Sunday, December 17, 2017

Pursuing Happiness vs. Pursuing God

It seems every single human being who has ever walked the face of this planet has been in pursuit of one ultimate goal: happiness.

Certainly we all have different visions of how we will achieve this end-goal: living in America, moving up the corporate ladder, stockpiling millions of dollars, living in a mansion, spending time with family, selling everything, or gaining self-identity. All these visions may be different; some are even at odds with one another. But the end-goal is the same: to achieve lasting happiness.

How Could These Pursuits Be in Opposition to One Another?

A couple years ago, I drew the conclusion that one of the major issues amongst Christians is that we are too busy pursuing happiness instead of pursuing God. What I meant by this conclusion was that the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of God were on two opposite ends of the spectrum. Therefore, you could only have one of the two: God or happiness.

As I studied this subject a bit more, I realized I wasn’t the first person to have arrived at this conclusion. People all throughout history have arrived at similar conclusions, but none more obvious and influential than Immanuel Kant. Although Kant had no appreciation for Christianity, he was very interested in the philosophy of morals and ethics. He drew the conclusion that the most moral act a person could perform was one in which he not only intended to receive no benefit, but actually received no benefit.[1]

According to many Christian theologians, to pursue God is to pursue the highest form of morality. If we apply Kant’s philosophy of ethics to the pursuit of God, we draw the conclusion that when we pursue God, we are not permitted to receive benefit from this pursuit, lest it diminish the moral value of this pursuit. In this way of thinking, the pursuit of God and the pursuit of happiness stand in opposition to one another.

This belief is rampant among American Christians. They work really hard to do what they do, simply because it is their duty as Christians, without expecting to receive any benefit, whether physical or spiritual, from their actions.

Is this what the Bible, the authoritative book of Christianity, says, or have today’s Christians unknowingly confused Kantian ethics with biblical ethics?

How Could These Pursuits Be One in the Same?

A Bible verse that stands out as appearing to agree with Kantian ethics is this one from the Gospel of Luke, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…”[2] Another one is, “[Love] is not self-seeking…”[3] If all we had to work with was these two partial Bible verses, we’d have to agree with Kant that the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of God are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

But what happens when we read the entire Bible? Would we draw the same conclusion? If the pursuit of God and the pursuit of happiness are opposites, then how do we explain this verse? “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forever more.”[4] According to David, the writer of this Psalm, we will experience everlasting pleasure in the presence of God. Pleasure is a benefit, is it not? If God demands the highest morality, and the highest morality can only be achieved by receiving no benefit, then something is seriously wrong with the picture this verse paints for us.

Or how about these verses which Jesus spoke: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”[5] Jesus promised his disciples great rewards for following him. Again, this sounds drastically different than Kantian ethics.

Or what about this final example: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”[6] It appears that Paul, the writer of this verse, is saying that the reason he would be willing to give away all he has and deliver up his body to be burned is because of a benefit he might gain from it. Essentially what he’s saying is, “What’s the point in doing all those things if I don’t gain something from it?” Paul was expecting to receive benefit from his actions.

Over and over throughout the Bible, God promises great rewards to his people. Even in the verse I quoted earlier from Luke 6, the verse ends by promising reward for loving our enemies, doing good, and lending, expecting nothing in return.[7]

According to the Bible, the pursuit of God and the pursuit of happiness are not on opposite ends of the spectrum. Actually, the Bible tells us that the greatest happiness we can ever find will be found in our pursuit of God, not because he gives us a bunch of stuff to make us happy, but because he gives us himself.

Is the Pursuit of Happiness the Same as the Pursuit of God?

Before I wrap up, I want to answer this final question because of a common misunderstanding I’ve observed when discussing this topic: Is the pursuit of happiness the same as the pursuit of God?

When we think of achieving happiness, typically we picture having lots of money, lots of nice stuff, a successful career, and a healthy family. I’ve seen people who have all that stuff, yet they’re still not happy. And I’ve seen people with none of that stuff, yet they’re happy. All of these things are not really necessary in order to find happiness, nor is gaining great amounts of those things going to guarantee happiness.

It seems that the more we have, the more we want. Enough is never enough. With every milestone we hit, we experience a brief period of happiness, but then it quickly fades as we began setting our sights towards the next major milestone. No matter how much money we have, how many toys we have, how successful of a career we have, or how healthy of a family we have, we will never be completely happy with all that stuff. We will always feel unfulfilled.

This feeling of unfulfillment is what philosophers Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis called a void. They both agreed that this void could only be filled by an infinite and immutable object.[8] The only infinite and immutable object which exists is God, the creator, sustainer, and sovereign ruler of the universe.

Do you want to experience everlasting happiness? Pursue God. Your pursuit of happiness will be achieved in your pursuit of God.

I’ll warn you up front that when you pursue God, you’re initially probably not going to like the ways he works in your life. He’ll probably take away some, and maybe even all, of the things in which you currently seek happiness. But I can tell you both from my experience and from the experience of countless others that losing these things is going to be the best thing that ever happened to you because it will allow you to experience a much greater level of happiness than the happiness you currently find in all your stuff. The happiness we’ll receive from gaining God far surpasses the happiness we’ll receive from anyone or anything else in this life.[9]

[1] Ayn Rand, For the Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1961), 32.
[2] Luke 6:35 (ESV).
[3] 1 Corinthians 13:5 (NIV).
[4] Psalms 16:11 (ESV).
[5] Luke 18:29-30 (ESV).
[6] 1 Corinthians 13:3 (ESV).
[7] “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.” – Luke 6:35 (ESV)
[8] Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees, trans. W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 113, thought #425.
[9] Much of my thinking on this topic was inspired by John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2011).

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