Ascension Lavender Hill

25th July 2004

It’s Obvious, isn’t it?
[
Adult version: see also Junior Version, No. 289]

‘It’s obvious, isn’t it?’ How often have we said that to someone, or had it said to us? Fairly often is my guess.

It’s another way of saying ‘there’s no room for disagreement; seeing is believing; therefore what I’m saying must be true

It’s obvious, so it’s true. But is that always the case? Think about the following:

Suppose you’ve been offered two different jobs. Call them Job A and Job B.

Job A offers a salary of £10,000 a year with a rise of £1,000 each year: Thus it pays £10,000 at the end of year One, £11,000 at the end of Year Two, £12,000 at the end of Year Three and so forth.

Job B offers a salary of £5,000 every six months with a rise of £500 every six months – you get paid £5,000 after six months, £5,500 after 12 months, £6,000 at the end of a 18 months and so forth.

Now suppose the work in Job A looks far more interesting than in Job B. Which one would you go for?

Well Job A, of course! They both pay the same, don’t they? £10,000 a year and £1,000 rise. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

But hold on a moment! If you work it out you’ll find they don’t pay the same at all!. After five years, Job B will have paid you £12,500 more than Job A! If you want to see this worked out on paper, it’ll be on the back of the copy of this sermon which I shall be giving out afterwards.

So what’s obvious isn’t always true! Sometimes of course it is; but not always. We just can’t afford to take it for granted in any given instance that What’s Obvious = What’s True. Some of the worst mistakes in life are made by people who believe in something ‘because it’s obvious’ when in fact it isn’t true.

Having, I hope, undermined your confidence in the Obvious = True equation, let’s move on to consider two popular ideas that many people consider obvious or self-evidently true. They can easily be summed-up by the twin catch-phrases ‘Natural Justice’ and ‘The Right to Happiness’. They sound so obvious that most people don’t bother to examine them closely – any more than when plumping for Job A rather than Job B in the earlier example.

But first a warning. Don’t assume that someone who questions these catchphrases is therefore against Justice or Happiness. Those words aren’t the main problem. The weasel words, from the Christian point of view, are, respectively, Natural in Natural Justice and Right in The Right to Happiness..

First let’s deal with Natural Justice. Nature knows nothing about Justice. Nature works by survival as Herbert Spencer said. So don’t imagine that ‘getting back to nature’ will answer the world’s problems. On the contrary, much of our effort to ‘train up a child in the way he should go’ (as the Bible puts it) are directed towards implanting virtues which lie in an opposite, self-disciplined, direction, away from the ‘natural’ – for example, persuading him or her to use the toilet rather than their nappy, to share their toys, to wait their turn, to respect the rights of others, and not to waste money on something just because it’s new.

Of course such virtues aren’t specifically Christian. They’ve been taught and learnt from the dawn of civilization. They’re virtues which everyone in every generation has to learn from scratch. The truth is that we haven’t, and we never shall, breed a generation of children naturally virtuous, polite or unselfish from birth. On the contrary!

In any case, we as Christians surely ought to be thinking about Super-natural rather than Natural Justice The two are quite different. God is just: in fact all Justice in the end comes from Him; but the justice of God isn’t what we humans stand most in need of; on the contrary, it’s his mercy. We look to God not as plaintiffs who have a grievance about the way He, or our fellow-men, or life in general have treated us; on the contrary, we’re like convicted criminals waiting to be sentenced because (in the words of the General Confession) ‘We have offended against [his] holy laws [by leaving] undone those things we ought to have done and [doing] those things which we ought not to have done’.

The second common mistake – the idea that we somehow have a ‘Right to Happiness’ grows out of the first.

The Right to Happiness – what’s wrong with that? It’s obvious, isn’t it, that everybody has such a right?

Well, the people who talk most about their ‘Right to Happiness’ are ones who feel that Happiness (whatever they mean by that) consists in getting what they desire, free of charge, immediately. Or, put another way, ‘If I want something enough, I have a right to it’. Instant gratification is the psychological phrase for that.

Now a moment’s thought will show that this is a formula for universal Unhappiness. It would, at one blow, sanction Murder, Adultery, Theft, and (for some, anyway) Cruelty and Drug Addiction, to name but a few evils.

As Christians, we ought to be in the Happiness Business – make no mistake about that. But whilst we believe that the pursuit of happiness is indeed the right of every human being, we need continually to bear in mind two very important provisos.

One is the principle, held by most of our fellow men whatever their religion or lack of it, that individual happiness must not be sought in ways, and to extents, which destroy the happiness of others. For instance, the happiness one person gets from his powerful ghetto-blaster, must be weighed against the unhappiness it inflicts on his neighbours; the thrill of driving a car at high speed must be weighed against the danger which that poses to other road-users.

The second proviso comes to us through God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It’s that plain truth that permanent happiness and satisfaction cannot be found on this earth. Any happiness we find here is both short-term, and yields diminishing returns. Our Chief End, for which God made us is ‘to glorify and enjoy him for ever’.

Man was neither designed for, nor capable of, that sort of happiness in this world. It’s just not ‘on offer’. We must learn to ‘kiss joy as it flies’ as William Blake says. Then, and only then, we shall ‘lie in eternity’s sunrise’.

So Natural Justice and the Right to Happiness, so far from being the obvious things we should be looking for, need to be transformed by the light of Christian wisdom before they can become true. ‘Obvious’ does not equal True’, and without Christ there can be no hope of our ever enjoying lasting fulfilment.

Next time you find yourself saying ‘It’s obvious isn’t it?’ – just hold everything! What’s obvious isn’t always what’s true.

Let me end with another example: Imagine a belt fitting tightly round the Equator of the earth. It would be about 25,000 miles long because the radius of the Earth is about 4,000 miles.

Now imagine that you cut the belt and spliced in an extra length of six feet. The belt will now form a ring round the Equator rather like one of the rings round the planet Saturn.

How big do you think will the gap be between the Earth and its new belt? Just a fraction of an inch? It must be so because it’s obvious. Six feet added into something 25,000 miles long is a minute fraction.

Well, you’d be wrong. The gap would be almost one foot high! You or I could squeeze through that gap with ease. Not so obvious after all! So don’t let’s get things wrong about God. There’s far too much at stake!

---oooOooo---

Here are the workings of the two questions

 The Two Salaries

Payment at the end of:

Job A

Job B

     

6 months

 

£5,000

1 year

£10,000

£5,500

1.5 years

 

£6,000

2 years

£11,000

£6,500

2.5 years

 

£7,000

3 years

£12,000

£7,500

3.5 years

 

£8,000

4 years

£13,000

£8,500

4.5 years

 

£9,000

5 years

£14,000

£9,500

TOTAL

£60,000

£72,500

The Two Belts

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