This post is based on a bit that I wrote about a year ago. I am revisiting and repurposing that piece because I have been praying recently about a central question that all humans face.
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One of the blogs I follow, Get Rich Slowly, focuses on personal finance. Despite the title, this blog is not about getting rich. The author is some guy who got into deep financial trouble and now writes about his experiences to help others avoid the same mistakes he made. A while back, the blog featured a post whose headline read “how to live a rich life.” While some of us might phrase it a little differently, isn’t this a key question for all of us?
Some people simply want to be rich. One person I know told me that he wanted to be a millionaire by the time he was thirty. Most of the rest of us don’t necessarily want to be rich, at least not filthy rich. Comfortable, yes, but not rich. Most people who win the lottery and become rich end up with ruined lives and none of us wants that.
But, the headline did not say “how to be rich.” It spoke of a rich life. Now, at least in principle, that’s different from being rich, and having a rich life is something most people are interested in. I am certainly one of those people, and so I wanted to know what Get Rich Slowly, a blog about simplicity, frugality, and common sense about all things financial, thought about a rich life.
“A bon vivant is a person who lives well — someone who enjoys the best things in life, especially with regard to food and drink. The stereotypical bon vivant is someone who can afford the best (or has generous friends), but that’s not the only way. You can be a bon vivant on a budget.” (Philip Brewer, guest post at Get Rich Slowly)
I had never heard the term bon vivant before. Fortunately, Mr. Brewer defined it: “a person who lives well.” The question, of course, is, “What is ‘living well’?” and the answer appeared right away: “…someone who enjoys the best things in life, especially with regard to food and drink.” The whole point of the post was not so much about how to be a bon vivant, but rather how to be a bon vivant on a budget. In other words, the message was, “Hey, folks! Do not let all this talk about simplicity and frugality keep you from having the best things in life.”
At first, I was repelled by the blatant materialism of Mr. Brewer’s view of what constitutes the good life. On reflection, though, I realized that there is a disconnect between what I say I believe and the way that I live. I believe that Mr. Brewer is dead wrong. I live as if he is dead right.
I live on a budget. Always have. Some might observe how I handle our household finances and wonder about my sanity. While trying to set her own budget, my daughter asked me how much my wife and I spend on food each month. The phrasing of her request made it clear that she wanted to know how much we spent last month. I sent her a graph showing our monthly grocery expenses from 1994 to the present, complete with a regression line showing that we spent in 2011 exactly what we spent in 1994, adjusted for an inflation rate of 3%. The fact that I can easily produce such a statistic is a little crazy, don’t you think?
Even living on a very strict budget, though, I have everything I want. I have a nice house, a big yard in the country, a nice car. I have very good health insurance and a retirement account. We buy the food and drink that we want. I have the usual gadgets: computer, digital camera, indoor-outdoor thermometer, television, radio. I have plenty of clothes. Our kitchen is well stocked with the latest appliances. The list goes on, and on. There is nothing unusual about my stuff: I am a pretty typical American. To be honest, there are things that we do not have simply because we do live on a budget, but we lack for nothing, really. I live the good life… on a budget, no less!
The elephant in the room, though, is that I don’t feel like I am living the good life. It is no secret that material goods and riches do not make people feel happy or good about their lives. You don’t even have to be a religious person to realize this. Of course, material comforts can certainly cover over a great deal of pain and misery in life and this is one reason that people keep adding “things” to their lives. “Cover over” is the operative word, though. Deep down, most people, including rich people, know that, despite all the stuff in our lives, something important is still missing.
What makes for a truly good life? What would be good about it? Are we talking about finding meaning in life? significance? purpose? Mr. Brewer focused on maximizing the outward material trappings of life. Some of us have a sense that the truly good life comprises, not steak and fine wine, but something on the inside, deep in our souls. Since this is the domain of religion, then looking to the Scriptures seems like a logical place to go for answers, at least for a Christian. When I read the Scriptures, though, I am disappointed, because what I find there is unclear and, sometimes even cryptic.
Jesus said, “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (John 10:10, The Message) I expect that in 2100 years of church history, no theologian has ever argued that Jesus was thinking in terms of food or drink, or any other material effect. Thus, his answer to the most fundamental question of life is categorically different from that of Mr. Brewer and more in line with what I expect to hear from a religious book like the Word of God. But, even after Jesus has spoken, I am left wondering, “So, what is real life? Am I not living a real life now?”
Jesus said something else that might be helpful. No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.1 Simply put: if you want to be materialistic, you cannot have God. What the smartest person the world has ever known is saying is that on one side, you have everything in the world, and on the other side, you have God. Make your choice. And why would Jesus make such a black and white statement unless he knew that one of these choices was far better than the other from virtually every perspective?
I want to choose God, but here’s my problem: the things in this world are pretty darned attractive. I like to eat good food, sleep in a comfortable bed, drive a decent car. I like work and sex and hobbies and watching movies. I enjoy reading good books and writing about life. I delight in my wife and children and grandchildren. I revel in the birds flocking around the bird feeder on the deck and the expansive view of the valley beyond. In short, I like living the good life.
And what comprises the God side of the equation? For most Christians, the God option is a Sunday-only thing, a religious thing. God is confined to religious activities like church attendance and prayer, Bible reading and witnessing.
Balancing the two sides of the equation, my material life wins every time, because the God side of the equation does not seem to hold a candle to the rest of my existence. I am not calling Jesus a liar, but I am saying that I do not understand what he was talking about when he said that he came to give me an “abundant life.” I know that my riches can be blinding,2 but I am not so sure that even the poor of the world would understand Jesus much better. If you ask most of them what would make their lives better (whatever that might mean), they would not respond with “more time to pray” or “daily worship services.” They would want better food and decent health care. The point is that my problem is universal. It is a human problem. It is the human condition.
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This post frames the problem. In subsequent posts I will describe how I am responding to this issue in my life. There must be a response. Otherwise, depression or even suicide ensues. That depression is the number one clinical disorder worldwide suggests that billions of people have not dealt effectively with the most fundamental question of life: what is the good life?
1 Matt 6:24
2 I am sure that my wealth complicates my ability to understand, but I cling to hope because God has not barred the wealthy from heaven. (Mark 10:23-27)