In Body and Soul, Craig Barnes’ commentary on the Heidelberg Confession, he tells of a well-educated and successful woman holed up in her law office late at night, hoping that a senior partner in the firm will notice. Her life is miserable. In fact she would say she has no life. However, this is the only way she knows to make her life better. She finds the job meaningless, but she keeps pushing harder at it.

By contrast, Barnes tells the story of a woman with a poorly paid low-level job in a bottling plant who nonetheless is thankful she has any kind of job at all. After work she heads to a homeless shelter to do unpaid low-level work serving meals.

Yet, “If you ask the miserable woman in the law office if she would be willing to change places with the joyful woman in the bottling plant, the chances are great that she would say, ‘Well, no. I don’t think so.’ “

Given the chance to abandon our high-flying ambitions for a peon’s satisfaction and peace, we are likely to decline. We keep doing what we know how to do, which is to try harder. We plan to create joy through our successful choices, and to stave off misery. When it doesn’t work, we automatically think we just didn’t try hard enough.

Barnes says this illustrates “the addictive power of sin,” which pulls us far from “the delight we find only in communion with God, a delight that does not depend on our circumstances.” He adds, “I have been a pastor long enough to know that just because people are miserable, that does not mean they want to change.”

He’s not suggesting that we should quit work and head for a monastery. That would be merely another avenue of seeking happiness through good choices. No, he’s suggesting—actually, he’s saying the Heidelberg Catechism declares—that we cannot solve our addiction at all. What we can do is recognize our helpless misery. We can recognize that our only comfort comes from belonging to a mediator who loves us and can enter our lives and rescue us through the love of God.

According to the catechism, you learn to recognize your misery by listening to God’s Law, which tells you (very simply) to love God with all your being and to love your neighbor as yourself.

We can be exposed and embarrassed in many ways. The woman in the law office may be exposed when her legal brief is critiqued, or when her lack of a social life is a source for others’ amusement. Where does that leave her? Merely with another chance to try harder at what does not work. The embarrassment and exposure that come from knowing who and how you should love, however, is truly revealing. It reveals emptiness. It reveals our deepest misery, which—thanks to Jesus—is the place from where we can be lifted like a child. Oddly, in that place we may find comfort, even in misery, assuming we trust the one who will lift us.


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