A few weeks back, a friend (Charles Pitt) posted a link to a TEDTalk on Facebook that I found really intriguing. It’s a talk presented by Robert Waldinger who is the current director of the longest running study of adult development. This Harvard-based study has been closely tracking the lives of 724 men for over 75 years. The men were drawn from two groups: Post World War II Harvard Students, and boys from poor, inner-city Boston neighbourhoods. Sixty of the original men are still alive. The goal of the study was to answer the question of what makes us healthy and happy. Their conclusions are astounding. Simply stated,
Good relationships keep us happier and healthier throughout the course of life.
Nothing else. Not fame (there was even a US President in the sample group!) and not fortune. Simply relationships. Good, close, committed relationships with family, friends and community.
The talk is well-worth a listen (you can view it here). Most astounding to me is the fact that it simply echoes the truth that God has been whispering for millennia: It’s not good for us to be alone (Gen 2:18). We were made for relationship – with God, with the people around us, and with our world.
In the gospels there is an account of a lawyer trying to test Jesus, he comes to him and says,
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” LUKE 18
It seems pretty simple really. Do you want eternal life – abundant life, a blessed, happy and satisfying life? Then do these two things: Love God, and love your neighbour. Simple.
But the truth is, relationships are hard work. They’re complicated and messy and require constant tending and attention. In fact, they’re downright impossible. Love God with ALL my heart and ALL my strength and ALL my mind? And love my neighbour AS MYSELF? That’s so easy to memorize, but so hard to do.
It’s easier to give up on relationships when they get difficult and look for happiness in other places. So we shy away from God and we try to find our happiness in other places. We live for the next gadget or event or adventure. We strive for the next promotion or accolade. We have our hearts set on our next car, new home or some home improvement. We push ourselves to eat right, exercise and beat that next stage race or make that next deal. Our list of ambitions is an endless stream of mostly good things. We think that when we can check off this list we’ll find peace and satisfaction and happiness in life. We hope that if we can achieve these things our lives will be less stressful, people will love and respect us, our kids will be perfect and our spouse will proudly dote on us. We’ll be able to put our feet up and blissfully enjoy the spoils of our labour. A gloriously satisfying life.
But it is a mirage.
We are so often guilty of thinking we can find happiness by chasing after our own self-interests and giving ourselves everything our deceitful hearts want, but in the end, this is a path that leads to death (Proverbs 14:12). It leads to the death of our relationship with God and the destruction of our relationships with others. It leads us towards becoming lonely Scrooges – lords of our own sad little kingdoms; despots ruling our pitiful territory with an iron fist. Relationships become useful only in so much as they serve our own self-interest.
It is into this context that Jesus says, “Do you want to find eternal life – robust, everlasting, all-encompassing, overflowing life? Then love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. Do this and you will live.”
Jesus invites us to an outward-focused life of messy, challenging, costly and soul-satisfying relationships – with the assurance that in so doing we will find eternal life. It’s at once both enticing and overwhelming. It’s the life we all so desperately want, but it seems so infinitely out of reach.
There is a phrase in the story of Samuel that sums it up. Eli, the old, failing priest of Israel, rebukes his apostate sons. He says, “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” (1 Samuel 2:25). But they wouldn’t listen, and God put them to death. It was smooth, swift justice for two brothers with no one left to intercede for them.
That’s pretty much where we stand. Through our own efforts we can sometimes mend our damaged and frayed relationships with other people (if we’re willing to try). We can go to marriage counselling, we can forgive a friend who may have hurt us, we can welcome back a wayward child. We can apologize to people whose trust we have betrayed. The lessons of the Harvard study prove that leaning into our relationships with other people will lead to a healthier and happier life.
But what of our relationship with God? Who can intercede for us? The primary, life-giving relationship of loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind is irreparably damaged. We have sinned against him and without a mediator to intercede for us we stand in line for his certain justice.
This is where the Harvard study falls short. It touches on the common grace of God in blessing the lives of people who make relationships a priority in their lives, but it fails to address the most glaring of all our failures – namely our failure to love God. Furthermore, it says nothing of God’s call to love the people we don’t want to love, the people different to us in language, culture, colour and creed.
The astounding beauty of the Gospel is that through Jesus, God steps into the gap. God himself becomes our mediator through Jesus. And through his death and resurrection he intercedes for us and bears the justice of God. He opens the way for us to be reconciled to God and to become his instruments of reconciliation in the world. He offers to mend the most critical of all our relationships and invites us into a life that is rooted and established in his love. A life where we are drawn to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and where we can be empowered to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Do this and you will live!