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Editorial: Our blind spot

As you may already know, money doesn’t buy you happiness.  Professors Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahneman explain:

The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities.1

The ‘happiness threshold’ in the US seems to be about $12,000-15,000 per year. Any less than that really means living hand-to-mouth, which is understandably quite stressful. Earning above that threshold, however, is not strongly correlated with more happiness. In fact, people who earn less than $20,000 are often happier and more satisfied than those earning more than $100,000.

I found this study surprising. Well, at least a little. I knew what the results would be in general terms, but I thought the threshold might be slightly higher—maybe, perhaps, a fraction above what I  currently earn.

When the rich ruler comes to Jesus (Luke 18:18ff) to ask about eternal life, Jesus points him to God’s law. Just as we know that certain terms belong together (Hansel and Gretel; hook, line, and sinker), Jesus gives a list of commandments with a couple missing, letting us fill in the blanks:  “Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour your father and mother” (Luke 18:20).

The missing commandments in that list concern covetousness and treating God as God. This ruler appears outwardly to follow God, but has not made the sacrifices and re-orientation of life in order to follow Jesus. When confronted with his wealth—and greed—he goes away dismayed.

Many of us have much in common with this ruler. I certainly do. I have an abundance of possessions. I am very wealthy—perhaps not particularly so when compared to those in my suburb, but outrageously so on almost any other possible measure. On occasion I realize what Jesus’ call to discipleship involves, but I am dismayed and wish it were otherwise.

To put it another way, the blind spot for this particular man is one many of us share in our comfortable, middle-class Christianity. Phil Colgan points out in this issue that greed (which is idolatry) really is the besetting sin of our churches. It’s something we pick up implicitly from our culture and rarely challenge in any deep way. I commend very highly Phil’s article on finances (published here on Nov 26th). It’s in the ‘pastoral ministry’ section since it’s addressed primarily to pastors and leaders, but the bulk of what he has to say is to do with the kind of radical discipleship Jesus requires of the ruler in Luke 18 (and therefore all of us).

As you read this issue of The Briefing I’m sure you will find at least some of it to be really quite challenging, especially Tony’s article on personal evangelism (5th Nov) and Phil’s piece on finances (26th Nov). As you read and reflect on your own life in service to Jesus, I urge you to do so prayerfully, remembering his words in the midst of this episode with the rich ruler: “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

 

  1. D Kahneman, AB Krueger et. al., ‘Would you be happier if you were richer? A focusing illusion’, Science, vol. 312, no. 5782, 30 June 2006, pp. 1908-10.

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