Treasures of the Heart

My family and I have been working on a course of study in the New Testament since the beginning of the year. So far, our reading in the Gospels keeps bringing us back to one of Jesus’ central teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: the importance of the desires of our hearts. In Matthew 6, Jesus warns against storing up treasures on earth instead of treasures in heaven. Otherwise, we end up trying to serve two masters, God and wealth.

One way to view these teachings is to focus on securing blessings in the afterlife by doing the right things for the right reasons. This approach can bear some good fruit, especially if it means serving others more wholeheartedly, becoming less selfish, and living with greater hope and courage. But if storing up treasures in heaven means refusing to live in the present moment and failing to find joy in life’s simple pleasures, we’re probably missing Jesus’ point.

I’ve personally benefited from trying to understand the treasures of my own heart, which I see as my true desires and my deepest passions. What I’ve found is that my heart is remarkably fickle. As I watch my favorite sports team on TV, I’m pretty sure my greatest desire is to see them win the game. At other times, I believe I want financial success more than anything else. While in the midst of an uncomfortable social situation, I just want to escape. And when my alarm rings early in the morning, my only desire is to secure a little more sleep.

Neuroscientists tell us that we can’t really think about more than one thing at the same time. While we can switch our focus between tasks at astonishing speed, human multitasking is for the most part a myth. Our brain’s prefrontal cortex, which exercises executive control, can focus on only one thought at a time.

I think the same principle applies to the treasures of the heart. It makes sense that we can desire only one thing at the same time. If this is true, what can it teach us about the effects of modern technology on character development?

The first thing to come to mind is the power of distraction in the 21st century. Whenever I’m experiencing something unpleasant, I can pull out my smartphone and immediately turn my heart to any number of shallow desires. I can read the latest sports commentaries, interesting op-ed columns, and scintillating social media posts. Of course none of these sources align very well with what I claim to be my greatest desires, my heart’s treasure. But as I continue to spend my precious time with them, they might as well be my greatest desires.

According to Jesus’ parable of the sower, the word of God can be “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” keeping the fruit from maturing to perfection. In the same way, the things that matter most can be choked by a constant stream of online diversions.

My own experience persuades me that social media fasts, television fasts, and online news fasts are essential in getting us back in touch with our true desires that may have been smothered and stunted by a lack of nourishment.

But shunning distraction is not enough. Treasuring up what we most value means consistently doing hard things. Without putting thoughtful, strenuous effort into what we desire, we inevitably slip back into old habits, turning to sources of immediate gratification.

Sometimes I’m foolish enough to think I can get what I want out of life without clear goals and rigorous planning. But modern life has far too many distractions that need to be explicitly sacrificed to secure the treasures of the heart.

Practicing Hope in the Presence of Suffering

For too many of us, hope is in short supply these days. Americans have lost trust in the large institutions that have sustained their hope in previous generations: church, government, business, and civic organizations. In communities all over the country, rates of drug addiction, depression, and suicide are increasing.

But rich sources of hope are always available. For example, the birth of a child inspires a pristine hope, transforming the way we think about the future. For at least a few glorious moments, a mother’s agony gives way to a joyous sense of optimism. Her future is no longer a rigid extension of past and present troubles. History has been interrupted by a gift of boundless potential.

Not long after childbirth, the realities of parenthood quickly set in. But when we become discouraged, the indelible memory of holding a newborn baby for the first time can serve as a touchstone in time to restore our hope.

Where does hope come from? How can it impact our present difficulties? And how can we share hope with others?

The writings of medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas claim that hope, as a theological virtue, cannot be developed naturally. He observes that the moral virtues such as wisdom, courage, and justice can be cultivated through self-discipline and good habits. But faith, hope, and the highest form of love must be infused into our souls as divine gifts. In other words, Thomas infers that hope is not an innate part of human nature.

But Thomas’s theological insight seems a bit extreme. My personal experience with hope tells me that it can be cultivated and refined. With greater effort, hope can become more of a default mindset in our lives.

For Christians, hope centers on the life and mission of Jesus Christ. In his Theology of Hope, contemporary German theologian Jürgen Moltmann explains how Christ’s resurrection proved that history is not a closed system of occurrences, with each event constrained by what came before. The resurrection brings “to light the incomparable hitherto non-existent and new.” As such, it reveals new possibilities for the future as well. For Christian believers, knowledge of the resurrection has a creative, transforming effect on the present even as it redirects our gaze to the future. This ultimate hope provides “the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.”

Moltmann’s main argument is that hope is much more than a belief in the afterlife or a concern with the end of times, when all suffering will cease and peace will reign on the earth. On the contrary, hope transforms our lives here and now. Moltmann is concerned that too many Christian believers overlook the possibilities of happiness and change in the present. Their otherworldly gaze can rob the present of its meaning and significance.

According to Moltmann, hope is not found in the stoic acceptance of present suffering that waits patiently for the end of times. Instead, the wholeness and inclusiveness of hope “draws the future into the sufferings of the present.” Just as the hope of a glorious resurrection must confront the tragic brutality of the cross, we cannot ignore the reality of violence, suffering, and death on our own path to hope.

So what if the new life and healing we hope for never comes? If Moltmann is right, the power of hope can illuminate our path to creative new possibilities even when our most fervent desires remain unfulfilled. Paradoxically, hope can liberate us from clinging to rigid expectations and outcomes.

What we hope for is often inconsistent with our present experience of pain. Consequently, Moltmann affirms that hope contradicts experience. Because hope stands in stark conflict with our experience of suffering in the world, it inspires us to make meaningful changes in the present. According to Moltmann, “That is why faith, whenever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience, but impatience.” Hope gives us the courage to act.

This brings us to our final question: How can we inspire hope in ourselves and in others, despite our circumstances? Here are a few practical suggestions. First, we can sit down and list three things we’re grateful for in the present moment. Social scientific studies have proven that consistent gratitude improves mental health and builds reservoirs of hope.

Second, when we catch ourselves in the midst of a negative thought, we can mentally rewrite that same thought from a more optimistic perspective.

Third, we can practice and promote hope while at the same time acknowledging the reality of anguish and adversity. Our own hope lifts others when we empathize, console, and minister to their needs.

Finally, we must never stop looking for new sources of hope. We find it in an earnest prayer, in the unlimited potential of a newborn baby, in the fresh possibilities of a new friendship, and in the creative power of a new day that makes a break from the past.

Humility: Authentic Virtue or Personal Weakness?

I’ve spent the past few months researching and writing about practical wisdom, courage, self-mastery, and justice, which are described in classical ethics as the cardinal virtues. I released a podcast series on these four virtues and published an e-book entitled The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.

In my first Character Cure blog post, I’d like to begin exploring some of the other virtues required for human flourishing. Let’s start with humility.

ConfuciusIn teaching his disciples to avoid boasting, Confucius cites the example of a great warrior who had recently performed an act of valor. He was the last man to flee on horseback after his fellow soldiers had been trounced in battle. As he returned late to camp, he immediately deflected attention from his courageous acts with the excuse that his horse was slow.

The point of this anecdote is clear: modesty or humility is a distinguishing feature of noble men. Confucian humility is also a basic duty called for in the presence of your parents and the elderly. And humility is built into the Confucian definition of knowledge. While the wise are confident regarding what they do know, their quest for knowledge makes them keenly aware when they do not know something.

As a religious virtue, humility includes a profound sense of your dependence upon God. It means acknowledging the relatively meager extent of human knowledge and power. People of faith humbly turn to God for the strength and inspiration they currently lack.

Those who claim Jesus Christ as their exemplar have a particular duty to cultivate humility. In their quest to become like their Master, Christians cannot ignore the height of His self-sacrifice, submissiveness, and ultimate humiliation on the cross. Jesus’ triumph over sin and death was made possible by His self-emptying sacrifice.

John Calvin preached the doctrine of predestination largely as an antidote to pride. In Calvinist theology, good works do not factor into God’s unconditional appointment of the elect unto glory. The idea that you are elected through God’s mysterious and unmerited grace induces true humility, an essential requirement for living in God’s presence.

In cultivating the virtue of humility, we cannot ignore the legitimate critique offered by Nietzsche and other modern philosophers. When promoted by those in power, humility can be a tool to subjugate others. Along with virtues such as kindness and compassion, humility is for Nietzsche one of the central features of a “slave morality.”

AristotleAs a contrast to both Confucianism and traditional Christianity, Aristotle’s man of complete virtue wholeheartedly claims well-deserved honor and praise. His magnanimous nature is always truthful. According to Aristotle, high-mindedness rather than humility is the crown of the virtues.

On the surface, the contrast between Aristotelian pride and Christian/Confucian humility is unmistakable. However, if we look deeper, we see a significant convergence between these moral philosophies.

Starting with Jesus Christ as the embodiment of divine virtue, we can recognize that the humility of Christ emanated from his moral perfection.

In a similar way, both Confucius and Aristotle presume the rare achievement of complete human virtue as they discuss humility and high-mindedness. With regard to the vast majority of people, Aristotle speaks against unjustified arrogance just as much as Confucius.

So what is the proper place of humility within flawed human beings?

Perhaps Aristotle and Confucius are right. The question of whether a situation calls for humility or pride might only make sense when it comes to certain narrow areas of our lives where we have risen above mediocrity. If I have mastered a certain art or achieved a specific virtue, I can then decide whether to follow the Confucian and Christian path of humility or the Greek path of magnanimity and high-mindedness. Where I have not achieved excellence, the only question is how hard I am willing to work to achieve it.

Alexander Dumas’s morally flawed Count of Monte Cristo observes, “I maintain my pride before men, but abandon it before God, who drew me out of nothingness to make me what I am.” Such a sentiment has a persuasive appeal in today’s ultra-competitive society. Even though I fully recognize ways in which I am inferior to other people, why should I defer to them or diminish myself in their presence? Measuring my personal weaknesses against other people’s strengths is usually unhelpful.

So keeping your head held high might make sense as a default posture. But if you have definitively achieved some aspect of virtue, a call for humility can offer a helpful warning against arrogance and self-worship.

In the end, we are still faced with a final dilemma. How can we cultivate true humility while rejecting its self-serving forms? The appearance of humility is immeasurably easier to achieve than the authentic virtue that rises naturally from a foundation of moral excellence.

C.S. Lewis may have the best answer: “If you meet a really humble man…probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him….He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”