I dare say you have read, and loved, stories in which a fairy or magician offers the hero a wish. He can have just one thing. He must choose what he wants above all else. He is offered one choice, but only one. Probably in the story he wastes it on some silly wish, like the peasant in the German folk tale who wished a sausage for supper when he could have ordered a banquet; or the man in Gilbert's ballad who chose the ability to make himself invisible. Usually the wish is for great wealth, on the assumption that you can get anything you want with money. Women have asked for beauty or love; and Faust was fool enough to want a return of his youth.
The granting of such wishes does not always make for happiness. Often something which seems most desirable when you lack it, loses its attraction when you get it. A child goes frantic for some expensive mechanical toy, but tires of it after a few days and returns to his clothes-pegs and old tin cans! Our outlook changes after we have got our heart's desire. There is many a man now trying to divorce a wife whom he once courted as the most wonderful woman in the world. It's a matter of not knowing how things will turn out.
All the more credit, then, to Solomon, that he made so wise a choice when the opportunity came to him. He was still only a young man, and, having been brought up at court, had had much less experience of the world than David had at his age. It must have been heart-rending to have to decide on one thing—what he wanted most of all, when God said, "Ask what I shall give you." To begin with, we know he had already developed a taste for magnificent display. He had come to Gibeon to sacrifice a thousand burnt offerings; obviously he liked doing things on a grand scale. We can safely guess he was tempted to ask for a glorious and splendid court, like that of his father-in-law, Pharaoh of Egypt, or his wife's brother-in-law at Susa. Or he may have considered the delirious joys of unbridled power, such as was possessed of old by the rulers of Babylon and Assyria. These countries were in weak hands at that time, and with God's help he might have become absolute ruler of the Middle East. How about health? Long life? Success in love? Solomon was notoriously fond of women. Numerous offspring? . . . we could have forgiven him for choosing any of these, considering his upbringing and the period in which he lived.
What would you choose if the opportunity were presented to you? Suppose God came to you in your sleep tonight, and said: "Ask what you will and it shall be given you"? This is a very important question, which we should take pains to answer honestly and wisely, because eventually we all tend to get what we really want. If Solomon had chosen magnificence, or power, or sex, or health, or long life, the Lord would undoubtedly have granted his request. But I doubt whether he would have been much happier as a result. Wealth is a relative thing, and can be defined as "Considerably more money than you possess at present." To a poor man, an income of £100 per week would be wealth; to a rich man it would spell appalling poverty! We have an inborn capacity to adapt ourselves to the way of life we have to live. You get an increase in salary, and it seems terrific at first; but, once you have expanded into the new and bigger framework, you don't feel any richer than you were, and so you have to get a lot more to produce the same effect! So with power. Lust for power is like a savage beast that grows stronger with feeding; it is never satisfied but always craves for more, until it ends by destroying itself. And so, of course, with pleasure. All these things which seem so desirable to our unregenerate humanity, if pursued as ends in themselves eventually land us in the boredom and misery of hell.
In our Western culture, we worship SUCCESS. You have got to succeed in whatever you undertake. If you fail, you are made to feel ashamed, guilty. That is why there is so much competition, everyone trying to push himself to the front. Maybe it is part of the democratic process, but it is certainly not taught in the Sermon on the Mount. According to the Christian ethic, those who win the rat-race and those who lose are all of equal value in the sight of God, as was demonstrated by Jesus, who drew most of his friends and companions from among the failures of society, and was himself a failure as the world judges.
What we have got to learn, I think, is to sit still and enjoy life more, enjoy simple pleasures, enjoy relationships, enjoy people, enjoy God—without struggling all the time to be successful, to achieve results. The Lord said to Isaiah: "Their strength is to sit still." (Isaiah 30:7) and to the Psalmist: "Be still and know that I am God"—excellent advice! Much of the frustration and misery of our times and culture would end if only we could relax and stop trying to keep up with the Joneses!
I don't think Solomon had this urge to worship the goddess SUCCESS, because, being of the royal line, he was outside the competitive process. The aristocrat is at the top anyway. But, by the same token, it must have been particularly hard for Solomon to be humble, even before God. There is something rather charming about this brilliant young prince making himself as simple and humble as a little child, asking for nothing but an understanding heart to discern justly between good and evil and govern his people wisely. That was his choice. "And the speech pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this thing."
Now comes the surprising twist to the story. Because Solomon chose something he could give away to others rather than something for himself; because he preferred wisdom to all earthly wealth and glory, he received what he asked for, plus all the other things as well! By seeking an understanding heart to govern his people wisely, he became wise in other ways also, so that kings came from afar to hear him talk. (And queens too! Remember the Queen of Sheba.) And he became so rich that several chapters of the Bible are devoted to an account of his possessions.
Will this happen with us too? Not perhaps in quite the same way. There is no guarantee that the man who chooses wisdom will necessarily become wealthy or powerful. But, as we have seen, wealth and power are nothing in themselves. They are only worth having in so far as we use them in the service of mankind. And here the right choice comes in. Seek your own happiness, and everything you touch turns to dust and ashes. But seek the happiness of others, and your own enjoyment of what you do possess increases to such a degree that you feel like a millionaire! Happiness is queer stuff, quite different from cake or pound notes, because the more you give it away, the more you have! In fact, the only way to get it for yourself is to give it away to others.
The matter of making choices is so important that it could almost be said to be the most important thing in life, because by our choices the whole direction of our life is determined, and thus whether we end up in heaven or hell. "Behold," said the Lord, "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live." (Deuteronomy 30:19). Our choices are creative. In this respect we are unlike animals. An animal cannot help doing what it does. A bird may appear to exercise freedom of choice as to where to build its nest; but if you knew the nature of the bird, and all the stimuli impinging upon it, you could foretell precisely how it would act. They say that a donkey standing half-way between two equal piles of hay would starve to death, because the stimuli from both would be equal and opposite; so, being only a donkey with no faculty of free choice, he would be unable to turn either way! Human beings are different. You may know a person's character absolutely, yet you cannot tell with certainty how he will behave in any future set of circumstances. Men's actions are not pre-determined by their characters. On the contrary, their free choices determine their characters. Every time you face up to various options and choose between them, something is added to your character or taken away. It is changed for the better or the worse.
Very often the choices we make have to do with our reaction to something. For example, if your car is hit by another car coming through the red light, you have no choice as to what happens to your body as a result of the impact. But you are quite free to choose whether to be furiously angry with the idiot driver of the other car, and be consumed with self-pity, fear, depression and other negative thoughts, or whether you will take it calmly and trust in Providence to bring some good out of the accident, and co-operate with the processes of restoration and health. You can be resentful and hurt by slights and insults, or you can choose to rise above them and remain calm and sweet and adult no matter what transpires.
Freedom of choice is inherent in all human beings from birth. It is a feature of the human life which flows into us from God, just as wetness is a feature of water. It makes man creative, which animals are not. Actually, it is man's creative power that has formed hell—a thing God would never have done! I am not saying we can choose just anything, irrespective of our characters. Each choice has to be made from the point we have already reached. When making a journey, you can choose to turn to the right or the left but you cannot pick yourself up and dump yourself somewhere else.
I read somewhere of a technique for testing how far one has progressed. Prepare three cards, marked: "What I want to have; what I want to do; and what I want to be." Then write your wishes on little slips of paper and clip them to the cards in order of preference. Be quite honest; there is no point in deception since nobody is going to see them except yourself. Put the cards away for a few months or a year, then get them out: say, on your birthday or January 1st, and try again. You will probably find that some things which were of prime importance before, now seem less so; whereas other things are now assuming greater significance. You will have to rearrange the order of slips. Some will fall away altogether, and you may have to write some new ones which were not there before. The tendency will probably be that whereas when you were younger there were most slips on the "What I want to have" card, these have gradually dropped out When you come to think about it on a deeper level, you probably find you have everything you really need. Even the slips on "What I want to do" tend to get fewer as you grow older and more mature. Maybe what you do is found to be not so important after all! The vital card now is the third one, "What I want to be." On this you will find more and more to write; and here the question of order and preference and evaluation will be most revealing. Try the experiment and see!
Turning back to King Solomon, we find that his choice was approved by God because he had adopted the correct order of values, putting first things first, so that everything else had dropped into its proper place on the slate and everything was good. Even love of self and love of possessions are good if put in their proper relationship to love of the Lord and the neighbour. The ideal is to love the Lord first, the neighbour next, possessions next, and self last. Evil originated when our ancestors began to reverse the order of priorities, putting self first, possessions next, the neighbour far down on the list, and the Lord last. That is the structure of a devil in hell. We need the wisdom to see what is of greater value and what is of less, so as to get the order right. That is the WISDOM we must ask from the Lord. As Jesus put it: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33.)
While we are still in the body, the fringe benefits will not be very obvious for they will be added in secret, in the interiors of the spirit. But after death, when we awake in the Spiritual World, they will appear openly. The Lord will clothe you in a beauty far surpassing that of the lilies of the field. And even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.