In his sermon last Sunday morning, our pastor was highlighting different aspects of modern life that can become “idols” in the Biblical sense – unhealthy distractions, things that we place higher than God on our list of priorities. Like all good sermons it was challenging, unsettling and thought-provoking.
One of these “idols” in particular got me thinking, and I’ve been chewing it over during the week since.
The Idol of Feelings.
I think I know what he was getting at, and in one very significant sense I completely agree. In our culture we are bombarded with an astonishing variety of ways to indulge, to feel good: this sumptuous fruity shampoo, that heavenly soft cheese, this exotic package holiday, that sleek new car with the plush leather interior. We are encouraged to do whatever we feel like doing, to put ourselves first, to make money, to be consumers, to eat, drink, buy, wear whatever makes us feel good, to go wherever we dream of going, to date whoever we feel like dating.
We are told that these things will make us happy, and they often do make us feel pretty good. The trouble is the feeling never lasts, so we are compelled to buy more, eat more, drink more, earn more, spend more. We trade in the old car (or spouse) for a newer model. We are never satisfied so are permanently on the look out for our next fix. It is this rampant consumerism, this addiction to short-term highs that I think Ross was talking about. We are led to believe that if we only had that, went there, dated them, we would be happy. Then we manage to achieve our goals and before long they start to crumble and run through our fingers like sand, and we feel like the goalposts have moved. Our quest for happiness continues.
I believe that if we follow Jesus, living lives of love, sacrifice, service, selflessness and compassion, it can bring us more happiness than a lifetime supply of fruity shampoo, soft cheese and exotic holidays could ever bring. I really think Jesus meant it when he said he had come to bring us life, and life to the full (John 10:10). In the things he said and did he was showing us how to find real and lasting joy and peace – not with easy answers and quick fixes but by walking the narrow and treacherous path, surrendering our own desires for the sake of others, diving all the way down into the depths and in the process discovering what it means to be fully, radiantly human, incandescent with life.
We are all searching for happiness. Of course we are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that too often we are earnestly, vehemently searching in all the wrong places.
If only that was the end of the story.
If only it was as simple as choosing to follow Jesus, encountering the Holy Spirit and experiencing Deep Joy for the rest of one’s life and beyond.
Yes, it’s a lot to do with our failing to make the right decisions and choosing to take short cuts through the wide gate and down the easy path (Matt 7:13).
But sometimes we just feel crappy for no good reason. And sometimes the crappy feelings last for a long, long time and prevent us from really living at all.
I’ve had a few run-ins with depression and anxiety, so when I hear the words “feelings” and “happiness”, my ears prick up and my inner Mental Health Awareness warning light starts flashing.
One of the main things I’ve learnt from my various experiences is this:
Feelings are actually really important.
Feelings are our window to the world. They colour our experiences and shape our lives and our relationships.
When I hear the word “happiness”, I don’t picture a constant state of uninterrupted bliss. I think of a healthy mental state in which I am able to be fully present in the moment, to feel the ups and downs of life. A state of inner peace and wellbeing in which I feel secure, grounded, centered. In this state I respond emotionally to things as they happen – I laugh, sing, shout, sigh, weep… I can fully engage with the people around me… I don’t always feel happy and joyful but I do feel alive.
For many fortunate people this is how they experience life most of the time. But for many, many others the state of wellbeing I have just described is a distant dream, a privilege that other people seem to have but they only ever seem to glimpse in occasional, brief moments of sweet relief.
Mental-health-wise I have had it relatively easy in the past few years, but I still get sucked into negative thought patterns on a fairly regular basis that would send me spiralling downwards if I was to take them too seriously and allow them to take over.
I find it helpful to think of those negative thought patterns and associated feelings as a health issue to be dealt with, rather than a happiness issue. It makes sense to treat mental health as we would physical health, and it seems that gradually more people are starting to see it that way.
So is all of this worshipping an ‘idol of feelings’?
I suppose it’s possible, but no more possible than treating a physical illness becoming an act of worship to an ‘idol of health’.
I think Jesus wants us to be healthy, happy and whole. Not in a Prosperity Gospel kind of way, but in a bruised-and-exhausted-and-filthy-and-never-felt-more-alive kind of way.
As St. Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is man fully alive”.
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