Thursday, 20 February 2014


Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Matthew ch7 v7 Jesus of Nazareth was much less a religious teacher than a life coach. He often draws attention to things people need to understand if they are to live fulfilled lives, as he does here. One of the important things we need to understand is that wanting and having belong together; the one leads towards (if not always quite to) the other. You want something; you acknowledge that you want it; you reach out for it; you obtain it – or perhaps you don’t; there’s no guarantee of success, despite this saying. The only guarantee is that wanting and having can do damage to us when they are consistently split apart. Without wanting, having loses its savour. Without having, wanting tends to make us disappointed and bitter. Yet wanting and having can be split apart, and religious teaching often plays a part in this. John Wesley for example encouraged parents to ‘break the wills’ of their children, and a very effective way of doing this is to systematically disappoint a child’s desires. But there is worse yet. Merely to systematically disappoint wantings by preventing them fulfilling themselves as havings is not nearly as effective in stifling wants as the thought that to want things and to reach out for them is not merely unlikely to be successful or even is shameful. Much more effective is to inculcate the idea that there is something terrifying about fulfilling one’s wants. The point of ‘terror’ is that it is unspecific; if we knew what we were terrified of, it would be, not a terror, but something we could consider facing and maybe overcoming, and in doing so come a little closer to being makarios. Now obviously children must learn that they can’t have everything; but they need to grow up understanding that their wanting is connected in a reliable way with their having, via asking, trying hard, saving up, working patiently and so on. They must be taught, and shown, how to knock on life’s doors in the confident expectation that they will, eventually, be opened. Of course it’s important to remember that what we may want, or think we want, is not always in our longer term truly best interests, or may damage valuable relationships, or may seriously hurt other people’s legitimate interests, or may be illegal or even simply impossible. But that means that we have to learn to be discriminating about our wants – and you don’t get to learn that by being systematically discouraged from turning your wantings into havings. Indeed, if the wanting-having link is broken for you, you have no reason to learn to be discriminating in your wanting; you can fantasise about all kinds of outlandish wants safe – you hope – in the knowledge that they won’t ever be realised. But to the extent that you know the wants are outlandish, you’ll frighten yourself by your outlandishness, and that in turn gives an added reason to make sure that your wants are never realised. If you are brought up to accept as a rule that what you want you can’t or mustn’t have, several unfortunate things may follow. You may deal with your unfulfillable wantings by denying to yourself, never mind to other people, that you wanted those things in the first place; you learn not to know yourself in this important regard. One reason why this is serious is that sometimes it is in the deepest longings of our hearts that what we mean by ‘God’ calls us to our vocations; if we cannot dare to hear that call, we are likely to find ourselves leading aimless lives. Another is that if we can’t allow wanting to lead towards having, we will often find ourselves having things we never wanted, and needing, perhaps rather disconsolately, to make the best of what we happen to have been given. And even when what we have been given does turn out to be something we wanted, we won’t have them because we wanted them; in that sense they can give us only limited satisfaction. As far as ordinary life is concerned, religion generally seems to want to contradict Jesus, to say ‘Knock all you like, but it shall NOT be opened to you’. Christianity as a consequence has had to spiritualise this saying of Jesus to imply that the only things we can seek and reliably find are things like divine forgiveness and spiritual strength. There are several possible reasons for religion taking this approach: • From the agricultural revolution until very recently, many wants were for most people entirely unfulfillable; to encourage unfulfillable wanting might be thought of as cruel. But times have changed at least in our society, and they might have changed a good deal earlier if ordinary people had not been taught not to want, or at least to accept that they weren’t going to have, good things. • The notion of sacrifice – giving up what you most dearly want to keep – is ingrained in ancient religion because it felt a need to propitiate a powerful, jealous and capricious god. But we know that the God of Jesus of Nazareth is not like that, but is rather to be thought of as a loving father. • Discipline is undoubtedly a good thing, and we know that people who can delay the gratification of their desires tend to be happier and more successful in life. But religion has tended to interpret the ‘not just now, not just yet’ of discipline and delayed gratification into the ‘never’ of ‘Thou shalt not’. And of course not wanting, making endless sacrifices, and ‘thou-shalt-not’ discipline do not demand anything more of the believer than obedience; in particular, they do not demand or allow, and certainly do not help, believers to make thoughtful judgements about their wants and needs. They do not help us to grow up, and it’s his children’s growing up that a truly loving father hopes for and works for.

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