As you may know, Cleveland, Ohio, is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s because back in the 1950s, there was a disc jockey by the name of Alan Freed who worked for an AM radio station in Cleveland. He began referring to the music of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley as “rock ‘n’ roll music.” Even though the inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame take place in New York City, the origin of the term rock ‘n’ roll music began in Cleveland.
In keeping with that 50-year legacy, a poll was taken of radio listeners and disc jockeys across the country concerning the No. 1 rock ‘n’ roll song of all time. I was not especially interested in the outcome-I have a preference for the rhythm and blues music of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and The Temptations-but I must confess I was somewhat surprised when it was revealed that Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis or even Elvis Presley was not associated with the No. 1 rock ‘n’ roll song song of all time. Instead, the poll revealed that the No. 1 rock ‘n’ roll song song of all time was by the British band, The Rolling Stones, titled “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”
It occurred to me that the popularity and longevity of that particular song can be attributed to a simple observation: That song speaks to the fundamental dilemma of so many people in our society who are in a constant quest for something that can bring them satisfaction. The song has a refrain that says, “And I tried-and I tried-and I tried-and I tried-I can’t get no satisfaction.”
You can almost see the history of the last 40 years of American life and culture written through the lens and lyrics of that song: “I have tried sex and orgies, and I can’t get satisfaction.” “I have tried LSD and cocaine, and I can’t get satisfaction.” “I have tried alcohol and amphetamines, and I still can’t get satisfaction.” “I have tried money and materialism, and all I can say is I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Perhaps the reason the song has remained so appealing to Americans is because the song speaks to an aspiration that reaches deep into our psyche and to a frustration that burns within so many of our fellow citizens: “I tried, and I tried, and I tried, and I tried-but I can’t get no satisfaction.”
The search for satisfaction can take at least four different faces in our world today, and most of us have gotten stuck trying to find satisfaction in one of three distinct ways. The things we keep trying in our vain attempts to find satisfaction are called happiness, pleasure and thrills.
How strange that all three of these things are referred to in one way or another by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:19-21 as being related to the works of the flesh or the acts of the sinful nature.” Paul refers to them by such names as drunkenness, debauchery, discord and dissensions. We can refer to the same impulses of the human spirit by different names, but the motivation and the desired outcome are the same; we are trying to create satisfaction for ourselves.
Some people are obsessed with the quest for happiness. They want to find that time and place in life where there will always be a smile on their face and no tears in their eyes. They want to live in Disney World all the time, forgetting that Disney World is a great illusion, as life for the executives and employees of the Disney Corporation reveal every day.
Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms, “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). In our hearts we know that to be true, but still we behave like the lyrics of the song by The Rolling Stones: I tried-and I tried-and I tried-and I tried, but I can’t get no happiness, because happiness does not and cannot last.
Sometimes, after we discover that happiness does not last, we try something else; and that next thing might be thrills. There is an obsession in this country with thrills. It is why we buy cars that can be driven faster than any highway in America would allow us to drive. It is why we jump out of airplanes and free-fall from thousands of feet in the atmosphere. It is why some people want to bungee jump, or go plunging down the steep and twisting hills of roller coasters.
We want that adrenaline rush. We want that sensation of living dangerously. We want what some people call the rush that comes when we live close to the edge of death itself. The richest among us buy a seat on the space shuttle, not because they care one iota about science or space research; they do it because they are attempting to buy for themselves the ultimate thrill.
For other people the thrill is linked to the allure and excitement of gambling of one kind or another. Whatever the thrill of gambling might be, we should not lose sight of the sorrow it produces. How many people have lost their rent or mortgage money as they got caught up in the thrill that the next roll of the dice or the next pull of the lever on the slot machine might bring a big payday? People go into casinos knowing the house always wins, yet are willing to risk their paycheck on a game of chance. It is not a rational decision; it is the mark of a society that has embraced the thrill as a way to approach how they live their lives.
However, just like happiness, people soon discover that thrills cannot satisfy because they cannot be made to last. They come and go with equal suddenness. Blues singer B.B. King is world famous primarily for the lyrics of his song that says, “The thrill is gone, the thrill is gone away.”
Of course, what happens to a thrill seeker when the present thrill is gone? Like the song says, they just try something else. There are many in our society whose lives are driven by the pursuit of satisfaction, and they try one thing after another trying to attain that goal.
For some, the quest for satisfaction leads down the path of pleasure. Let’s be clear about this-I am talking about sensual things. I am talking about the fact that pornography in the form of videos, magazine and Web sites now grosses more revenue than the money Americans spend on all professional sports combined.
I am talking about our national fascination with sex and the fact that some people are preoccupied with the cheap, fleeting, loveless encounters that are so much a mark of our present culture. It is why commercials for such products as Viagra, Levitra and Cialis are as popular and as frequent as they are; for some people it is all about pleasure.
Never mind the fact that our country is overrun with teenage pregnancy, unwanted births, a staggering use of abortion as a means of birth control and once-solid marriages that are destabilized by extra-marital affairs. There is a high price to be paid for our fascination with the pursuit of pleasure, and our society is paying that price right now. This, too, is part of what The Rolling Stones meant when they said, “I tried-and I tried-and I tried-and I tried, and I can’t get no satisfaction.” We try the pursuit of happiness, thrills and pleasure, but something is always missing.
Many search for satisfaction attempting to combine all three devices-happiness, thrills, pleasure when they turn to illegal drugs and other things that can help them get high. Americans are the most chemically dependent people on earth-we take more prescription drugs than any other nation, though that simply could be a sign of an advanced medical system. Good medicine does not explain why we are also the world’s largest consumers of illegal drugs or the fact that one out of every six Americans is an alcoholic.
Here is the truth about all of our pursuits for satisfaction, be it in the form of happiness, thrills or various pleasures: At best, all those things can do is bring us a little bit of peace for a short period of time!
There is a reason none of these things can bring us any lasting satisfaction. It is because all of these things that fuel our futile pursuit of satisfaction are things that work from the outside in. All of these things are behaviors or experiences that must be drawn from the world around us and then brought into our lives. As a result, whenever the world around us shifts or changes in even the most negligible way, we are made to realize over and over again that satisfaction-that sense of being completely content-once again has eluded us. The works of the flesh or the acts of the sinful nature are forever unsatisfying because in order for any of them to work there is something outside ourselves that must occur.
Thankfully, that is not the case with the fruits of the spirit as found in Galatians 5:22-23. Satisfaction is found in such things as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. These qualities work from the inside out. These are the spiritual formation issues that take root inside the followers of Jesus Christ that sustain them even when the conditions around them are being turned upside down. In this season of Advent, let me make the case that I would rather have the joy of the Lord than the satisfactions of the world any day of the week. Here are the reasons why:
First, joy comes as a result of the faith and trust that resides within me and not in relation to the material or sensual things going on around me.
It is important that we talk about joy vs. happiness and pleasure during the Advent and Christmas seasons, because it is so easy even for us as Christians to get caught up in the shopping and materialistic observance of Christmas. We so easily can forget that the “glad tidings of great joy” spoken to the shepherds of Bethlehem by the angels of heaven was about the birth of a Savior and not about the discounted prices at Wal-Mart or the luxury items available from a fashionable boutique.
The joy of Christmas is about the love of God Who sent a Savior into our world to redeem us from the behaviors that constantly pull us away from God. After all, the song says, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” It does not say that Santa has come, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has come; the joy of Christmas is centered in the fact that the Lord has come. God is with us. Immanuel. Our joy is anchored in that knowledge. I may not receive any of the material gifts that so many people point to as the center of Christmas; but when I receive the Christ of Christmas, I can find the joy that will forever elude those who are searching after satisfaction.
Second, the joy of the Lord is available to us even though none of us is deserving of God’s love. The gifts God offers-love, joy, peace and the others-are not reserved for those who have proven themselves deserving of God’s attention. They are the freely given and freely received signs of God’s amazing grace.
From a theological point of view, it is important to remember that God does not wait until we become the people He would like for us to be before He acts on our behalf. God loves us, and Christ died for us while we were the sinful and rebellious people we are. There is no need to get right with God before we can enjoy the fruits of the Spirit. The wonder and miracle of Christmas is that it is done on behalf of people deeply entrenched in the works of the flesh or the actions of the sinful nature. That is the knowledge that brings me an unspeakable joy.
The third thing I want to say about joy is something I learned in a profound way from my wife last year. (I share these with her permission and her blessings.)
Late last year, Peggy and I sat in a doctor’s office where we talked about how to treat the breast cancer with which she had just been diagnosed. It was surprising and unsettling enough that she was diagnosed with cancer just a few years after I had gone through a battle with prostate cancer. However, life was not through with us so far as surprises were concerned. Later that afternoon, while we were away from the house, Peggy’s mother fell while coming down the stairs. She had been doing so well in recent weeks, but now was bed-ridden with a fractured pelvis.
Wanting to comfort Peggy, I remarked how ironic it seemed that, on the week when our faith directs us to the word of joy she had so much hardship and stress placed upon her. I thought maybe she would break down and cry; instead she said, “Oh, I still have my joy.”
That response reminds me of the gospel song that says, “After all I’ve been through, I still have joy.” That is what separates joy from the false gods of happiness, pleasure and thrills. When you have joy, the devil can throw everything he has against you and you just keep on pushing-not because you are that strong, but because God is bigger than anything that life can do to you.
Every year at about this time, I remind you of the difference between the phrase all is right and all is well. The first phrase suggests everything in your life is in order and under perfect control. It suggests everything is going exactly as you desire and you do not have a worry in the world. I cannot think of many days in my life when I can say with a straight face that all is right.
However, the phrase all is well suggests something very different. All is well suggests that things may not be going according to my plan. Things may not be right with my body. My finances and my relationships may not be right according to the standards of this world. Nevertheless, I can still sing the song that says:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say,
it is well; it is well with my soul.
Things have not been alright this week, but it is well with my soul. In the words of the commercial by Nationwide Insurance Company, “Sometimes life comes at you fast”-but it is well with my soul. After all I’ve been through, I still have joy and it is well with my soul.
I have some advice for those still saying, “I can’t get no satisfaction”-they need to look somewhere else for their contentment. They should consider Isaiah 55:2, Isaiah 55:6 which says, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?…Seek ye the Lord while he may be found.”
This is the gift of the Advent season; it is a season when we are reminded that the best things in life work from the inside out, not from the outside in. Life is not about happiness, pleasure, thrills or highs. Real satisfaction in life comes from the themes of Advent, three of which are also listed among the fruits of the Spirit-love, joy and peace.
There is a song I learned in the devotional services of the Baptist church that says:
“This joy I have the world didn’t give to me,
The world didn’t give it, and the world
can’t take it away.”
This is what separates joy from the cheap thrills, the fleeting happiness and the temporal pleasures associated with this world; only joy can say, “The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.”