There’s nothing good because nothing lasts
And all that come here, it comes here to pass
I would voice my pain but the change wouldn’t last
All that comes, it comes here to pass
Down with the shine, the perfect shine
That poisons the well, and ruins my mind
I get took for a ride every time
Down with the glistening shine.
– “Down with the Shine”, The Carpenter (2012)
Discontent animates human activity. All of us are on a quest to find satisfaction, but this quest more often that not leads to disappointment, even we attain the achievements or acquire the objects we hope will satisfy us.
As a teacher of high school seniors, I often think about what my life was like on the verge of adulthood and independence. As a young man, I possessed great ambition for my future and was focused on getting the education I needed to realize my ambitions. My central goal that final year of high school was to get a full scholarship to a prestigious private university. I worked hard to achieve this and eventually got it. I relished my achievements, even considering my superior to other gifted peers who had to settle for public universities. Entering into my freshman year, my central goal was to earn a 4.0 GPA. Again, I set my mind to this goal and achieved it. But this year was probably the worse year of my life up until that point.
I won’t rehash all the things that made that year so miserable, except to say that it wasn’t due to any tragedy in my family, or to physical suffering caused by sickness and disease. There was just a nagging emptiness that I felt, in spite of my success, that was coupled with feelings of regret about the educational choices at had made. What I had I hoped would deliver satisfaction didn’t; what I had trusted to make me feel like I was somebody special left me just as empty as a was when I started.
The ‘shine’ of an elite private school, a spotless college report card, the accolades of friends, family and teachers for my scholarship, soon wore off and in the end I felt duped – that I had been “took for a ride.” My mind had been ruined by the implicit lies that these things would completely fulfill me and end my restless longings to prove myself to the world and to myself that I wasn’t a loser. This experience of being let down by something or someone that once glistened before our eyes is perhaps shared by all of humanity. How have you experienced this?
This is the first, and probably only, time I will quote the venerable pop goddess Madonna on my blog, but I admire the accuracy and honesty of her self-awareness as she reflects on her achievements in this interview in Vogue magazine:
My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being but then I feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.
She is speaking to a fundamental human drive to prove ourselves. I think this is a bigger driver for accumulating wealth and possessions, secondary to the sensual pleasures we derive from such things. The house we live in, the cars we drive, the person we are married to, the success of our children, the income bracket we are in, the electronic gadgets we own, all the things that help us proverbially to “keep up with the Joneses” make us feel like we are a certain kind of person, a person with status, a person to be admired, a person who fits in, a person who deserves respect.
But are we ever satisfied? Can we ever rest? How long until that nagging feeling that we are inferior to others, that we are getting behind, that we are not worthy of respect and admiration from those whose opinions matter most to us, returns? Will our struggle ever end?
The Bible diagnosis this problem you and I have as idolatry. Idolatry is putting ultimate value on things that are by nature not ultimate; it is not merely desire, but over-desire (or as St. Augustine wrote “inordinate desires”) for good things that trust in to for use what they are just not suited to: to give lasting satisfaction, to prove that we are worthy, to justify us. Saint Paul describes the dynamics of idolatry in the first chapter of the book of Romans (NIV):
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
The truth about God is only He is big enough and pure enough and real enough to satisfy our souls: it is impossible to find lasting happiness apart from God. The lie that takes us “for a ride every time” is that some created things – things that we can see, touch, control – whether they be achievements, people, or possessions, can be adequate substitutes for God, capable of justifying us, capable of giving us rest from the struggle to “discover myself as a special human being.”
Why can’t created things do this, no matter how alluring they appear? This song gives a good, simple answer: “There’s nothing good because nothing lasts.” Their shine doesn’t last; every created, material thing fades. The song “Starlight” by Muse echoes the pain of this fact:
The starlight, I will be chasing your starlight
Until the end of my life
I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore
I’ll never let you go
If you promise not to fade away, never fade away
We all know the truth of this: when we think objectively about the nature of created things and about the collective experience of humanity, we cannot deny that nothing lasts and therefore that no created thing will fill us with lasting contentment. Yet we continue to believe the lie, and continue to give our hearts over to the lie, ruining our minds, in spite of getting “took for a ride every time.” Our nature is bent towards worship of false gods. This is the essence of sin and without divine rescue, this is what we will always choose, no matter how foolish and poisonous and ruinous it is.