Within my first few days at kindergarten I met the guy who would be my best-friend for the next five years. We both loved trucks, building things out of LEGO and pretending to be good at rugby.
Together, we learnt to ride bikes - without training wheels - and to fall off bikes, played marbles and spent most afternoons around at each other's homes, catching spiders and perfecting our backyard cricket technique. We went on holidays together, journeyed through school together - everything a good best-friendship should be. But then, one day everything changed.
For his birthday, he got a Sega Master System. See, before the X-Box and the Playstation, there were other consoles that bravely paved the way for the video-gaming future that we now know. The pinnacle of these early achievers was the Mega-Drive - a gaming machine which could display a beautiful range of 32 colours, make 9 different tones and would regularly over-heat.
This was the magnum-opus of the pioneering gaming industry, and my best friend had one. Which meant, I would be able to play on this beautiful creation as well.
Slowly but surely, something began to change. Before, I looked forward to go to my mate's house to hang out and enjoy times with him. Now, all I looked forward to was playing Alex the Kid whilst avoiding natural light. If we spent time playing video games - I was happy. If I went around there and we didn't get to game - I felt ripped off. No longer was I focused on my friend, but I was focused on the benefits I could get from him.â€¨â€¨
Sex, Friends & Benefits
Although undoubtedly true among other generations throughout history, friends with benefits has become a common phrase and action for countless young adults in today's hyper-sexualised culture. Simply put - a friends with benefits relationship is one where the couple choose to engage in sexual activity together (the benefit), without becoming romantically involved or practicing exclusivity (the friends). Research among Michigan State University revealed that as many as 60% of university students had participated in this type of relationship, with 25% of these ending up ultimately destroying the friendship.
The study from MSU also revealed something fascinating about the communication practices of friends with benefits. Almost all of the respondents said that they felt that they couldn't talk about their relationship with the other person - it was taboo. A New York Times report on the survey stated that, "These physical friendships often occlude one of the emotional arteries of real friendship, openness." In pursuing the benefits, these individuals often lost sight of the friendship and even the other person - instead becoming focused solely on themselves and the benefits that they can receive.
The other person - a living, breathing human-being, rich with story and life - becomes a simple means to an end. This new relationship structure has been explored through popular culture, with recent movies No Strings Attached and the imaginatively named Friends with Benefits, painting a remarkably rosy picture of the friends with benefits phenomenon. Morals aside, however, this concept raises some interesting questions for our generation. Does a normal friendship not have any benefits? Do we have to focus on the benefits to receive them? And - does this extend beyond the area of sexuality, and into other areas of life - even into faith?
Faith With Benefits
The Scriptures abound with stories of people trying to embrace God with a faith-with-benefits mindset. From the Israelities' passionless and routine-like sacrificial worship that Malachi powerfully exposed, to Paul's explanation of those who are "preaching Christ with selfish ambition", the story of the Judeo-Christian faith is rife with characters who seek God's blessing, and forget God in the process. No story illustrates this point better than that of the intriguingly named Simon the Sorcerer.
Simon was a magician in Samaria, enjoying the benefits of his niche career (like Criss Angel, but probably with less piercings). When he heard of the power that these new Christians had - the ability to heal, prophesy and transform people's lives - he wanted in. So he went to Peter and John with a fist-full of cash, asking for these benefits. He wanted the power that they had, and the perks of their faith. His eyes were on the wrong prize - on the benefit, not on God.â€¨â€¨
The Holy Vending Machine
A good friendship will create many rich benefits, including openness, care, laughter, adventures, support, wisdom, understanding and grace. But when we focus on the benefits over the friendship, we quickly discover that we end up losing both. Similarly, as I reflect on messages I've delivered, books I've read and sermons I've heard, I can't help but think - "Does our generation focus on the benefits of faith, and sometimes forget about the God who makes this possible?".
I know I've given youth talks which have talked about the 'life to the max' (thank you, Jesus, for John 10 verse 10), the good times in New Heavens and Earth that await, the joy of having a King who is always there for you, and the amazing grace that is offered - yet have sometimes treated God as simply a means to an end. I have been guilty of focusing on the benefits, and seeing God as a conduit - as if God is simply a holy vending machine, ready to deliver the benefits on tap.
I have a friend who became a Christian in her early 20s, and knew very little of the Christian faith before her step into discipleship. About three months after she began following Jesus, she learnt about heaven for the first time - and was blown away that she got to share in eternity with Jesus. When I heard this story, I was blown away! As a Youth Pastor, heaven was the sure-fire sell for my salvation sales-pitch.
When I asked her more about this, she simply said, "When I heard about this God who loves me and gave himself for me - that was enough!". By focusing on the faith, she began to richly enjoy the benefits which so many others aimed for, and missed out on.â€¨â€¨
The Call to Re-Focus
In Psalm 103, David calls the followers of God to "forget not all God's benefits". The benefits are a great blessing for us to enjoy. But, before that, David simply calls himself to "Praise the Lord, O my soul". David recognised that if we focus our hearts on God, we will enjoy the benefits of this relationship. If we focus on the benefits, we'll probably miss out on both.
In 1980, Keith Green penned the song "Oh Lord You're Beautiful" in response to the hardening of his heart, and with a desire to return to a place of simple enjoyment of God.
In the bridge, he wrote the infamous words that call us away from faith-with-benefits, and back to a faith focused on the one who gives love and life, saying, "And when I'm doing well, help me to never seek a crown, for my reward is giving glory to you". In this place I am reminded that my God is not a vending-machine, nor is he a Sega Master System, but He is the one who loves me and desires my love, in a way that is richer than any of my benefit-based dreams could imagine.
"Jeremy Suisted is a student and innovation consultant - www.creativate.co.nz - who was useless at rugby, average at Alex the Kid, and pretty good at catching spiders"
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