Dan Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He tells us that one of the things the human brain can do better than the brains of other animals is it can simulate. That is, your brain, somewhere in its prefrontal cortex, can predict what an experience will be like. Your brain can simulate and experience and you can figure out whether or not you’ll like it. You don’t need to actually do everything to have a sense of what sorts of things you would find more satisfying than others. Gilbert begins one of his lectures on the subject with a question: which of two things would make you happiest, winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic. Which do you think? Put your predicative simulator to work.
Of course we all think we would be happier winning the lottery. The thing is, if that’s what you thought, you’d be wrong. Gilbert tells us that our assumptions, our predictive ability sometimes misleads us. Several years in, there is no difference in happiness between the paraplegic and the lottery winner. That’s because happiness isn’t just a natural or a mechanical outcome of our circumstances. It simply is not the case that the person who can jump higher or run faster, who has more money or more options finds her or his life more satisfying. Happiness is synthesized. It’s made up. It’s created.
Let me push this a little further. In his book Deep Economy Bill McKibben sites research that suggests there is a specific point at which more money stops making us happier. It’s just about ten thousand dollars. Now, that is probably US currency, I believe it’s a global statistic, and McKibben’s book was published in 2007. All that just means it’s hard to convert that number precisely into our situation. The point, however, is just that there is a line below which more money will make us happier. Think of the difference between having an apartment and not, having transportation and not, having food and not. So initially, at least, more money does correlate with an increased sense of happiness. The problem is we think the correlation holds infinitely. We think that jumping from and income of $50K to $75K will give us the same increased sense of satisfaction as jumping from $10K to $15K. In actuality, above that basic line, McKibben tells us, there is no necessary relationship between increased income and increased happiness.
All that to say, the biblical writers aren’t just making things up. They observed the same types of phenomena. That’s why warnings about the lure of wealth show up over and over again throughout the scriptures. We assume there is a direct connection between happiness and wealth and it just isn’t there. We see such warnings in Proverbs. We hear Jesus saying similar things. Our reading from Amos falls in this same line of thought.
Someone has said that if you like the prophet Amos you don’t really understand him. What they mean, I think, is that we tend to hear this prophet as a friend when he is probably a critic. We assume he backs up our way of life or our politics when he probably questions them.
Amos ministered during the period of the divided kingdom. He came from the south and ministered in the north. I did one of my graduate degrees in the southern US. In the local newspaper we would regularly read letters to the editor annoyed at the pronouncements of “yet another Yankee PhD.” Locals hated academics trained in the north coming down and telling them how to do things. That’s how Amos would have been received in his day, and it’s probably how we should hear him today.
We might not have beds of ivory, we might not eat lamb from the flock, we might not drink our wine from bowls or celebrate by slathering ourselves in oil. We might not think of ourselves as people who lounge in revelry, as did the audience of Amos. Yet we probably are guilty of letting our comfort and our striving for more blind us to those who lack the necessities of life. We have enough to keep us busy and fed. We know there are people who are wealthier than we are. Because of those things we assume God’s judgment is directed elsewhere. However, the message of Amos is that to the extent our comfort comes at the expense of the basic dignity of others we are on the wrong side of God’s desire for shalom.
Paul’s letter to Timothy says something similar: “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Obviously we need money, and enjoying God’s good world can itself be an act of worship. It would be naive and hypocritical of me to say that making money is bad or to say that business is evil. That’s not the issue. The issue is just that if we become too attached to amassing wealth we hurt others. We cut corners in our work. We build things shoddily. We fudge our financial records. We pay people with no options absurdly low wages or we buy from businesses that do. We don’t express God’s love through giving.
There’s a scene in C.S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that shows the problem. This is the story of when Lucy and Edmund are magically pulled through a painting onto the pitching deck of a ship. As they find their sea legs they realize that they are back in Narnia, a land where they once ruled as king and queen. Now they are on a ship, the Dawn Treader, under the leadership of the current king of Narnia. His name is Caspian. Caspian and his crew are on a voyage to find the seven Lords of Narnia. These Lords had been banished during the time a usurper held the throne. It’s a wonderful story of a journey. There is a worry of pirates, dangerous encounters with a dragon and a sea serpent.
About half way through the ship and its crew come to an island beyond the edge of their maps. Drinian, the captain, says they need to resupply and so the Dawn Treader anchors in a bay. The sailors begin refilling the ship’s supply of fresh water. Lucy, Edmund and Caspian set out to explore the island. As they begin making their way back to the ship they found a beautiful little pool of clear water. Exploring it, they notice a peculiar golden statue at the bottom. They are about to wade in to retrieve the thing when Edmund realizes that the toes of his shoes have changed. One of them finds a stick and touches the water with it. It isn’t an ordinary pool. The water turns things into gold. They are ecstatic.
“The king who owned this island,” said Caspian slowly, and his face flushed as he spoke, “would soon be the richest of all the Kings in the world. I claim this land for ever as a Narnian possession. . . . And I bind you all to secrecy . . . on pain of death, do you hear?”
“Who are you talking to?” said Edmund. “I’m no subject of yours. If anything it’s the other way round.”
“So it has come to that, King Edmund, has it?” said Caspian, laying his hand on his sword-hilt.
“Oh, stop it both of you,” said Lucy. “That’s the worst of doing anything with boys.”
Lucy brings them back to their senses and reminds them of their mission. They leave, agreeing to tell no one and agreeing to call the island Deathwater.
What Lucy, Edmund and Caspian have discovered is nothing other than what Paul writes to Timothy, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” So it was the Paul’s friends, so it was with the Narnian explorers, so it is with us.
We are pilgrims—the Narnians, Paul’s friends and us. Wealth will not last. As Paul says, “we brought nothing into the world . . . we can take nothing out of it.” We can’t use money to avoid death or pain. Our journey will take us into places where money is of no use. What falling in love with wealth means, is that we have forgotten our pilgrim identity. Pilgrims don’t need lots of money; they need the basics. And wealth can actually become an encumbrance. It can weigh a pilgrim down. It can distract her. What pilgrims are companions, and pilgrims need the assurance that God’s love goes deeper than the risks of the journey.
When pilgrims like us lose sight of the fact that we already have God’s love and the fact that this comes through companions we begin to think of those we meet on the journey as competitors. We think of them as people we need to get the better of or outclass or outwrestle. Neither a pilgrimage nor an adventure needs to be a competition. In God we need not compete with each other, we need not outdo each other in displays of wealth—beds of ivory or the revelry of loungers, to return to the words of the old prophet. In God we are companions on an adventure. Companions need each other’s gifts. They share their provisions. They share in the Spirit of the journey.