Some of you may have heard that this past Monday was International Happiness Day. To observe this day the World Happiness Report issued its yearly findings on the happiest countries. Norway was ranked number one (the United States was down one slot from 13 to 14). The rankings were based on sense of community, broad social welfare, health care and housing. Americans are getting sadder and Norwegians can’t be happier. I have a few concerns about the report – first of all they had National Happiness Day on a Monday, hello. Secondly, I’ve never been to Norway but I hear its really cold, so I’m not convinced people that cold can be that happy. I’m not sure I believe it. But it does tell me that happiness is sort of in the eye of the beholder.
We have a tendency to be envious of other people’s situations and say, “Wow, if I only had what they have.” If only I could live in Norway. But this is misleading and usually not helpful. When we compare ourselves to others we’re never seeing the whole picture. Their Facebook page looks great, but if you talked to them you might find out that they have problems too. Tim Keller talks about a woman in his church who came to him for counseling after years of bad decisions and bad relationships. The woman was very attractive and she attracted bad men. “She was cursed with being beautiful,” Keller writes. He means that she was so beautiful that her whole life things came too easily for her. She didn’t have to earn much. Doors were opened for her that weren’t for others. But in the end, she had problems too, problems that maybe she would’ve caught earlier, or avoided, if she hadn’t been so attractive.
You may be thinking, there are worse problems than being too attractive. Of course there are. But that’s my point – if we would live our lives for God then we must live with the particular gifts and challenges God has given to us. Someone else’s gifts and problems is, in this sense, beside the point.
Jesus talks about using the particular gifts and resources that God has given to each us in a famous Parable called the Parable of the Talents. Let’s look at it together.
Read Matthew 25.14-29
The first thing to note in the story is that each servant was given a different number of “talents.” Think wealth. The master divides the care of his wealth among his servants. Each is given a different amount “according to his ability.”
The master knew his servants. He knew which had the most ability and which had the least. This is true to life. Gifts are unevenly given. We can spend a lot of time wondering why we were born with certain physical traits. We can envy someone else’s singing voice or high IQ. There is a lot that seems unfair in this. Some people counter this by proclaiming that “you can be anything you want to be if you just believe it.” You know, “Life is what you make it.” I understand the hope behind this, but it is a troublingly self-centered view. Doesn’t life get a say in this? For example, do you remember the story of the Grizzly Man who famously lived among the grizzly bears in Alaska? He would spend long periods of time dangerously close to the bears as they fed. He would explain to people that he understood them in ways that no one else did, and that he was completely safe. And that remained true until the day the grizzlies ate him. The bears had a different understanding of their relationship to the grizzly man than he did. No one doubts that he believed he could understand them, but to some degree “the world is independent of our interpretations of it.” Sometimes life just is what it is.
So maybe your reality is x number of gifts and talents – x is more than some others you know but not as much as you would like. What now? Let’s look to the parable again.
The master goes away on his journey and the servants are left to be stewards of what they have been given. The master returns, greets his servants, and asks that they give an account of themselves. The one who had been given five talents doubled them. The servant who had been given two talents was able to double them as well. To these servants the master responded:
“Well done, good and trustworthy servant. You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
The third servant, however, appeared before the master with a different tale:
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here it is back.”
Here we get a glimpse of perhaps why the master had originally entrusted the smallest amount to this servant. The master knew something beforehand about him. Much has been written about this parable and risk-taking and investment and multiplying your wealth. That may be true. But what is beyond doubt is that this third servant committed the one sin that the master would not overlook – he did nothing with what he had been given.
Maybe he made the excuses that we make sometimes – “Well, it’s not fair my boss gave my coworkers more. He likes them better.” Or “I didn’t have time to do what I really wanted to do” or “No one gave me a chance.”
In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell dedicates two whole chapters on a discussion of human IQs. He notes that there has been a lot of research done on the Intelligence Quotient. For many years researchers believed that the people with the very highest IQs should naturally do the best in life. They should succeed in every way in society. For example, if we early on identify children with the elite IQs then we will have identified our future scientists, artists, and world leaders. But studies over many years have shown that to not be true. Most people with high IQs do reasonably well, but there is a point where having an IQ of 125 is as good as 150, and 150 is as good as 175. Gladwell compares it to height in a basketball player. You have to be tall to play in the NBA, but only tall enough. The greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan, was 6’6”. That’s tall by ordinary people standards but not NBA standards. There were and are many players taller than Michael Jordan but none as good. Same with IQ - life requires some smarts, but it’s what you do with the smarts you have that matters.
It comes down to disciplined effort in our lives whether we “succeed” in life and become the best version of our selves we can be. If Jesus lived my life or your life, he would live a disciplined life. He wouldn’t waste his time thinking or saying, “Gee, this guy doesn’t have much going for him.” He wouldn’t waste time comparing our gifts to others. He would make the best of what he was given. Disciplined habits are not only spiritual habits but many of them have a spiritual component. A spiritual practice or discipline is “anything that can help me become what I cannot become on my own, naturally,.”
Remember, what is happening “under the surface” of my life is the most important thing in my life. Is the under surface part of me full of good habits, honesty, hard work, prayer, generosity of spirit, peaceful contentment? Or is my “under the surface” full of laziness, self-pity, and selfishness?
In the book Boundaries Henry Cloud notes The Law of Activity and says this:
“God will match our effort, but will never do our work for us.”
Those who live a disciplined life with Jesus will find that life opens up to them in ways they may not have thought possible. When we make the best of what we’ve been given, more comes to us.
“For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Matthew 25.29
Comedienne Dave Chappelle was on Jimmy Kimmel the other day. Chappelle is in the midst of a big comedy tour. He just sold two different standup recordings for 68 million dollars. He’s doing pretty well. Kimmel asked him about a recent show in Detroit and how TMZ reported that “Chapelle was booed off the stage.”
Chapelle said, “That is incorrect. I was booed. I did not leave.”
Dave Chapelle still gets booed. He still regularly gets heckled. He accepts this matter of factly: “That just Comedy. That comes with the mechanics.”
The mechanics of life are such that most things worth having and doing take sustained effort. The answer is to stay disciplined. And when Life tries to boo you off the stage, just know you are not alone. Jesus is with you. He loves you so much that He went through Hell for you. He’s your biggest fan.