It’s a simple but counterintuitive finding.
As Cal Newport tells it in Deep Work, when University of Chicago colleagues Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larson invented a psychological testing technique called the experience sampling method, they were eager to find out what kinds of activities truly gave people joy and fulfillment.
The experience sampling method involved giving test subjects a pager and then randomly paging the subjects during a day. When they were paged, the subjects were to immediately record what they were doing and what their feelings were. This method, as opposed to relying on test subjects to keep a diary on their own throughout a day, was found to be far more effective in prompting people to accurately document the connection between different kinds of activities and their state of mind.
Here is what Csikzentmihalyi wrote of their fundamental finding:
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s mind or body is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
This prompted him to write the book Flow about that particular state of being.
Our instincts, of course, are to seek happiness and contentment in relaxation, fun, and doing as little as possible. There is, of course, nothing wrong with relaxing. We need downtime. Even the occasional binge watching of a TV series. Yet, being fully engaged in something – physical training, carrying out a challenging work project, figuring out a complex jigsaw puzzle – that pushes us and stretches us is actually an essential ingredient of a full life.
This, interestingly enough, is what the whole Christian life offers.
When, with God’s help, we commit ourselves to living out God’s love and purposes in all phases of our lives and the life of the world, we are immersed in something both challenging and worthwhile. This will translate into new consciousness of our choices and our habits every day of our life. It may mean taking on projects and challenges at a larger scale. These projects or challenges may well be way beyond what we believe we can handle with the skills and experience we’ve developed on our own.
This is what I believe the Jesus was talking about when he talked about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. He modeled it for us. Committing ourselves to it, paradoxically, can give us our best moments in life. Not necessarily easy. Or relaxing. But it can make us fully alive to who we should be.
This is what I would call the “kingdom flow.”
A great example is Bob Muzikowski. As he describes it, he was saved and made sober on the same day. When he subsequently moved to Chicago from New York to get away from reminders of his former drinking life, he started a little league on the city’s troubled Near West Side that attracted, to his amazement, 300 youth the very first time he put out notices about it.
His dive into a larger purpose did not end there. His professional life continued in the financial world until he began to talk deeply with Bob Buford and then joined the Halftime Institute when Buford launched it. In this process, Muzikowski found that he continued to be drawn to the needs of the communities he had experienced through the Near West Little League he had helped establish. So he gave up his comfortable financial career to convert an abandoned Catholic elementary school on the Near West side into the Chicago Hope Academy, a college and life preparatory high school with a strong Christian faith element. Muzikowski purposefully developed it to be more affordable for poor and minority youth than typical private high schools. He also recruits the best teachers he can find from around the country.
This has not been easy work.
“If I hadn’t had a Halftime journey, my life would have been easier and less stressful today,” Muzikowski says, “but it would definitely be a lot more shallow.”
Not everyone may feel the calling to do something that meaningful on that scale. But in every life I am convinced there are needs and purposes that God is offering us to be engaged with and choices to make every day. Responding will move us beyond our own interests and needs while tapping the talents and skills we have and even those we don’t know we have.
When we move from faith in God and what God offers to us through Jesus to a deep commitment to living with God’s purposes firmly in mind every moment, we go from getting to the starting line to actually running the race of which the Apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 9:23-25.
This is an essential point of what I mean by the phrase “whole faith.” When Jesus said he was the way, the truth, and the life, he was not pointing only to life after death. He was, as I understand it, pointing to a true life that begins when we synch our lives with God’s purposes. That true life begins in the here and now, and that God-filled life will never end. After death, it will be even more glorious and complete. This is the new and abundant life that Jesus promised. Being in this kingdom flow give us the sense of flow and challenging, immersive purpose that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described.
Our churches should help us understand this and develp the kingdom flow in our lives.
I know I need that help at times. The brokeness of the world, incuding the dysfunction of how we treat God’s earth, is at times overwhelming. When I don’t hear churches calling us to bring God’s kingdom into this world to the best degree possible, I am dismayed. I even find myself questioning my faith.
But when I come across Christians like Bob Muzikowski, my spirits rebounds, and my faith grows. I am encouraged, too, that there are growing numbers of Christians in the kingdom flow who are working in their own ways to change how we treat God’s earth in the process of growing food from it. Like Bob Muzikowski, they have taken on missions that are challenging and require of them tremendous sacrifice. Gabe Brown, Joel Salatin, and Ray Archuleta are just some of them.
The testimonies of their lives and the impacts of their lives say a great deal about what the whole Gospel offers to you and the world and about its truth beyond its words.