as a Habesha, an Ethiopian, and most of all a man of God.
John is a native Ethiopian of Addis Ababa who works around the house that I stay in here, and is one of my dearest friends here. He is also my part time teacher in Amharic; I’ve learned just enough Amharic to begin to be terrible at it! This man has had it unfathomably harder than most anyone reading this can possibly imagine without me letting you in on this man’s past. You see, in Ethiopia, the government puts on a fantastic disguise of a ‘federal republic’, supposedly a ‘democracy’ to be modeled after in the rest of Africa. However, the truth of a book isn’t ever found in its title. So, when I dug deeper into the history of Ethiopia and the people here, the more I discovered that Ethiopia’s democratic status was a shallow cover for a powerful man’s political dominance (Zenawi). Effectively, the government is a one man show.
And so this one man show decided that one day, since it owns every square inch of land in Ethiopia (yes, there is no private ownership of land), that it would take the land John lived on out from underneath his very feet like a rug beneath a helpless child learning to walk on unstable legs. His house? Gone. His land? He never had any. His life was forever changed. When he told me of his story, his words were few: “Benton, I have no words to describe the government. There are no words horrible enough to describe what happened to me and what has happened to hundreds and thousands of Ethiopians in Addis.” You begin to become numb to the unbelievable poverty and squat living conditions of many thousands of Ethiopians who are housed in slums made from stray tin and wooden frames, but a personal story like that of John brings the façade of the heart’s detachment tumbling down upon itself.
Pause and reflect here for a moment. Look upwards. Is there a roof over your head? Now look beneath your feet. Do you own the ground upon which you stand? If not, at least someone other than the government does. Let’s vow not to forget blessings such as these, for there are billions who dream of the things that have become as passive to us as the very air we breathe. Now, let us press on towards the heart of John’s story: his joy in the midst of having nothing to call his own apart from Christ’s presence.
The real question that one must ask of John’s situation is not how he merely dealt with the single act of everything being taken from him, but how he remained joyful throughout the whole extended time he was literally homeless. The answer is found in his priorities. In his broken English, he tells me daily how he is ‘rich’ and he is a ‘winner.’ This sickeningly material American mind of mine itches desperately to ask him: what riches do you have? How can you possibly be a winner? But he tells me before the itch is scratched; ‘I have a rich Father who blesses me daily with a peace of mind that no man can shake. No man can beat me because I am a champion in Christ.’ We must, when it truly boils down to it, have our passions and desires set on the strongest foundations: in Christ alone. John truly has nothing but the future hope of the Gospel, and yet ironically is more joyful than most of the foolishly ambitious, the pleasure seekers, and the well-to-do. The Gospel, my friends, is what he thrives on, and that alone.
Every person on the face of this earth is multidimensional, and by this I mean that there are three dimensions of responsiveness. The Physical is the most basic dimension, dealing with basic needs and the flesh’s experience with the environment. The Mental dimension is where our thoughts and reactions and emotions are contained, and where our cognitive faculties decide our posture towards our physical situations (I am hungry. So I decide to be cranky until my physical desire is satisfied). The mental dimension makes conscious decisions of how to respond to neutral physical situations. Both of these dimensions can be, correctly I believe, classified as ‘merely existing’. Between these first two and the third dimension is where true living begins. The spiritual dimension of every person is the ability to walk by some sort of faith: whether that is a living faith in Christ our Lord or a temporary, ever fading faith in a better job, a better life, a better home, a better car, a better partner, and this is the real rub. Indeed all of humanity’s progress is based on the subtle, underlying hope and faith in a better future. Every man decides which dimension will take priority over the others, and thus lives his life accordingly. A fellow’s actions speak to his heart.
Now, returning to the matter at hand, John’s spiritual dimension indeed is strong enough to withstand the physical and mental storms to which he has been subjected. His convictions are not mere cheap talk; they are the stuff that moves mountains. His joy and praise are a natural overflow of the raw, unbridled anticipation of the ‘unblemished rewards of the Gospel’ (Lewis, The Weight of Glory), as when an admiring chap gushes appreciation for C.S. Lewis’ ability with words and so praises his writings from his very lips (who might this be?).
In much of America, I sense that we have lost sight of this original Hope, this original promise, this eternal promise. Almost as if we have set our eyes on the blessings before our eyes and forgotten the very Hand from which blessings flow, the Creator that promises infinite blessing through eternity in Christ. Our favorite author, Mr. Lewis has something to say about this shortsightedness:
‘Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.’
Material blessings should not be elevated above the original promise of the Gospel. Prosperity, the very blessing meant to simultaneously be enjoyed by those receiving it and dispersed among those in need of it, subtly becomes the very veil between the Giver and the Takers. Indeed we bite (and thus spite) the Hand that feeds us. At this point, we must step back and identify what has gone awry.
In my last essay, I wrote that our pursuit of happiness was indeed no pursuit at all. Escaping discomfort has replaced the true pursuit of happiness found in Christ, which indeed brings discomfort in the forms of persecution, monetary sacrifice, and even at times the blood of the Body. In this piece, I have set out to prove that our priorities are out of touch, out of order, and out of favor with Him.
Let’s ask a simple question here. When we attend a ball game, and a magnificent play is made, what are the first words from our lips? Words of praise, unless the person’s sense of sports is out of place. And what of a powerful sermon? Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? The Mona Lisa? Niagara Falls? A sunset in the country? Praise bursts forth from any man who takes pleasure from these things as naturally as the waters fall from Niagara, as often as the sun sets, and as spontaneously as the Spirit works. An admirer of sculpture praises not the sculpture for its beauty without the praise leading the admirer further to praise the sculptor’s proficiency even more.
When we praise the designer of such glorious art, what a magnificent microcosm of what happens at the cosmic level between the Creation and her Creator! And yet, there is a breakdown of the fundamental relationship between the Grand Design and her Architect: where has the praise gone? We commend the riches of the successful, we praise the talents of the artists of our day, we follow after the celebrities, and we strive to be as good as the star athletes on ESPN. But we forget where the riches come from, where talent, beauty, strength, and all of the positive qualities a person can want in life originate. They are but a morsel of the perfection found in the Great Mind that spun the heavens into existence. But we praise Him not for all of these things!
Let’s return to John
. His walk in life is a meek, unpretentious way; he takes only what he needs to survive and praises God for every hair on his head, every breath in his lungs, and every thought that crosses his mind. He pursues happiness of the highest form which can be found only in the love of the Creator. In pursuit of this eternal peace, he praises that which has been promised to him in the Gospel. Thus, when we have begun to truly pursue happiness in Christ and everything that He offers us, we begin to praise God for the small, the large, and every blessing in between. The sheer infinite beauty of the Gospel compels us to do nothing less! From God comes every breath of life and every second in time. He sustains all things and all things good come from Him. It is indeed humanity which takes the good and twists it to become unrecognizably criminal.
Case and point, I believe I have shown that our priorities are out of sync. We run from physical discomfort when we should be pursuing true harmony found only in the Love of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. We applaud that which is not even praiseworthy when viewed in the light of eternal blessings promised in the Gospel, and worst of all, we praise not the very Author of Creation. So, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in time. With each moment passing, we lose an opportunity to turn the ship against the winds of the world, towards the motherland, towards the distant shores of Eden. We must wager our lives for or against God incarnate in Christ, but do not be fooled: either way will cost us everything regardless. The choice we must make then is this: to lose our life and be counted among those promised to be blessed, or to cling fast to this life, and lose both life and soul. Determining your heart’s wager is as simple as examining where your praise is directed.