Bust the Dam

I continue to ruminate on the proper relationship between Christians and wealth. By wealth I don’t mean simply money, cars, houses, material goods, etc. I also mean talent, intelligence, athletic ability, time, emotion, etc. All goods are wealth, although some are more easily seen that way than others.

The problem, as I have said before, is not that wealth is bad, but that it is good. If it were not, we would not be addicted to it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our addictions are a clue as to our greatest treasures, at least in moderately high-functioning people. There are some people who are addicted to trash, and in the end all addiction ends up being an addiction to trash (because it trashes the good it craves).

But on a deeper level, I think it likely that the addictions we choose, our drug of choice, is a window into our greatest gifts from God. What we most want to horde for ourselves is a clue as to how we were created to apprehend the goodness and beauty of God. An example would probably help here.

Let’s talk about a video game addict. When I was playing video games every spare moment of my life I was hanging onto a good. I wanted adventure, challenge, accomplishment. I don’t want those things any less now that I no longer play video games. I want them more, and it is because I want them more that I don’t play video games, but is also because I don’t play video games anymore that my desire for the real deal is stronger.

I collect knowledge like Audubon painted birds. I love learning new things and integrating them into my previous knowledge schemas. I love learning something that forces me to revise that schema. There is an almost sensuous delight, as real as a perfectly grilled bite of kalbi ribs, in seizing onto a new and fascinating fact. Last week I geeked out for an entire day because I learned that Phosphofructokinase-1 and Fructose 1,6 Bisphosphatase were actually the same enzyme. Sometimes I physically tremble with excitement at a new theory or discovery I have never known before.

I could very easily spend my life as a permanent scholar, just learning and learning and learning, simply for the delight of knowing. Knowledge of truth and the rapturous, almost worshipful gaze at the interconnectedness of all truth is a primary way that I apprehend the Goodness, Truth and Beauty that God is.

The problem with that scenario is that knowing facts and understanding things as an end in themselves is a trap, just as surely as booze, sex or video games. In fact, being a higher pleasure, it could be an even deeper trap. I can easily ignore my duties to my family, spend money we don’t have on books I don’t need, shake my head with condescending pity on people who don’t love knowledge, and generally be an insufferable know-it-all.

In case you are wondering, I have done all of those things.

How do we prevent the good that we love most in the whole world from becoming an idol?

Of course there is the pure ascetic approach: i.e. just give it up. I don’t know if that is necessarily the most enlightened response. It certainly isn’t for me.

Once again I marvel at the wisdom Of God’s plan in designing inequality into the very fabric of creation. All men are not created equal. Equal in worth? Yes. Equal in anything else? Certainly not. Nowhere in the history of the world will you find two people with exactly identical personalities, temperaments, talents, intellects, athletic abilities, etc.

This inherent inequality is not a bad thing! It is one of our greatest blessings because it forms the foundation of all community, by mirroring our relationship with God, which is one of infinite inequality. He is everything and needs nothing. We are nothing and need everything. The symmetry is perfect!

Similarly say you have two people, one a genius confined to a wheelchair, the other an uneducated farmer with a back of steel and arms of iron. The genius gets to play the role of God in giving generously of his knowledge and wisdom to the farmer, perhaps by teaching him, perhaps by inventing new methods of agriculture, perhaps by awakening in his heart a thirst for knowledge. However, in terms of physical needs, the genius stands in relation to the farmer as they both stand in relation to God, i.e. one of vulnerability and need. The farmer gets to take on the role of God in providing food for the genius.

All blessings God gives are like water. We are like the rivers through which those blessings are meant to flow. The worst thing we can do is try to keep those blessing for ourselves. If we do that, we will end up sterile and stagnant, foul and festering. But it is equally absurd to say, “If I let the water in I will be tempted to hold onto it, so I am going to damn up the river at the top of the valley and not let any water in.”

The proper route of blessings is through. Everything God gives us is for a purpose, it is to bring some person closer to Him. Give it to someone who needs it. This is the most effective way of detaching oneself from goods that could potentially be a pitfall.

Some people like to dam up the river at the lower end, not to keep the blessings in but to give them more power when they are released. Billionaire philanthropists are like this. So are surgeons who spend 20 years educating themselves to perform delicate brain surgeries.

But I can’t but think that the greatest saints were those who blew up the dam, and just let it all go. Mother Teresa, St. Francis, etc. Those who held nothing back, didn’t worry about where tomorrow’s blessings were going to come from. They just gave everything away every moment. That, to me, is far more exciting and romantic than a hydro-electric plant.

It just sounds fun!

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