Monday, June 8, 2009

The Discerning Christian

Martin Seligman, a professor and the founder of Positive Psychology was a speaker at the 2004 TED Conference. In the 20 minute speech (video below) he shares his research into 1) The Good Life, 2) The Engaged Life and 3) The Meaningful Life. These 3 types of lives are apparently the happy ones. Seligman also explains a few things that make people happy - flow, eudaimonia - and identifies six positive interventions (things we can do) to increase happiness. These are 1) Have a beautiful day, 2) Making a Gratitude Visit, 3) Couples Strength Test Based Evening and 4) Philanthropy is Fun!

Seligman does not discuss the role of faith. But faith and the volitional piece of it (what we choose to do with our faith in Christ) is critical to quality of life and happiness. I'll try to explain why. At the Spiritual Formation class led by Pastor Tim and Eric Smith, yesterday, I held some clay and shaped it while meditating on these verses about The Potter and the Clay:

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Isaiah 64: 8

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
Jeremiah 18: 1-6

After our meditation, the class shared their experiences shaping and reflecting. It emerged that as folks shaped the clay into some object, they 1) tried to identify its purpose, and 2) realized the shape kept changing. The abundant life in Christ that I am meant to have means knowing and experiencing the "original purpose" for which God created me. God has placed this original purpose deep within me along with the desires, talents, skills and resources that help fulfill it. God continues to shape and mold me too. Discernment helps me find God's purpose. Importantly, it is also discernment which helps me make choices that lead me more and more towards my original purpose - Through perfect wisdom and spiritual understanding you reach the fullest knowledge of his will. Colossians 1:9.

If you find all this talk of "original purpose" confusing, consider on a very practical level how biblical-based discernment contributes to personal well being. It does so simply by reducing my choices; for eg. telling a lie is simply not choice for a follower of Christ. This constraint on my freedom, contrary to what I have been taught to believe (more choice means more happiness), actually improves my well-being according to another Psychology researcher Barry Schwartz. Schwartz, has amply demonstrated, that too much freedom can be bad for well-being. Among other things he points out, "For along with this growth of freedom has come unprecedented unhappiness--clinical depression, suicide, and use of psychological services and antidepressant drugs in alarming numbers."

To be a mature disciple of Christ, a discerning Christian, acts of the will are required. E.g. 1) consciously engaging in and devoting time and resources to our inner life - i.e. christian, spiritual formation, 2) deciding to serve in a calling (using your highest strengths in the service of something you love and that is larger than you) rather than wasting away in the job that pays highly and is prestigious but is keeping you from growing, 3) committing to deeper relationships rather than seeking larger but largely meaningless social networks, etc.

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