On my way to work this week, I had this peaceful time to think as I drove. Actually, I had even more time than usual, because I was kindly given the chance to sit at a railway crossing as this 900-car freight train from Hades went by at the speed of snail. I started thinking, Why does this bother me the way it does? What is really behind the often insane speed of my life today? We all know that technological progress makes it possible for the engine of life to go faster and faster, but what is fueling this engine?
Just because we have email and text messaging doesn't mean that we have to respond immediately or write emails all the time. Simply because Microsoft Outlook allows me to slice life into ever-tinier compartments doesn't mean I must jam more stuff in there. When the Catalogue Fairy visits my house and showers me with her bounty, I am not required to open any of her gifts. Just because the stores operate for longer and longer hours, and the sports and activity schedules now have no off-season, does not mean that I have to engage with them or insist that my kids do. So what drives this? What's the fuel?
Driving on Maximizer Plus
In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we read a story that provides, I think, a helpful clue. Verse 17 says: "As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. 'Good teacher,' he asked, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?'" Jesus starts by side-stepping the man's question and asking a rhetorical one himself: "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone." In other words, do you recognize that the goodness you see in me is simply the goodness of God himself? Then Jesus goes on to lay out for the man a picture of a life that is good: "'You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.' 'Teacher,' he declared, 'all these I have kept since I was a boy.'"
Let's stop here for a moment and try to develop a picture of this person we are meeting. For one thing, you'd have to say that he was pretty ambitious. He doesn't want to settle for life on the ordinary level. This man wants life to the max, life over the top, eternal life. Secondly, he seems to be an awfully energetic person. The first glimpse we get of this guy is with his running shoes on. He's willing to run hard, if that's what it takes to catch up with the life he wants. He chases after Jesus; he humbles himself and fauns over Jesus; he exerts significant personal energy to wring from Jesus something that can help him reach his goal. Finally, you'd have to conclude from the biblical text that this is an awfully competent person. We know from further along in the passage that he is a wealthy and powerful man. Tradition calls him "the rich young ruler." There's obviously some real smarts and talent here. And he's not just intellectually acute; apparently, he's pretty morally sharp, too, because when Jesus lists the commandments, this guy says, "All these I have kept since I was a boy." Not only does Jesus not contradict this man, but verse 21 says: "Jesus looked at him and loved him."
If I had to put a name to the fuel that drove the engine of this man, I'd label it "Maximizer Plus." It was a high octane blend of ambition, energy, and competence that kept pumping through his being, making the very pistons of his life drive up and down—"I've got to get more, I've got to do better … I've got to get more, I've got to do better … I've got to get more, I've got to do better." And the reason that I value this story in the Bible so very much is because I see in this man a person a whole lot like me—and maybe you.
Is this sanity?
In deeper ways than it is comfortable to admit, my life is often driven in this manner. If I've got something good, I often think, How do I get more of it? That would be better. I'd like more of that drink or food. I'd like more of that attention or nice feeling. I'd like more of that money or material stuff. That would be better. In his book, Death by Suburb, David Goetz confesses: "Nothing is quite as satisfying as idling next to another large Child-Moving Vehicle when mine is bigger, no matter how much I have to pay for gas." Author Rodney Clapp suggests in his book Border Crossings, that this "more" mentality has insinuated itself into contemporary life to the point of
… the deification of dissatisfaction …. Our economy depends on people in a constant state of needing more and wanting more, leading us to buy things we do not need. It's one thing for us to consume a mocha latte on occasion, but quite another for us to be seduced into a daily habit of cappuccino consumption. The subtlety of consumer culture is that ordinary, everyday, good things become commodified and marketed to us so that one is not enough. It's not merely the individual purchase that the consumer economy is after: it's the cultivation of the habitual, repeat buyer who becomes accustomed and acculturated to a pattern of consumption. Consumer culture wants to create addicts.
David Brooks of the New York Times points out how widespread this "more" phenomenon has become:
At some point in the past decade, the suburbs went quietly berserk. As if under the influence of some bizarre form of radiation, everything got huge. The cars got huge, so heads don't even spin when a mountainous Hummer comes rolling down the street. The houses got huge. The drinks at 7-Eleven got huge, as did the fry containers at McDonald's. The stores turned into massive, sprawling category-killer megaboxes with their own climatic zones. Suburbia is no longer the land of ticky-tacky boxes on a hillside where everything looks the same. It's the land of the gargantuoids."
The converse is also true. If I see something good, I often wonder, How can that be made even better? I'd like that more. How can that thing I've written be made better? How can that program or service we're offering at work become better? How does my kid's performance, our family's lot in life, my state or status get better? I'd like that more. More is better. Better is more. Can any of you relate to this? I was talking last week to an enormously talented person in this church who said something so thoughtful and revealing on this subject: "I'm starting to think that my competence is actually my biggest enemy. I think to myself that because I can do something, I should and must do it." I see this in myself so often. I'll spend far too long trying to tweak and perfect things which, if I had just said "close enough," "good enough," would have freed me or someone else from obsession, done the job, and provided some more margin for things that matter more—things like people.
Life in the balance
I want to stress that this instinct to increase and improve things is not all bad. The more-better impulse is the fount of much of the innovation, industry, and excellence that sustains our culture and blesses people. Observers from France's Alexis De Tocqueville in the 19th century and onward have marked this maximizing drive as America's most unique quality and part of her creative genius. But when this impulse runs amok, it can also be one of the most demonic forces around. It can become an obsessive compulsivity that robs others and ourselves of contentment and joy in our work and life. It can blind us to the fact that sometimes less is more in the fullest sense. Why is it, for example, that children with few toys seem to enjoy them so much more than those with closets-full? A healthier life lies in restoring this balance.
This truth is hard to realize. Jesus says as much in verse 23: "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" If you've been bred to define success in the conventional more-better sense, it is so very difficult to repent of it and get healthy again. But there was a time—when you were a child—when you were happy with simple things and didn't need more. There was a time when it was OK to you if you didn't color perfectly inside all of the lines; you just rejoiced in the colors. That's why it is such a good thing that there is a God who still loves our souls, no matter how unhealthy you and I have become. Again, the gospel writer Mark underlines that when Jesus "looked at [the rich young ruler]," so caught up in his more and better mentality, Jesus didn't mock him. He didn't condemn him. He didn't reject him. Verse 21 declares that Jesus "loved him." He loved him enough to issue a challenge.
Jesus said: "One thing you lack." Isn't that fabulous? It is a mark of the love that Jesus had for this man that he puts this challenge to him in the man's own maximizer language: "One thing you lack." You've lived for more and better things, or more and better titles, or more and better triumphs. But what you need is more and better love. For love is the most excellent way. I want you to be in a more-better position to know God's love and in a more-better position to show God's love and to do that you need to embrace a process of subtraction rather than addition. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven," Jesus says. "Then come, follow me."
This is a profoundly counter-cultural concept, but it is at the core of the kingdom of God and the treasure of heaven. For most of us, our experience of God's love and our ability to extend God's love will become more and better only by a process of subtraction rather than addition. So here are two questions to ponder as you go out today. First, what do you need to sell, subtract, or simplify so that you are in a position to actually know God's love for you? In other words, what do you need to cancel, to turn off, to quit, to separate yourself from, so that you actually have the margin you need to see Jesus, to feel God, to open yourself up to the Holy Spirit? What distractions or distortions do you need to free yourself from so that you actually have a chance of being aware and available enough to encounter God in your daily life? Let me give you a simple example: I don't listen to the radio in the car when I am alone or as I lie in bed at night. I want to hear the voice of God.
Secondly, what do you need to sell, subtract, or simplify in order to express the love of God for others? In her book Breathe, Keri Wyatt Kent asks:
How much time do you spend shopping for things you really don't need? How much time do you spend maintaining your stuff? How many trips do you have to make to the Container Store to buy bins and baskets to put all your stuff in? How often do you have to sort through all the junk and have garage sales or leave a few boxes on the porch for the Veterans' Association to pick up? How much stuff is too much …? We often forget that God blesses us not so we can get fat, but so we can share our abundance with others.
What does "enough" look like on the "better" score? Are you currently demanding—perhaps ruthlessly, perhaps self-righteously—of other people something that Christ would call you to release?
Not everyone can do what Jesus calls for. Mark 10:22 reads: "At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth." But is simply having more and better of what this world considers wealth truly what it means to be rich?
There was once a monk who found and saved a precious gem. One day, the monk gave this gem to a beggar on the road. The beggar was stunned and thankful but ultimately caught up later with the monk and said, "Give me something more precious than this gem." "I've got nothing more to give you," replied the monk. "Oh, yes you do," said the beggar. "Give me what moved you to give me this gem."
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.