Discovering the Principles that Govern Life – Part 1

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You know, last week I introduced the relationship between wisdom and the principles of life. And, if you recall, I gave you Webster’s definition that says, “A principle is a comprehensive and fundamental law of life.” And, we say that principles are not good or bad; they’re not moral. They’re true. And, what’s important to know is that the principles of life make life predictable. In other words, they create the potential for predictable outcomes. They give life order. And, if you recall, I read these words from Steven Covey. He says, “Principles apply at all times, in all places. They surface in the form of values, ideas, norms, and teachings that uplift, ennoble, fulfill, empower, and inspire people. The lesson of history is that to the degree that people and civilizations have operated in harmony with correct principles, they have prospered. At the root of societal declines are foolish practices that represent violations of correct principles. You cannot violate these fundamental principles with impunity. Whether we believe them or not, they have been proven effective throughout centuries of human history.”

And, as I was thinking about what to share this week, I was reminded of some words from one of Philip Yancey’s old books called Finding God in Unexpected Places. And, he says, “While much of the media was buzzing about a new survey on sex in modern America, which was released in 1994, I was thinking about a book, Sex and Culture, which was published in 1934. I discovered it in the windowless warrens of a large university library, and I felt like an archeologist must feel unearthing an artifact from the catacombs. Seeking to test the Freudian notion that civilization is a byproduct of repressed sexuality, the scholar, J.D. Unwin studied, he spent, not all of his life, but years of his life studying 86 different societies. His findings startled many scholars, above all, Unwin himself, because all 86 demonstrated a direct tie between the absolute monogamy and the expansive energy of civilization. In other words, sexual fidelity was the single-most predictor of a society’s ascendency.”

Now, what’s interesting, though, is Unwin had no religious convictions and applied no moral judgements. He said this, “I offer no opinion about rightness or wrongness. Nevertheless, he had to conclude in human records, there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition that does not insist on prenuptial and postnuptial faithfulness. For Roman, Greek, Samarian, Moorish, Babylonian, and Anglo-Saxon civilizations, Unwin had several hundred years of history to draw on. He found, with no exception, that these societies flourished culturally and geographically during eras that valued sexual fidelity. Inevitably, sexual mores would loosen, and the societies would subsequently decline, only to rise again when the returned to more rigid sexual standards. Unwin seemed at a complete loss to explain this pattern. He said, “If you asked me why this is so, I reply I do not know.” He said, “No scientist knows either.” You can describe the process and observe it, but you cannot explain it.

Yancey goes on to explain that Unwin’s book rests in the catacombs of libraries because his research points to a truth that nobody today wants to hear.

Now, the reason I shared this is because maybe, just maybe, there is a principle at work here regarding sexuality. Go back and listen to Covey’s words: “The lesson of history is that the degree people and civilizations have operated in harmony with correct principles, they have prospered.” And, it makes you wonder where this leaves us as a culture. Because Unwin said, “There are no exceptions to this.”

Now, last week, we looked at one single principle. Some call it the list. I called it, and I got it from Andy Stanley, the words, The Principle of the Path. Now, today we’re going to consider three other principles that I think are crucial if you’re going to have a healthy life.

And, I guess the second principle I want to lay out for you real briefly this morning.

Hans Selye was a scientist from Canada, who was the true pioneer in discovering the impact of emotions on a person’s health. He wrote over 30 books on the subject. But his landmark book was called The Stress of Life. And, in his research, he discovered a principle that he says, “is crucial if you’re going to be emotionally healthy.” And, he had a fancy term for it. He called it altruistic egoism. But he said it’s really nothing more than Jesus’, or the Biblical truth, helping others helps you.

In Luke 6:38, Jesus says, “Give and it will be given unto you.”

In Acts 20:35, we hear Jesus’ words that are recorded. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

But I love the way this principle is laid out by Solomon in Proverbs 11:25, when he says, “A generous man will prosper and he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.”

You see, Selye observed this principle at work in years and years of research. And, he said, “When you contribute and enrich somebody else’s life, you will find your own life enriched. The principle, therefore, in its simplest form is we receive in this life by giving, not by taking, by giving.” You see, God designed the human heart to give, and we receive the greatest joy in this life when we give.

Now, some of you may be thinking this sounds kind of selfish. Give to others so you can receive. I guess, really, what I’m saying to you is, God, I believe is telling us, “This is the way I designed life. This is the way you will function best as a human being.” And, of course, if this is true, then the inverse of this principle is also true. Self-centeredness leads to a miserable life.

There’s an interesting new book that’s come out, and I have not read it. It’s titled The Narcissism Epidemic. It’s written by two American psychologists. This book has received a great deal of press. They were just recently on The Today Show. They contend there has occurred a huge shift in our culture’s psychology. They call it “the relentless rise of narcissism.” You see, a narcissist is one who loves himself and is consumed with himself. They say this epidemic of narcissism has resulted in people being more depressed, more discontent, more miserable than ever before.

I don’ t know how many of you saw this article in the Wall Street Journal. It was last Wednesday. It’s titled Boomers to This Year’s Grads: We are Really, Really Sorry. And, it’s about all of these commencement addresses that are being given by all of these public figures who were in the baby boom generation, as most of us are. And, let me just give you a sample. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who is 60 years old, told the graduating class at Butler University last month, that, “Boomers have been self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and all too often just plain selfish. And, we sure are sorry.”

Gregg Easterbrook has also written a very insightful book, and he has noticed this very same trend. Listen to the title of the book: The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

You know, guys, I really believe, and I do observe personally, a pervasive discontentment and unhappiness in our land because too many people just live for themselves. And, I believe what happens, causes them to malfunction over time. And, I guess I would ask you this morning, could this be true in your life?

There’s an interesting story that Scott Peck tells. Peck is a kind of unusual guy with a lot of interesting beliefs. I’m not really sure where he is, as far as a Christian. But he’s a famous psychologist. He tells of a woman patient who was suffering from extreme depression. And, he said, “One day, when she was due for an appointment with him, she called on the telephone and told him that her car had broken down. Dr. Peck offered to pick her up on his way to work. But he explained to her that he had to make a hospital call before he got to the office. If she was willing to wait in the car while he made the call, they could have the appointment, and she agreed. When he got to the hospital, he had another suggestion. He gave her the name of two of his patients who were convalescing there and told her that each of them would enjoy a visit from her. When they met again an hour and a half later, the woman was on an emotional high. She told Dr. Peck that making the visits and trying to cheer up those patients had lifted her spirits and that she was feeling absolutely wonderful. Dr. Peck responded by saying, “Well, now we know how to get you out of your depression. Now we know the cure for your problem.” The woman stopped and looked at him and said, “You don’t expect me to do that every day, do you?”

Now, isn’t that interesting. When you refresh others, it says you yourself will be refreshed. When you enrich the lives of others, it will enrich your life.

I think this approach to life also impacts our work, guys, and our careers. The Bible is clear. The purpose of work is not to get rich. That’s the approach most people take; I want to work hard and I want to get rich. But the word work that’s used in the Scriptures literally means to make yourself useful to others. Your approach to work is how can I serve you? How can I contribute to your life through the service that I provide through the work that I do?

Bob Buford, who wrote the book Half Time, which has had such an impact on my life, believes this is why men who retire to a life of leisure often struggle with emptiness and a sense of purposelessness. He believes when you retire, you shouldn’t retire from just work. You should shift to a new work or to a new service.

I like the way one author put it. He says, “As a believer (as a Christian), our lives should be like a river. You look at a river. A river receives water from the high mountains and then sends that water into the valley below. We should receive our power from God above and then give it out to the hurting world around us. If we don’t, we’ll be like a stagnant pond. We’ll be like the Dead Sea.” I think that can easily happen in the life of a believer. You know what happens to the Dead Sea? It’s below sea level. Water flows into it, but it can’t flow out. And, I think so easily we receive all kinds of input into our lives, spiritually, but there’s no outflow. There’s no giving. And, he says, “when that happens, you will be dead.” You will be like that stagnant pond.

So, the principle is give and it will be given unto you.

Now, this next principle that I’m going to share with you, I want to take a few minutes to kind of lay it out because it’s very paradoxical. One of the most meaningful and significant ideas for all human beings is the concept of freedom. This, of course, was the core idea on which our country was founded. Freedom from oppression, religious freedom, freedom of opportunity, freedom to own land, freedom to own property. But it was always freedom within the restraints of the law. But what’s happened in the last 50 years is that we have tried to apply the concept of freedom to every area of life.

Back in 1983, Time Magazine had a special edition celebrating 60 years as a publication. And, it was titled, Those Amazing Sixty Years. And, it began with the words, “The atom was unsplit, and so were most marriages.” And, then there was a main essay that was titled, What Really Mattered, over the past 60 years. What has really mattered? And, the author said, “In order to understand the last sixty years, you need to understand the idea that characterized the age. It was the idea of freedom. Freedom in an absolute sense.” This is a quote from the magazine. “The fundamental idea that America represented corresponded to the values of the times. American was not merely free, it was freed and unshackled. The image was of something previously held in check; an explosive force of a country that moved about in random particles of energy, yet at the same time gained power and prospered. To be free was to be modern. To be modern was to take chances. The American century was to be the century of unleashing, of breaking away, at first from the 19th Century, and eventually from any constraints at all. Behind most of the events of the last sixty years lay the assumption, almost a moral imperative, that what was not free ought to be free, and that limits were intrinsically evil.

Now, we’ve seen, if this is true, and I believe it is, we’ve seen a real shift in our country where more and more Americans have come to believe that freedom means the absence of restraints in your life, so that you could do outwardly what you desire inwardly. But you know what? I think we have also clearly seen that this modern view of freedom clearly doesn’t work. I mean, it breaks down. In fact, the failure of this model of freedom, I think, explains why people’s lives aren’t working in a culture that seems to have everything.

Again, I’m going to quote from Philip Yancey. He saw this in the life of his own brother. He said, “I had a brother that was one of the most gifted musicians that I’ve ever seen. He played the piano. He could have been a very famous concert pianist. But my older brother demonstrated what could happen if I chose to leave everything behind to be free. In an attempt to break the shackles of a confining upbringing, he went on a grand quest for freedom, trying on worldviews like changes of clothing. Pentecostalism. Atheistic Existentialism. Buddhism. New Age Spirituality. Thomistic Rationalism. He joined the flower children of the 1960s, growing his hair long and wearing granny glasses, living communally, experimenting with sex and drugs. For a time, he sent me these exuberant reports of his new, wonderful life. But eventually, however, a darker side crept in. I had to bail him out of jail when an LSD trip went bad. He broke relations with every other person in the family and burned through several marriages. I got late-night suicide calls. Watching my brother, I learned that apparent freedom can actually mask deep bondage, a cry from the heart of unmet needs. The most musically gifted person I have ever known ended up tuning pianos, not playing them on a concert stage. I saw up close the destructive power of unrestrained freedom.”

Now, from this you see the competing desires in the human heart. You see, here, Yancey’s brother is a great example. He greatly desired to be a concert pianist. He had the talent. But he also wanted a life of unrestrained freedom. To be a great musician, it requires unbelievable hours of practice every day, which is a problem because it would have been a restriction and limit on his freedom. He wouldn’t have been free.

That’s why Tim Keller says, “Sometimes you have to deliberately lose your freedom to gauge in some things in order to release yourself to a richer kind of freedom.”

This leads me to the third principle. In order to truly be free, you sometimes have to give up your freedom. You see, our wants and desires so often collide. And, it’s critical to discover which of my desires are liberating and which ones are destructive. Therefore, it’s crucial to determine which of my desires are aligned with who I really am, those desires that really enhance my life.

A number of years ago, I saw a guy give an illustration to a bunch of teenagers that I’ve never forgotten. There was a group of teenagers about this size, and he had a big table. He brought in this small, little goldfish bowl that had water in it, and had a single goldfish in it. And, he put it on the table. And, the goldfish seemed to be nice and content in his little bowl of water. And, then the guy put his hand in there, picked up the goldfish, and put him on the table. Before, he’d been confined to this one, about a foot wide and a foot deep, goldfish bowl. He flipped and flopped all over that table. I mean, then he flipped off of the table, onto the floor, and he probably went 15 feet. And, then, of course, he lay there not moving, dying because he had no oxygen.

But the guy made an interesting point. He asked those students, “Was the fish really free when he took him out of the bowl?” He was in this little confined place. He took him out. Was he really free when he let him go and put him on the table? You see, there was a restriction. The fish could only be free in water. What makes a fish perfect in water is the way he’s designed. He has gills that absorb oxygen from the water. He has fins which move him comfortably and precisely through the water, but obviously not on land. So, what is the environment that the fish experiences freedom? Water. Though it is restricted in water, it’s also in water where a fish can really soar.

And, so the question that we need to ask ourselves is what is the environment that a person experiences freedom? What is the water he soars in, where he is truly liberated?

Well, just as we consider the design of the fish, we need to look at our design; the way God designed us. And, in Genesis 1:26, we’re told, first and foremost, we are designed in the image of God. In other words, we have a personality and emotions, just as God does. We have the ability to think, reason, and be creative, just as God does. We are relational beings, just as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are. They’ve been in relationship throughout eternity.

If we weren’t relational, we would never get lonely. And, loneliness plagues humanity.

And, finally, we love because He first loved us. We loved because He is a God of love.

But this is the problem. 14 years ago, yesterday, I woke up for the first time a married man. We got married 14 years ago on Wednesday. But you know what you realize the day you wake up on your honeymoon, the day after you get married? You realize, “You know, I’m not free anymore.” When you’re single, you pretty much can do what you want to do. You can make unilateral decisions. How many of you this week, I know that I have. Somebody may have said something to you, and you say, “Well, let me run it by my wife.”

You see, when it gets right down to it, if you want a life without restrictions, you can’t ever love. You can’t ever be in a committed relationship. And, yet, love is, according to Scriptures, the essence of life. It’s what we want. That’s where we’re truly liberated. That’s what really enhances our life. But to love, you have to give up your freedom.

We’re told, “All things have been created by Him and for Him.” In 1Corinthians 1:9, it says, “We have been called to live in fellowship with Jesus Christ.” In the Amplified, the word fellowship is the word companionship. And, then in 1Corinthians 8:6, it’s a real lengthy verse, but right in the middle of that verse is this phrase. It says, “We exist for Him.” We exist for Him.

Just as fish were made for water, we were made for God. We were designed to live in a love relationship with Him. In once sense, to fail to that is to be like a fish out of water. But then again, I would say this. In order to enter into this relationship, you have to give up your freedom. In other words, He desires to be Lord of your life.

In fact, this is a great question that we each need to ponder. If Jesus Christ is not Lord of your life, who is He in your life? Where does He fit in the hierarchy of your heart’s affections?

The Scripture is very clear. Jesus is a King. He is a perfect King, and when He rules in a person’s life, there is harmony. He’s the only King that will set you free. He will set you free from the fear of death, which the Bible says we are slaves to all of our lives. He will set us free from the fears of life, from self-centeredness, from pride, from greed. He’s a liberator. But in order to be free, you have to give up your freedom. In other works, you have to let Him be your King.

This is a perfect segue into the last principle that I want to talk about.

Now, the Bible does not use this term that I’m getting ready to use because I got it from Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great. But it’s a great principle. He calls it The Hedgehog Principle. If you read his book, you know the principle. I’m just going to read it to you. It’s fascinating, and I think it’s right-on.

He says, “Are you a hedgehog, or are you a fox?” In his famous essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes based on an ancient Greek parable. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. He’s fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet-of-foot, and crafty. The fox looks like the sure winner. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a doughtier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his simple day, searching for lunch, and taking care of his home. The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right in the path of the fox.

“Ah, ha! Got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightening fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Well, here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes pointing outward in all directions. The fox, bounding toward his prey, sees the hedgehog’s defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back to the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place. And, despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.

Berlin extrapolated from this little parable to divide people into two basic groups: fox and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time, and they see the world and all its complexity. They are scattered; they’re diffuse. They’re busy, always moving on many levels. And, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea; a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn’t matter how complex the world, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemas to simple, indeed almost simplistic hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.

Princeton professor Marvin Bressler pointed out the power of the hedgehog during one of our conversations. He says, “You know what separates those who make the biggest impact in life from all others, who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs.”

Now, this is the question I want to lay before you this morning. Do you have one thing in the core of your life that unifies and guides everything else? And, if so, can you identify it?

There’s a great article in this month’s Christianity Today on Tim Keller and the church that he founded up in New York City, Redeemer Presbyterian, 20 years ago. And, in the article, he speaks of a businessman, which was a fairly typical New Yorker that came to one of the services. He continued to come back, he came to a Bible study. And, Keller asked him, “What’s led you to this point of coming, of seeking?” He said, “I realized that I did not have a spiritual center in my life. And, therefore, I really did not know what I was living for.”

You see, this man’s life was very complex, very confusing, very busy, up there in that big city. He was looking for coherence, something that would unify and guide his life. And, what he realized was he was like a fox. He didn’t understand who he was or what he was living for.

And, I was preparing this, I went back to Steven Covey’s book on the Seven Habits. And, he says, “We all have a personal center in our lives.” But this is what’s interesting; this is a quote. He says, “Whatever is at the center of our life will be the source of our security, guidance, our wisdom, and our power.” And, you know, you can see how money can easily make its way to the center. Because we falsely believe that money can purchase security, guidance, wisdom, and power. We can either go purchase it or hire it.

And, that’s why I’m here this morning to submit to you that Jesus, and only Jesus, is adequate and worthy to be the personal center of your life, because He, and only He, can pull it all together so that you have real harmony, and real coherence in your life. And, He promises, “I’ll never desert you. I’ll never forsake you. And, I will walk with you through this life.”

There was an interesting article written by Jill Carattini. She works with Ravi Zacharias. I love what she says here. She says, “During my first year in college, I was convinced that a beginning ballet class was just what I needed to lighten a heavy course load. Little did I know, however, that my ballet professor would embody a militant will to snap easy A-seeking students in tune with her Herculean strength of her well-trained legs. She would say ‘Find your sit bones’ repeatedly. It continued to thunder. Pacing through her rows of frightened freshmen. Finding your sit bones was the term she used for drawing from the strength of proper alignment. Named for their location, one’s sit bones are apparently an essential part of ballet. We learned of their importance daily. She defined the finding of one’s sit bones as an epiphany. ‘With the sit bones in place, ballet makes sense,’ she would say. ‘One’s sit bones were one’s center,’ she would explain. ‘To find them is to find the heart of ballet.’ And, then she would add, quite dramatically, ‘You can dance without it, but you will never learn to love to dance.’ And, that was always quite a line for eight o’clock in the morning.”

But then she reflects on her ballet class back in college, and she says, “I wonder if life is something like this. Could there be something at the heart of life that renders it all to make sense? And, how many of us are running through life, never really getting it? Disconnected from the center, disconnected from the source of life itself.”

I think I’ve shared this before. CS Lewis has had a dramatic impact on so many people’s lives through his writings. I’ve enjoyed reading several books on his life, his personal life. And, he was a remarkable Christian. He really was. This is what really made sense to him, this idea of Christ at the center. Because he believed until you allowed Christ to be the personal center in your life, you’ll never find out who you really are, nor will you ever experience life as God intended it. And, he got this, and so much of his life focus was on Matthew 10:39. This is where Jesus says, “Whoever loses his life,” gives up his life, surrenders his life, “for My sake, that’s when he’ll find himself.” He’ll find his life.

Lewis said, “When one’s relationship to God is given first place, everything else, including our Earthly loves and pleasures, increases. When I’ve learned to love God more than my Earthly desires and pleasures, then I will enjoy my Earthly desires better than I do now. When the Earthly desires and pleasures of life come before God, I move toward a state where they become meaningless. When first things are put first, secondary things are not suppressed. Paradoxically, they increase.”

Now, what’s so interesting is that Lewis in his search for spiritual truth, he moved from atheism, to theism, to Christianity. And, he said he thought he was finally coming to the place of truth, only to find that the truth itself was a person. Jesus. And, in Jesus, he found the one person who could unify and guide his life. In essence, he had found the very center from which all of life flows.

Let me close in prayer.

Lord, we thank You for the coherence You give to this life, and that You and only You are worthy to be that unifying, guiding presence at our core. Help us to see, Lord, how vital it is to put You in the center, and to follow You all the days of our life. We do thank you, Lord, for the principles of life, that You have designed and woven into our existence. I pray that You give us the wisdom to live in harmony with these principles, that we might walk through life with You, with our eyes on You, as our Divine Guide, as our Shephard, as our Lord, as our Heavenly Father. I thank You for these men. I thank You for the friendships in this room. We’re grateful for this church that’s hosted us today. We thank You for that. We pray these things in Christ’s name. Amen.


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