31 October 2021

Treasure On Earth, Treasure In Heaven

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Matthew 6:19-21

The other day I happened across two editorial pieces, one at "Quoth The Raven", an alternative media pseudonymous newsletter on Substack, the other a piece in the Washington Post. The Quoth The Raven article was more or less a rebuttal to the Washington Post piece calling for Americans to "lower their expectations" regarding the shortages and price hikes that are seemingly everywhere of late. The Quoth The Raven took the opportunity to address what the author called "the quality of life con."

While both are interesting reads, ultimately both are wrong.

Quoth The Raven And "The Quality Of Life Con"

The thrust of the Quoth The Raven piece was that by settling for less, by lowering our expectations, we allow our "quality of life" to be slowly, steadily, incrementally diminished.

Quality of life needs to be talked about loudly because it can (and will) be whittled away at without being noticed until, one day, you wake up and your quality of life is much poorer than it was years ago. This is akin to the “weighted blanket theory” case against the Federal Reserve I made on YouTube earlier this year: it falls on you slowly, and you don’t notice it until it’s too late.

On a day by day basis, quality of life can be washed away by things like shrinkflation, higher prices, and exactly what Maynard is arguing for in her op-ed: lowered expectations.

In other words, every day, in small increments, the material things that define our economic "quality of life" can be (and currently are being) washed away.  This is wrong, according to the author, and we should never accept it as inevitable. Rather, we should constantly insist our material desires be met to the greatest extent possible

Again, I think it is appropriate to always be thankful and humble about what we have, but we should stand firm in the expectation that we want our quality of life to continue to progress instead of regress.

Yet is it appropriate or at all wise to focus on material wants and wealth? Certainly the idea seems very much at odds with the teaching from Matthew 6:19-21, which is that we should not focus on material wants and wealth. 

Moreover, in 1 Timothy the Apostle Paul teaches that we should be very careful about the material world.

For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.

Standing firm on the expectation of material wealth does not seem very much in keeping with what the Bible teaches us about successful living.

Micheline Maynard And "Lowered Expectations"

Yet if the author of Quoth The Raven gets it wrong, so, too, does Micheline Maynard in her op-ed piece from The Washington Post.

Customers’ persistent whine, “Why don’t they just hire more people?,” sounds feeble in this era of the Great Resignation, especially in industries, such as food service, with reputations for being tough places to work.

Expecting prompt deliveries and good service is, according to Ms Maynard, "whining". Yet is it really? Even Jesus taught that we are not wrong to expect to get the things for which we ask (and frequently pay in advance), as we see in Matthew 7:9-10:

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?

If I want to buy a purple mug, why should I simply settle for a blue one that is "just as nice", to borrow an example from Ms. Maynard's piece? Why should I not take my business to where I can get the purple mug, rather than purchasing the blue one from the vendor who does not have what I explicitly want?

There is no virtue in such settling. There is no righteousness found in blithely taking whatever compromise alternative good or service is put before us, irrespective of what we seek. Our wants are what they are; it is foolishness to pretend they are anything else, and even more foolishness to pretend that we can simply not have them. The human condition is, for better or worse, one of wanting and desire. Regardless of what we rationalize about them, we cannot change the fact that our wants and desires exist, and are going to continue to exist.

Expectations And Desires Are Always A Problem

The simple truth that must be remembered is that expectations and desires--and our indulgence of them--are themselves intrinsically a problem. Expectations, wants, and desires might be inevitable, but focusing our energies on them is simply not helpful to anything we might do. As Ecclesiastes teaches us:

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

If we base our notion of "quality of life" on material things, what ensues is vanity and a striving after wind. No good will come from this, and there is certainly nothing to be gained under the sun. It is not that there is a point where material desires become counterproductive, but rather that material desire itself is always counterproductive. I might want to buy the purple mug, but I am a fool if I think the purple mug is going to bring me any lasting happiness, and I am equally a fool if I think I can be made equally content with the blue one offered up as a substitute. 

Indeed, the very fact that I might be denied the opportunity to get the purple mug will itself detract from my happiness, as is always the case with a want left unfulfilled.

Treasure on earth gives precious little satisfaction or joy, and what it does give does not last. Even Jesus warns us about this, pointing out that treasures on earth deteriorate, rust, and fade away, and if we want lasting satisfaction and joy, we must not seek it in earthly desires.

As Ecclesiastes demonstrates, it is not a question of earthly desires being "wrong", but rather that we cannot get from earthly desires that which we seek from those earthly desires. Gratifying our wants and desires will bring us pleasure, but it will never bring us happiness. That is simply not the way of the world.

Say "No" To Puritanism

Yet while material want does not produce happiness, neither does the deliberate and intentional denial of want. Denouncing material desires or the pursuit of them as either wrong or even evil is also a form of vanity, an imposition of ego onto the world--a world that is never going to be impressed by ego. The Puritan ascetic is as mistaken in his approach as the profligate hedonist. Obsessive denial and piggish pleasure are merely opposite sides of the same extremist coin.

Looking again to Ecclesiastes, we find the teaching of the moderate approach, of taking each day in its turn, with whatever pain and pleasure it might hold.

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

The pains and the pleasures of this world both come from God, for He is the author of everything. He gives us both bounty and scarcity, healing and affliction. As God reminded Job:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?

All that we have in this world comes from God. Whether it be good or ill, it comes from God, and in some fashion serves His will. Whatever is put before us, then, we are well advised to take up and use in service to God.

Treasure In Heaven

Thus we return to Jesus' teaching in Matthew, to lay up treasures in Heaven. 

His counsel is not to reject the bounty of this world, nor to greedily seek to possess the bounty of this world. His counsel is not to embrace a life of suffering, nor to flee from such a life. 

Rather, His counsel is to live this life with an eye to the next. His counsel is to seek that which is permanent and not that which is temporary. Be thankful for the good things that come our way in each day, but also be aware that tomorrow is another day, and those good things may or may not be there.

Yet in each day, regardless of what we are given, we are called to seek God, and to serve Him. We are called to cultivate a joyous and thankful heart towards Him. As Psalm 100:4 states:

Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him, bless His name!

How do we do this? We do this simply by putting into practice the Great Commandments--by loving the Lord with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul, and also by loving our neighbor even as we love ourselves.

I do this by being appreciative of the vendor who can sell me the purple mug, and also respectful of the vendor who, having no purple mugs, offers to sell me a blue one instead. I do this by being courteous to the waitress who serves me at breakfast, and by being courteous to those whom I will serve in the course of an ordinary day. I do this by being thankful for the vendor who can sell me what I want, thankful for the vendor who seeks only to sell that which he has, and thankful both for those who attend upon me and upon whom I attend.

For each of us, there are days that will be bountiful and days that will be wanting. The call for each of us is to be thankful for all the days, both bountiful and wanting. It is through such thankfulness that we lay up treasure in Heaven, no matter what treasure we find here on Earth.

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