To go spiritually deep, and not wide, invites us to come to terms with a cluster of vulnerabilities we all share—three instincts that touch our deepest human longings: control, affection, and security. This orientation is so pervasive in the human journey that we will return to it again and again. Let’s dig into it right here at the beginning.
A large chunk of our words, attitudes, and behaviors flow directly out of one of these three motivations: We try to power up in situations to avoid feeling out of control; we reach discretely to earn approval and affection from those whose opinion we value; we create agendas (seen and unseen) to feel more safe and secure in an unpredictable world. This is not some of us; this is all of us.
Emotional Programs For Happiness
It was a modern monk, Thomas Keating, who coined the expression “emotional programs for happiness” to describe our human instincts toward meeting these legitimate needs in illegitimate ways.[i] He observed these three tendrils and then described how they creep into our behavior as vain efforts to be happy. We all want to be happy. And the lack of control, affection, and security feels noticeably unhappy!
What is fascinating to me is how each of the Benedictine vows confronts one of these programs of human longing with divine supply. We long for these three qualities in our lives (one in particular, based on our personality) not because they are bad but because they are good. The quandary comes when we cannot generate them for ourselves—and we never really can.
No matter how much we posture and jockey for power (even in our own lives, not to mention in others’ lives), where are we ever really in full control? And how much power do we wield to make people like us? The best we can do is try to please, but even here, there is no guarantee of affection. And security? Come on! Even the wealthiest can’t buy safety from so many of life’s threats. So it’s right here that the effervescent happiness of Jesus attests to the impact of the gospel: We don’t have to! We don’t have to spin our wheels in desperate efforts to be safe, loved, and strong because God has already offered those gratuitously. Free and clear. On the house. We can’t generate them; we can only receive them.
What an incredible relief.
Personality and Human Fragility
Our emotional programs for happiness get triggered in a big way as we attempt to compensate for our human fragility. And this is where personality takes on distinct form: We criticize others or we criticize ourselves. We work harder or we play harder. We try to solve it in our heads or connect with it in our hearts or bodies. We try to be more different or we try to be more the same. We get angry or fearful or deceptive or aloof as a way of feeling stronger, safer, and more lovable.
There are religious versions of this too. We can subconsciously inflate spiritual persona. We can subtly (or not so subtly) announce our achievements, responsibilities, or busyness. We can flatter or demand. We can withhold knowledge or intrude with it. We can use overtly spiritual language to buffer our personal agendas. But none of these strategies work; they do not make us happier. Even when they appear to work, it’s an illusion. And the illusion of generating our own happiness is perhaps the greatest danger of all.
God’s Control, Security, and Affection
So what if you and I don’t have to control the people and appearances and circumstances of life? The only way that could be true is if God really has all things under control—the good, the bad, and the ugly all belong and serve their purpose. Dare we believe that? And what if we are all ultimately safe—not from pain or tragedy but in the midst of it? What if God’s commitment to our good cannot be compromised by any flaw in ourselves or in others, unbroken by loss of job or spouse or money or even life itself? Well, that would be security indeed. And what if approval and affection were ours for the taking, unlimited in scope and degree?
Receiving what we crave most around these three needs hinges on one thing: our view of God. And our view of God’s view of us. Is God pleased or angry? Is God merciful or vindictive? Despite all sound theology, it’s more likely than not that we experience a vague sense of God’s pleasure in those rare moments when we’ve got all our plates spinning as impressively as possible—and a vague sense of God’s disappointment in those more common moments when the plates begin to topple. When we’re not getting our devotions in regularly, when we’re not getting to the gym regularly, when we’re not making it to Bible study regularly. When dinner is burned and kids are crying and the lawn isn’t mowed. How does God feel about us then?
Only a clear eye toward God’s unmitigated delight in us has the capacity to evoke the abiding experience of approval, security, and control that we need in our depths. Our ability to feel approved by God, to feel the security of his embrace, and to entrust ourselves to his control—each of these depends on our view of God.
Wow, can you feel your roots going down even as we consider these profound truths? This is a groundedness beyond expectation. This is where gravitas begins.
Even though we are going to explore the monastics, we don’t live cloistered lives: We live in the thick of life, which is exactly where God’s ways are needed most. But we can’t carry something we don’t have, and that takes us to our own personal monastery—the space where we cultivate our awareness of God and God’s transforming grace in our lives through spiritual practice.