1203) Steve Jobs’ Question for His Pastor (a)

Steve Jobs  (1955-2011)

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     Steve Jobs was truly one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known.  He has been called the Henry Ford of our time.  Not only was he a brilliant inventor and innovator, he was also an incredible businessman, marketer, and leader.  Along with a couple friends, he started the Apple Computer Company in his parents’ garage in 1976.  Nine years later, after a falling out with Apple’s Board of Directors, Jobs left Apple and became a pioneer in computer generated animated movies.  He was co-founder Pixar, the film company that has produced such popular films as Finding Nemo, Cars, Up, Toy Story 1,2,&3, and many more.  In 1996, Apple was near bankruptcy and the Board asked Jobs to come back.  Jobs did go back, turned the company around, and by 2011 Apple was the most valuable company in the world. Jobs had engineered what has been called the biggest comeback in business history.  Steve Jobs was involved in the development of the iMac, iTunes, iPhone, iPod, iPad, and much more.  By the time he died in 2011 at the age of 56, he had amassed a personal fortune of eight billion dollars.

     As a boy, Steve Jobs attended a Lutheran church with his parents.  At age 13 he asked his pastor, “Does God know everything?”  The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.”  Jobs then showed his pastor a Life magazine cover depicting starving children in Africa and asked, “Does God know about this?”  The pastor answered, “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”  Jobs then declared that he did not want to worship such a God, walked out of the church, and never went back.

     For Steve Jobs, that unanswered question revealed an open and shut case against God.  What else is there to consider?  What kind of God would allow innocent children to starve to death?  So Jobs walked out and, being the brilliant man that he was, the story could raise doubts about God in the minds of many others.  But let’s continue to follow the story.

     Where did Steve Jobs go, spiritually, after he walked out of church?  Well, like a lot of young people, he went nowhere for a long time.  But then during a time of personal crisis, he turned to Buddhism, which he said became a huge influence in his life.  Remember, Steve Jobs turned away from Christianity because he believed it had an inadequate response to the problem of suffering.  Therefore, it is only fair to ask what Buddhism has to say about suffering.

     First of all, belief in God is optional for a Buddhist.  Buddhism is more of a philosophical system and way of life, than a religion that worships a supreme being.  Therefore, there is not necessarily a God to be disappointed in.  But even a philosophical system has to deal with suffering.  So what does Buddhism have to say about that?

     Well, it turns out that the question of suffering is at the very center of this religion.  There is at the core of Buddhism four noble truths:  #1– We all suffer; #2– Suffering is caused by desire; #3– Get rid of your desires and you get rid of suffering; and #4– The path to enlightenment has as its goal to learn how to get rid of desire.  So how then should we respond to suffering?  By living without having any desires, and transcending all desire.

     There is much truth in this.  Let’s say you are depressed because you cannot afford the new boat you have been wanting.  Well, abandon the desire, forget the boat, be satisfied with what you have, and you won’t be depressed about it anymore.  Right?  This can work quite well for many things.

     But what would a Buddhist say to the starving child?  Same thing.  They would say, “Transcend your desire for food.  Your problem is not that you don’t have food.  Your problem is your desire for something you cannot have.  Get rid of that desire, and you won’t be frustrated.”

     “Well,” says the child, “then I will die.”  “Yes,” says the Buddhist, “so now your problem is that you desire to live.  Get over your desire to live, and you will not suffer.”

     “Yes,” says the child, “but it hurts to be hungry.”  “Well now,” says Buddhism, “your desire is to be without pain.  You must transcend that desire too.  So, just get rid of all your desires, and then you will not suffer.”

     Got that?  The fourth of the noble truths tells you how to do that, and that can indeed lead to a real inner peace and strength.  Desire nothing and expect nothing, and you will be able to handle anything.  

     This is a huge oversimplification, of course, but it is the gist of it, and this does have significant real life consequences.  One of the results of that kind of thinking is that Buddhists are not very interested in relieving the suffering of their fellow human beings.  After all, they also believe in ‘karma,’ which means that the bad things that happen to someone are the inevitable result of the bad things they have done– so why should anyone interfere with law of the universe by relieving suffering that is deserved?

     I once knew a Cambodian refugee named Salee.  Salee was a young man when Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia in 1975.  Pol Pot was a ruthless tyrant, and over the next four years, two million Cambodians were dead as the result of his rule, many of them murdered in the infamous ‘killing fields.’  Salee, simply because he was from the educated class, was arrested and marched out of the city into one of these killing fields.  There he, along with a thousand other people, were shot and left for dead.  Salee was severely wounded, but survived. He laid quietly among the hundreds of dead bodies until darkness, and then crept away.  He was a medical student and knew how to treat and bandage his wounds.  He then made his way to a refugee camp in Thailand, and after living there two years, was able to come to the United States.

     Salee is a Christian, one of only a few in Cambodia.  Cambodia is 95% Buddhist, the faith in which Salee was raised.  I asked him how he came to believe in Jesus.  He said that even before the civil war there was much hunger and suffering in Cambodia.  But the poor and suffering people received no help from the government, and they recieved no help from the Buddhists.  

     Salee did notice, however, that American Christian missionaries were helping everyone they could, in whatever ways they we able.  Salee asked himself, “Why do these Christians come here from the other side of the world to help my people, when my people do not even help their own neighbors?”  He went into one of the mission churches to find out.  The pastor told him about Jesus, about the compassion Jesus had for the poor and suffering, and how Jesus told his followers to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  Salee said he learned none of that from Buddhism.  Salee wanted to know more about Jesus.  Before long, Saly came to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, Savior of the world.  I met him at a Ministry Training School for immigrants that I was volunteering at.  Salee’s goal there was to learn enough about Christianity to go back to Cambodia as a missionary to his own people.

     It is interesting to note that the question which led Saly out of Buddhism and into Christianity, is very similar to the question that led Steve Jobs out of Christianity and eventually toward Buddhism.  Both wondered about the problem of hunger.  Steve Jobs wondered how God could allow it.  Salee wanted to find out about the God that inspired people to do something about it.  (continued…)

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Luke 3:10-11  —  “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Galatians 5:14  —  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Matthew 10:42a  —  (Jesus said), ” If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

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 O Lord Jesus Christ, who when on earth was always occupied by your Father’s business:  grant that we may not grow weary in well-doing, and give us the grace to do all in your name.  Amen. 

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