We avoid pain because…
We love our dream and don’t want to wake up
Have you noticed that we humans are a stockpiling people? Even those of us who aren’t too good at savings accounts know how to accumulate stuff we want. We hoard the treasures this world has to offer, believing that they will satisfy us. We build bunkers and treasure chests of various kinds, load them up with our collections of revered goods and experiences, and invest all manner of resources in defending them from outside intrusion.
Treasures of Having
Some of our treasures are material. Cars, houses, toys, cash, retirement accounts, etc. We want these things because they give us an immediate-term happy fix. In our heart of hearts, we know they’re temporary, but we love them anyway. Most of us also know that, in the extreme, they’re “bad” … but only in some amorphous, comfortably distant way. And, of course, only other people pursue them in the extreme. We tell ourselves over and over again (and there is some truth to this) that it’s okay to own them as long as they don’t own us. But here again, that’s a fairly fuzzy concept, because we typically fail to establish an actual definition of what it means for them to “own us.” In any case, when treasure is physical or material in nature, there is at least an awareness of the dangers in storing them away in ever-bigger barns (Luke 12:13-21).
Treasures of Being
But there are far more insidious treasure temptations out there than material goods. Some of the treasures of life can be found only in God Himself, but are (falsely, deceptively) promised to us by the world as well. So in addition to toys and trinkets, we also invest heavily in chasing after peace, love, wisdom, abundance, security, comfort and a big-ole’ pile of other things that God does in fact promise us. In fact, God generously gives us these things for the asking, but not as a pharmacist fills a prescription. God doesn’t hand out bags of peace or wisdom or security which are varying degrees of “full.” Rather, God gives us Himself (living water), and because He does, our cups are always overflowing. As heat and light are experienced as the natural and necessary outcome of being near the fire, so also, when we are walking with God, these treasures (and many more) naturally and necessarily result.
But when we look for these soul-deep needs in anything other than authentic communion with God … when we search and claw and scrape long enough and hard enough in this fallen world … in a sense, we do find treasures like love and happiness. But they aren’t what we think they are. Instead of finding “the real thing,” we end up with cheap copies. They shout loudly that they’re authentic, but they aren’t. They cannot satisfy us. It’s like finding safety and peace (just two examples) in a dream. While we’re sleeping and in the clutches of the dream world, they seem real, so we hold them to our chests and feel secure in them … that is, until we wake up and discover that we never had anything of the sort and that in our slumber, while we indulged fanciful dreams, we have missed the coming of real peace and real security.
Isaiah said it this way, almost 3,000 years ago…
As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. (Isaiah 29:8)
Dreamed up treasure
Real life — and all that we long for in the depths of our souls — does not come at our own hands, or because we have planned carefully and worked hard, or as a result of material wealth. We do not achieve soul-satisfying “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) through the right combination of labor, luck and LinkedIn. The most important things in life come to us exclusively in the person of Jesus Christ, whose own life and own presence are abundance, security, safety, comfort, peace, rest and so much more. Outside of the presence and power of God, these are only a dream. If we are defining our lives by the things we have or happiness we self-generate, then we are living in a dream world.
All too many people, even Christians, ignore this truth. We mistakenly believe that life consists in the abundance of things and comfort. While safe and happy in a dream world, we store away these earthly treasure like misers, and then we build fortified military-grade defensive emplacements to protect it all.
God, in His goodness and tremendous love, seeks to wake us up from this dream … before it’s too late. One of God’s most effective tools to shock us awake is to introduce painful circumstances into our lives. Like an electric shock to the heart or that really loud alarm clock I bought in college to make sure I got to my early morning classes on time after being up late night after night … pain and suffering can shatter the allusions of the dream world.
But we love our comfortable, fanciful dreams. We’re so warm and cozy in our fortified dreamland bunkers. And we feel safe. So, the last thing we want is the shock of pain or the loud alarm of suffering to wrench us out of the Matrix into the cold hard reality of the waking world. We tend to agree with Cypher, “Ignorance is bliss!”
So, unknowingly trapped in our dreams, we pour endless work, time, energy and money into fortifying our defenses. A bigger 401k will make me safe. A different job will bring fulfillment. A new girlfriend will make me happy. And whatever it takes to protect the dream state, that’s what we do … which for sure includes a severe allergy to painful circumstances. Budgeting, tithing and living generously means sacrifice, so we bail. A job can be dull and difficult, so we bail. A relationship can be messy, painfully hard work, so we bail. The dream world says to run away from these kinds of “hard” as fast as possible. Seek safety, fulfillment and happiness in something else (but of the same kind). Follow the cheese as it skips elusively around the maze. It is a dream, after all, so we don’t even question that the cheese was just here a second ago.
How do I wake up?
But what if suffering through these circumstances is exactly what would make it clear to us that it’s all a dream … a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14). What if real safety, fulfillment and happiness (and I chose these three nearly at random just to represent the point) cannot be found in any bank account, job or human relationship? What if they actually are only found in God Himself … outside the dream … in the real world? What if the real world was much harder but much better than the dream world?
If all that’s true, then God’s attempts to wake us up are paramount. As sound asleep as we are, God’s methods to rouse us are probably gonna hurt, but that’s what we need. If you have a tendency to hit snooze and fall back asleep, then the only way to avoid being late to school or work is to make the alarm clock louder, more annoying and further from the bed. God’s tactics to get your attention (some of the pain and suffering we experience in life) aren’t cruel … they’re what’s necessary for love to succeed. An easy softness that leaves us in the dream world … now that would be cruel.
A sense of urgency
And one more thing … there is, in fact, (at least) one critical flaw in this Matrix analogy. Unlike the movie, everyone will ultimately wake up from our dream. The dream we call “real life” has a clear and definite end. And it’s racing upon each of us with relentless metronome precision. Tick tock. Tick tock.
Some will remain under the pressures and challenges of life, feeling pain and seeking the Lord in suffering, until they come to grips with the reality that this really is a dream. This person takes the red pill, and wakes up to a new reality in which God Himself, by virtue of His presence, showers us in the abundance of the treasures of heaven. They come to grips with the fact that only God fulfills the needs and desires of the human heart. This doesn’t mean you’ll be rich or that life will be easy, it means that life will be lived together with God, which is more precious by far than any gold or silver or comfortable circumstances.
But others won’t wake up. They take the blue pill, “wake up in their beds the next day [still in the Matrix], and believe … whatever they want to believe.” Instead of the pain of a wake-up call, they flee discomfort, avoiding anything that would disturb their slumber. They live carefully-constructed lives to avoid anything that doesn’t feel like treasure. Every nugget of dream-world treasure they find, they stockpile it and build defenses to protect it … chasing wind, erecting barns … and remain blissfully asleep and unaware … until one day, they are wrenched away from their false security at the end of life, and forced to face the fact that their stockpiled treasure and well-crafted defenses don’t really exist. It never had any power to protect them. They were never safe. They were always perishing. And their “desert of the real” might even be eternal separation from the God who would have given them everything if they had just chosen reality over a self-gratifying dream world.
So, ignorance is most certainly not bliss. Far better to wake up, even if it hurts to get out of bed.
“Awake, O sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)
Read more about the goodness of God.