We have eyes that see, and we can close those eyes. If we are feeling overwhelmed, tired, stressed, angry, we can lower our eye lids and block all light from reaching our retinas. Isn’t that amazing? Choose to close your eyes with me for a moment. Let’s enjoy the darkness.
We have ears that hear but we cannot close our ears. Have you ever thought about this? If we are feeling overwhelmed, tired, stressed, angry, we cannot close our ears and block all the sound from reaching our ear canals. Isn’t that interesting? Try not to listen to me for a moment. You can’t; you don’t have a choice.
Our minds and bodies think, and feel, and do. But we cannot control our thoughts, we cannot control our feelings. We can only control what we choose to do.
I believe that it is our choices—not our thoughts and feelings—that make us who we truly are.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us a story about two very important choices.
The Prodigal Son thinks about going back to his Father. He feels ashamed, guilty, worthless, like a failure. But what matters most is the choice he makes; he chooses to reconcile with his Father. Luke’s Gospel tells us that “he got up and went back to his father.” He chose to get up. He chose to go back. And he chose to accept his Father’s will.
The Faithful Son thinks that his Father has wronged him somehow. He feels disrespected, unappreciated, angry, jealous. But what matters most is the choice he makes; he chooses not to celebrate with his Father. The Gospel tells us that “he refused to enter the house.” He chose not to enter. He chose to walk away. He chose not to accept his Father’s will.
If we cannot control our thoughts, why do we sometimes ascribe too much meaning to them? Try not to think about George Washington hugging a large Purple Duck. Now try not to think about how happy that hug is making that Purple Duck. Thinking is random. Thoughts are autonomous; they spontaneously self-arise. Of course, I am not referring to intentional thinking, where you consciously comb your brain for a particular fact or memory. No, I am talking about the randomness of our firing neurons, and the zany patterns of thinking our neural networks can create. If we cannot control our thoughts, why do we sometimes judge ourselves for what we happen to think?
If we cannot control our feelings, why do we sometimes ascribe too much meaning to them? Try to feel joyful. Now try to feel mercurial. Feeling is random. Feelings come and go like the clouds in the sky. Many of our feelings are sparked or dampened by chemicals in our brains, like serotonin. Has anyone ever told you: “stop being sad,” or “be confident?” Such commentary is pointless; trying to control our feelings is like trying to control the weather. When it rains, it pours, but the sun always shines again. If we cannot control our feelings, why do we sometimes judge ourselves for what we happen to feel?
There’s an excellent scene in a popular television show that I analogize too often. The show is called “Parks and Recreation.” In one episode, two managers face off with a friendly wager. The Aggressive Manager bets that he can get the Employee to file more documents by motivating him with fear and anger. The Positive Manager bets that he can get the Employee to file more documents by motivating him with love and encouragement. Ultimately, the Employee files twice as many documents while afraid, but almost all of them were filed incorrectly. While motivated by love, the Employee did less work, but it was all accurate.
There are lots of ways to get motivated in this life. I’ve seen fear-based faith in action, and I’ve seen love-based faith in action. Of course, there is a place for both fear and love in our lives, but today, I want to discuss the importance of love-based motivation.
Too often, I hear people say things like “I’m so angry at myself for thinking this,” or “why oh why did I have to feel that way?” Have you ever judged yourself after an autonomous thought popped up into your mind unprompted? Have you ever harshly criticized yourself after an unwanted feeling lingered for days? Well, I have, and over time, I’ve come to believe that we should accept our thoughts and feelings without judgment because we are not in control of them. Instead, we should focus on what we do have control over—our choices.
Do we choose Jesus? I love simple questions, questions that we can ponder, questions we can mull over and consider. Ask yourself this question. In this secular world that discounts faith as a Neanderthal’s pastime, do you choose Jesus? Do you love yourself; do you love your neighbor; do you love your enemy? Do you choose to smile at the cashier at the grocery store? Do you ask a loved one how their day went and then really listen carefully? Do you want God’s love to encircle others in their times of need? Do you love with an open heart and an open mind? Do you choose to be close to Jesus?
Nobody makes the perfect choice every time. That’s okay. Look at the Prodigal Son; his first choice was a doozy—spending half of your family’s wealth in the most famous bender in the history of mankind? That was clearly a mistake. But look at his second choice, his choice to return, his choice to reconcile, his choice to love. And how does his Father respond to the Prodigal Son’s second choice? He rushes out to meet him, he puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, so filled with joy that his Son chose to be with him.
Beating ourselves up for our uncontrollable thoughts and feelings is a form of fear-based motivation. Accepting our humanity, loving ourselves, and choosing Jesus is a form of love-based motivation. Just like we cannot stop our ears from hearing, we cannot stop our minds and bodies from thinking and feeling. What we can control is what we choose to do and who we choose to be.
What the Prodigal Son thought and felt, what the Faithful Son thought and felt, is—in the end—immaterial to the outcome of the parable. Ultimately, the Prodigal Son chose to be with his Father; the Faithful Son chose not to. And it is their choices that make them who they truly are.
Thus, ask yourself each morning: do I choose Jesus this day? If your faith life feels dry, that is okay. Choose Jesus anyways. If you feel angry at a loved one, that is okay. Choose Jesus anyways. Regardless of what you think, regardless of what you feel, choose Jesus, and I believe he will rush out to meet you because it is our choices that make us who we truly are. So, let’s choose Jesus, now and forever more.