A Perfect Life, Part I

I had a profound experience with an equally profound book recently that I had to share here. The name of the book and the author is not important. In fact, the title and subject matter of the book were so generic that it was probably written seventeen thousand times by the same number of authors. Let’s just say its title and subject matter was the summary of the “self-help” section at every major book chain in America.

So why did this book affect me so severely?

To start with, the cover had a huge picture of the author, who wore a wide, toothy grin that communicated an almost obnoxious joy. It was one of those things were the cover annoyed me so much that it stood out from the others around it, nearly jumping off the shelf. Then there was the title of the book–which I will refer to as Becoming the Best Schwab I Can Be. It was almost too predictable. Unbelievably so. The title promised happiness, and the author was modeling it to perfection. It bothered me so much (for some reason I couldn’t place at the time) that I become hooked. I had to find out more.

So I grabbed the book and immediately flipped it over. I read references to ten-step formulas to inner zen, paths to wealth, tips to social accolades and hints to acquiring the mate of my fantasies. I also noticed sections on how to become a better citizen, co-worker, developing healthy habits, etc. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh out loud as I did this, with its cheesy/obvious approach to solving life’s problems (As I did this, the aging businesswoman next to me glanced sideways as if to nonchalantly suggest that chuckling in public is a social offense to her version of upper class establishment Louis Vuitton suburban paradise Real Housewives of Orange County fascist regime of snobbery. I cleared my throat and chuckled again–this time a little louder, of course.) I concluded the lady next to me must own the book, which would explain her reaction to my festiveness. Yes, I said festiveness.

But as I skimmed further my smile faded. A wave of heat washed over me, as I realized this book had sold something like 157,000,000 copies. Then, at the bottom, I read this:

“Blahblahwhatshisface is the pastor of Blahblah church, and was voted by blahblah important magazine to be one of the most influential Christians in America.”

This, with no obvious mention in the title, synopsis, or front/back cover of Christianity.

Was this pure marketing genius, or pure evangelical tragedy?

The blast of emotional nuclear fallout that flowed down my frame confused me. The first question I asked myself was, “Have I been living under a cement block? How have I not heard of this guy?” I examined my response further, asking myself, “How in the world could this-ahem-’fine piece of work’ sell so many copies and strike a chord with so many people?” But maybe I was being premature, judgmental. Maybe I was just not seeing something here. There is no way this grinning Guy Smiley photo with the shockingly mundane, superficial, and unimaginative title/subject matter is what people of “faith” in America connect with. Do Christians really just want self-help steps to fame and fortune from a celebrity spirituality CEO?

Perhaps there is a difference between what we want and what we need…

Yet, despite my qualms, I decide to investigate further. I wanted to know if there was any of that “common element” in me that the millions of people who had purchased this book had in common. I wanted to know if there was something I was missing out on, if my gut was wrong.

I bought the book.

What I came to find was even more unsettling than I had anticipated, however.

(According to the author) God truly wants me to be rich. He really does want me to to be a racecar driver, own my own golf course, and date Giselle. Really and truly. My first response was sarcasm: Man, I must have been an IDIOT to miss this! God wants me to have a bitchin’ car, a great smile, and climb the social ladder. The sum of the whole message as I read is that God wants me, myself, and I to be the Best Schwab I Can Possibly Be. Really, WHAT GOD REALLY WANTS is for me to have a PERFECT LIFE and FEEL GRRREAT.

If I just embrace the fact that I am created to be a winner, then I can truly experience all that being human has to offer me.

But here is the scary part, sarcasm aside: As I read the offers that blahblahwhatshisface was claiming that God was making to me, I found that I wanted them. Oh, I had to dig deep to find the honesty in myself to admit this. But the reality is that what want most in life is to feel better. And wealth, fortune, success, and self-actualization just might be the freaking answer to my doldrums, my feelings of insecurity and fear, especially if Jesus is the one who is helping me achieve these things.

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Then, at that moment of clarity, I realized I was number 157,000,001.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Christianity was really like this? In place of spiritual battle, daily discipline, the development of character through trial and error, patience, perseverance, and testing, we would have…the world. By simply following a set of steps, rules, and guidelines we would find that we pretty much have life sewn.

That is what we humans really want.

A life is that works out great for me.

But the most difficult thing about Christianity is that it doesn’t have anything to do with me. What I mean is that we are called to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. We give our lives in humility and servitude to Jesus, and he in return gives us eternal life and salvation, along with a life of joy and peace as long as we remain in him. But along the way we must put others before ourselves. And we will find meaning and contentment not in self-actualization, but in giving ourselves in submission to him and to one another in fellowship.These are all fundamental concepts to a Biblical approach to living.

Notice Jesus never said “Follow this simple formula to unlock your potential within.” If my desire in coming to God is motivated by what he can give me, or how he can make me feel, then my ultimate desire is self-focused, rather than Christ-focused. If I treat God as the divine genie, or the eternal “life-improver,” then I think I have missed the point entirely. And if I am a teacher throwing in scripture verses and the teachings of Christ to subtly justify faith as a marketing ploy to those who are looking to feel better about themselves, then I am in danger of leading many astray. Is blahblahwhatshisface completely off? No. He makes some good points about joy and peace in life coming from self-discipline and the right attitude. He does a great job at focusing on the things that would make a certain blurry idea of Christianity attractive. Unfortunately, the deepest recesses of our souls cannot be reached by formulas, principles, or even healthy habits. And the true picture of Christianity is not easy to market, when we are honest. Narrow is the path and few find it.

Don’t get me wrong. There is joy to be had in this life. Tons. But it comes only when we submit the entirely of our beings to Christ the person, the living God, not a strategy of self-actualization.

What we really want and what we really need are sometimes two very different things. Be cautious when someone promises that faith is a means to a better life. They may be subtly trying to give you a message that may make you feel better, while neglecting what you truly need…to be broken and molded into a devoted servant, not a well-adjusted overachiever.

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