Can Humanism Save Humanity?

Recently, I have been watching Ken Burns’ excellent 1996 documentary, The WestYou could say it’s a 9-part commentary on how the American west was won. But, it would be more accurate to say that it’s a chilling and brutal story of how human beings of any race will hate and kill each other whenever they have the power to do so.

Native Americans against Native Americans, Europeans against Native Americans or Africans, or Native Americans against Europeans—it doesn’t matter how you trace your bloodline, blood-letting seems to be in our blood. The history of the American west is a history of bloodshed in the name of a king, or a president, or God, or a tribe, or mere hatred for anyone not us.

It’s enough to make me be ashamed—not to be white, or American—but to be human. The  more I learn about history, any history, the less faith I have in humanity, including myself.

And yet, the dominant western philosophy since the Enlightenment, Humanismwould have me believe that humanity itself will create a better future for all people, that we are our own best hope.

Humanism is intellectually committed to faith in the innate nobility, goodness and wisdom of people (individually and collectively) to effect positive change in the world around us for all people. It’s the Star Trek vision of the universe in which humanity—having already solved poverty, hunger, ignorance, disease, crime and war on earth—goes boldly out into the galaxy (“…where no man has gone before…”) to do the same for non-humans.

I suppose this means that if I was watching The West as a humanist I should say, “If I had been there, I would have helped everyone behave more nobly, more kindly, and more generously. I could have helped everyone see the nobility in each other so that they could come together to achieve shared goals for the common good.”

But that would be pretty naive of me, wouldn’t it?—not to mention, self-righteous.

No, I’m afraid I don’t have that much faith in you (collectively) or myself (individually). If you and I had been there and had had the power, we may have stolen, raided, lynched, exploited, or raped or butchered just like everyone else, in the name of our family, or tribe, or race, or faith, or employer, or gold, or government. The philanthropic exceptions among us prove the tyrannical rule.

I’m sorry Humanism, but I don’t believe you’ll be able to save humanity. The broad sweep of human history and a smattering of honest self-awareness are enough to convince me of what the Bible teaches about humanity: that left to ourselves we will go on destroying one another with our will to power.

“There you go again,” says Humanism, “appealing to ancient human writings as if they were divinely breathed. How can you believe in God, when there is so much evil in the world?”

To which I reply, “How can you believe in us, when we are the self-evident cause?”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach [the crucified and risen Christ] to save those who believe.–1 Corinthians 1:20-21

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Why Does God Make Life So Hard? And What He Wants Us to Do About It

The early 90’s were a rough time for me. I had moved my family from a difficult financial situation in Minnesota, to a worse situation in Georgia. Our long-term plans died on the vine. I was under-employed working two part-time jobs. Debt and bills were always a problem. We lived paycheck to paycheck. We had two small kids, one inconsistent income, and zero health insurance.

To make matters worse, it seemed like everyone around me was prospering. I remember taking my son to T-ball games and discovering that, apparently, normal Dads of 5-year-olds drive a new Lexus, BMW, or Mercedes. Now, I didn’t envy their cars per sé. But, being around such prosperity was like salt in a wound when, for me, just trying to make ends meet was so…

FRUSTRATING!

❯ WHAT WILL GOD DO?

Then, we received a glimmer of hope. Our pastor told us that an anonymous someone in the congregation wanted to help us financially. They knew we were in transition and struggling financially. That someone asked the pastor to meet with us and assess our needs. We didn’t know what to say. We had numbers in our heads (involving 4 digits) that we thought could solve all our problems, but we didn’t want to say as much. Our instinct was to just wait and see what God would do. You can imagine how high our hopes were.

Then our pastor dropped by to see us again. This time, he had an envelope. He left it with us. We opened it.

It held one, single, hundred dollar bill.

❯ NOT WHAT I EXPECTED

I should have been grateful for this person’s generosity. I should have been humbled. I should have been encouraged that God knew our need and cared about my family.

But, I wasn’t.

It felt like a $100 slap in the face. I felt like God was making fun of me, playing a cruel game. I was so, so mad at God. Instead of being encouraged by this gift, my frustration and depression only deepened.

That was 20+ years ago, and there was a lot wrong with my thinking back then: self-centered, ungrateful young man. But, it’s hard not to be self-centered and ungrateful when times are tough. It’s easy to be absorbed with the frustration you feel every moment of every day.

❯ CAN YOU BE SATISFIED?

You know what it’s like: It’s that bill collector, that task you can’t get right, that car that broke down again, that medical condition, that bad temper, that same old stupid mistake, that unreasonable boss, that manipulative parent, that same argument with your spouse, that sin you worry about first thing each morning. Like the so-called Chinese water torture, frustration can be a constant, gnawing, absorbing, dripping ache on your brain.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be rid of it?

Of course, you can’t. Life’s problems are here to stay. They only change; they don’t go away.

But you can learn to respond to them better and enjoy life more. You can learn be less frustrated by your problems and more satisfied with your life.

Here’s a few things that have really helped me live a more satisfied life.

1. EMBRACE A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE ON FRUSTRATION

A wise person will admit: frustration is simply part of the human condition. It’s part of the curse of our eviction from Eden. We are in exiles in a difficult world. You can read about it in Genesis 3. The first man and woman trusted themselves instead of God, so God drove them from his protecting presence. The Apostle Paul, reflecting on this, taught that God subjected all of creation to frustration (Romans 8:20). That includes me and you. The Westminster Shorter Catechism aptly calls this our fall into sin and misery. (Click the WSC link and check out questions 17-20.)

Why would God do this?—So we would realize our lives are meaningless and broken without Him at the center of it. The few people who experience only comfort and ease rarely perceive their true need for God. Frustration should cause us to look outside ourselves for rescue from this broken world. It should teach us this simple bit of wisdom: Life isn’t supposed to be this way, and only a return to God will fix it.

2. BE SURE YOUR FRUSTRATION ISN’T DESERVED

Make sure your desires and motives don’t deserve to be frustrated.

Are you:

  • Trying to control or manipulate someone?
  • Pursuing a goal that God forbids?
  • Making an idol of something or someone to the point you feel empty without it?
  • Pursuing the constant win, win, win, as if that’s the ultimate goal in life.

No one gets this 100% right 100% of the time. So, we should frequently re-evaluate our plans, behaviors, and motives. Unrighteousness can creep into our hearts unnoticed, like mold in a damp basement.

And frustration will follow. God will see to it.

3. LEARN THE SECRET OF CONTENTMENT

What’s the secret contentment?

It is, to see your life in God’s hands and to trust Him absolutely with every detail. Whatever He gives. Whatever he withholds. Whether you consider it blessing or curse. You have what you have in life as God wills, no more, no less. That is your lot. Trust Him. Thank Him.

It’s hard, I know. But it must be done.

Contentment with God’s will is the foundation of happiness and godliness in this average life. Paul spoke of contentment as a tremendous gain to the quality of one’s life (1 Timothy 6:6).

The alternative is resentment and deepening frustration.

4. LEARN THE BENEFIT OF GRATITUDE

Along with contentment, learn gratitude. Learn that everything good is gift. Everything. Even many hard things are gifts.

Gratitude has the great benefit of attracting friends. Friends are eager encouragers, supporters and helpers in time of need.

Only don’t adopt the fake, just for show, hash-tag-blessed sort of gratitude. Real gratitude generates real humility about oneself, real joy in one’s circumstances, and real compassion for others’ difficulties.

5. LEARN WHAT MONEY CAN’T DO

Money can alleviate a struggle. Money can make life more pleasant. Money can buy relaxation, comfort, and pleasure. Money can even buy health.

But money can not buy joy in life. That’s pretty common knowledge but we all seem to ignore it. Only humility, contentment and gratitude generate joy.

6. PUT YOUR HOPE IN THE RIGHT PLACE

If your hope is for, as Joel Osteen famously wrote, your best life now; you are doomed to frustration.

God’s promise is for your best life then.

Imagine that God was your genie in the bottle and you had all you could wish for in this life: comfort, pleasures, power, and immortality. You would essentially be the Adam and Eve they dreamed of before that first bite. You would never care about righteousness, holiness, or communion with God. You would look inward for your highest good and believe there was no good other than yours. Your immortal comforts would become ashes and dust to you. They would lose their charms. For you were made to experience ultimate joy and satisfaction by praising the goodness of another: your Maker.

This frustrating life is meant to teach us that. This is why the gospel is so inviting.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you [eternal] rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find [sabbath] rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”—Matthew 11:28–30, emphasis mine

Do you have ears?

Hear.

You may also find help reading:

8 Life Changing Resolutions for Frustrated Christians

God’s Will and Your Big, Stupid Mistakes

Why I Choose to Live, Not Die

Since the sad news that Robin Williams took his own life, I have seen some heated debate over two related issues: whether the suicidal have a choice, and whether suicide is selfish. I may be coming late to the party, but I needed time to sort through what was being said to articulate my feelings on these questions.

As a woman who lives with mental illness, I have faced the specter of suicide myself. I have experienced the pain of mind that makes death seem like beautiful freedom. But I refused freedom at the cost of life, and I may have to refuse it again.

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