Sunday, January 2, 2011

Passing Fancies

Everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2.16-17)

Navigating the New Reality

We stopped going out on New Year’s Eve long ago, opting to spend the evening at home, just the two of us, enjoying a few sips of Champagne and the fireworks over Lake Michigan from the warmth of our living room. Typically our house fills up with friends on New Year’s Day, when we host a traditional seafood dinner that everyone pitches in to prepare. This year, we skipped that too, since I’m traveling for work today. So it’s been uncommonly quiet around here—a blessing at any time of year. Among the things we’ve managed to avoid are questions about New Year’s resolutions. When asked, I seldom know what to say and make something up on the spot. The custom strikes me as a hollow pretense with its suggestion that flipping the calendar to another year is a legitimate reason for turning over new leaves. If we’re aware of things we need to change before the year begins, why wait until January 1? Life is a living thing, a constant effort whose focus should center on progress and improvement. Daily diligence is required to reevaluate our habits, attitudes, and motives in order to maintain continual growth. Some days—hopefully most of them—are easy. And then there are also hard days, when we’re caught up short. We realize what we’ve been doing may have worked in our favor so far, but having reached this place in our lives, it no longer works. So we regroup and reset our sites on navigating the new reality before us.

Education is a good example of this. For most of us, our first two decades steadily build toward one objective: a college degree. We invest years preparing to qualify for acceptance into a good school. Once we’re in, we work hard to meet its demands to graduate in good standing. The fabled degree that seemed all-important all of our young lives decreases in value after the real business of living begins, however. At best, it proves instrumental in landing a first job. But after we’re employed, talent and professionalism determine what we accomplish. The status we expected from our degrees and the schools that granted them becomes secondary to what we do with the knowledge acquired in our studies. Gradually, we let that illusion go and replace it with another—namely, the workplace is a land of equal opportunity. When we discover that’s not always true, we replace it with a new illusion about office politicking to position ourselves for recognition and rewards we believe we deserve. Another illusion follows that one, and on it goes until we’re reconciled that much of what we’re told about life and expect from it is illusory and, therefore, undependable. That’s the point John makes so emphatically in his first epistle.

The Book of Love

First John is perhaps best described as the book of love. It’s a letter intended for circulation among first-century churches, reminding readers that love is the driving force of Christian faith. John looks at love from all angles: God’s love for us, our love for God, love’s power over fear, its importance as the litmus test for doctrine and discipleship, and so on. After opening the letter with a firm exhortation to resist sin and dark influences, John transitions into his main theme by telling us what not to love: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” (1 John 2.15) It sounds fairly basic at first. But when we really think about it, we’re prone to wonder what he’s actually saying. Surely he’s not advocating full-on asceticism here—dispensing with all earthly possessions and relationships to make room for God. How would such a teaching be practical or even possible? Evidently sensing how easily we might jump to that conclusion, John explains what he means and his reasoning behind it.

“Everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever,” he writes in verses 16 and 17. He acknowledges we're naturally vulnerable to passing fancies—be they dreams, compulsions, or ambitions. Such longings aren’t sustainable, John says, because they’re based on self-gratifying emotions like lust and pride. Loving the world or anything in the world ends badly by having little or nothing at all to do with love. It’s about getting, not giving. It doesn’t satisfy our innate craving for love’s lasting presence and pleasures. As each of us no doubt has learned by sorry experience, pinning hopes for meaningful existence on physical, visual, or material cravings never works out. But love, though often tested, never fails, because God is love. If what we’re drawn to—relationships, status, or possessions—appeals only to our desire to have it, rather than our desire to express love through it, we can guarantee it will soon be replaced by another desire that launches another chase after a new illusion. That’s the way of the world.

Things Eternal

I grew up with two hymns that gain meaning for me by the year. The first says, “Build your hopes on things eternal. Hold to God’s unchanging hand.” The second insists, “Only what you do for Christ will last.” Both summarize John’s wisdom. A life spent on passing fancies is a life wasted. In its extreme, it becomes a life without and unable to give love. It’s a fickle existence absent of God’s sustaining presence and the pleasures we reap by pleasing God.

As we ponder John’s message, suppose we use the New Year’s resolution in a way that surpasses breaking habits or adjusting attitudes. Suppose we resolve to evaluate everything we do for its lasting value. Passing fancies can be fun and harmless, provided we’re aware of how little they provide. They’re too flimsy to build on. What we accomplish by acting upon them isn’t guaranteed to last. They’re not worth much time and energy. We build our hopes on things eternal. We love as Christ commands us, because love lasts. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

Basing our lives on passing fancies is like proverbial sandcastle building. What we do won’t last.