The Power of a Joyful Life… or Revisiting the Notion of Happiness

I’ve mentioned before (at least I think I’ve said it here… if not I know I’ve said it elsewhere), that I dislike John Piper’s notion of Christian Hedonism. It strikes me that any philosophy based solely or primarily in what brings me the most pleasure is problematic, regardless of the ends it espouses. If my pleasure is the ultimate goal, then I am putting myself at the center of all things, and this is a place that I should never be. That being said, for the past two years God has been teaching me about joy, and I feel like I’m finally getting to the heart of the lesson. For most of my life happiness has been… unimportant. My goal was to be strong, or to be powerful, or to be righteous, or to be good, or to be spiritual (kind of in that order actually), and happiness was something that I always saw as an addendum at best, or a distraction at worst.

A few years ago a friend of mine was lecturing me about the way I approach life and asked me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ The only response that I could give was ‘Eh, maybe I guess…’ I want to stress here that my goal was not to be unhappy. I’ve never seen misery as a sign of righteousness (or at least I don’t think I have), but I also never made it a goal to be happy. Over the past two years God has been slowly changing this.

So, recently my bible study (yes, I’m part of a bible study now… yes, I realize that I haven’t posted in ‘like forever’ which translates to a couple of months in real time… thus proving the theory of internet relativity:T=CPI or Time=Care exponentially multiplied by the Perspective of the Individual)… anyway, my bible study has been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a book that I’ve loved for a long time, but recently I’ve had a new perspective on. I think that, at its core, Ecclesiastes is an admonition to joy. The author repeatedly points to the pointlessness, injustice, and repetitiveness of life, and then responds to himself by arguing that true purpose can be found in God.

In chapter one and two he shows that none of the things we normally cling to: labor, love, wealth, knowledge, and pleasure, can possibly serve as the purpose of a meaningful life. All of these are fleeting, ephemeral, and ultimately vanity. However, in chapter 3 he shows that, while none of these things is the point of life, all of them have a point in life. This is an important distinction. A life lived for the pursuit of any of these things will ultimately be unfulfilling, because they are, in themselves, vane. However, all of them are gifts given by God to bring pleasure to life and add to its ultimate purpose. Solomon argues that everything happens for a reason, and that God is the ultimate arbiter of that reason, so should we argue that he got things wrong?

Chapters four and five continue in this vein, showing the vanity and injustice of everyday life when we live it without God, but the pleasure that God can bring through that same vanity when we place him at the center of our lives. I have long been somewhat enamored by the mystic ascetics (or ascetic mystics… whatever you want to call them). And I think that true joy can be found in the ascetic pursuit of God, but this is not the only way to glorify him.

Whoever we are, whatever path God takes us on (and I’m not trying to preach Universalism here, if you think God is calling you to be a Buddhist Monk you need to revisit the scriptures), we can and should find joy when we truly place him at the center of our lives. This is something that I’m currently working on. For a long time I, like the Pharisees, turned moral virtue and righteousness into an idol, all too often replacing my worship with God with a worship of goodness. Even when I left this behind, I didn’t seek to enjoy God, but simply to endure with him.

My circumstances haven’t changed much in the past few years. I’m still single, still poor, and I still have debts that I’ll probably never be able to realistically pay (though this is in God’s hands). I still struggle with depression, fear, doubt, worry, etc. However, I’m struggling less and enjoying more. I’m learning to find my joy in God and truly, thoroughly worship him.

Making the Cross Too Important

The cross, or rather Christ’s death upon the cross, is the only hope of mankind. It is the only means to salvation, the only propitiation of sin, and that completion that was intended and expected in the Mosaic law. This is all true. However, when I make my faith entirely about the cross, what I inevitably wind up saying is that my faith is about me, and this is the problem.

I need the cross. It is my hope and my salvation. God does not need it, because God does not need me. He’s perfectly fine on his own and there is nothing that I can do for him which he cannot do for himself. The cross has an important, irrevocable place in the Christian faith, but it should not be the center of that faith, because we should not be the center of that faith.

We often say that ‘If only one man on earth had ever sinned, Christ would have come to save him’, and I don’t actually disagree with this claim in anyway. God loves us and he wants us, this is made clear by the fact that the father would sacrifice the son so that men might be saved. However, when I hear this I often respond with this question: ‘If saving man hadn’t glorified the Godhead, would Christ have come to die?’

The answer to this is obviously no, because we aren’t the center of the Christian faith. Christ died for our sins because it glorified the Godhead. Our salvation is the primary means by which God is glorified (though certainly not the only means), and thus our salvation is important, but any attempt to make the means into the purpose is a mistake.

We serve a God that is beyond our understanding. A being of infinite knowledge, majesty, power, and presence, and in glorifying him our purpose is served. We should be obsessed with Christ, because he is both God and King. He is our savior and our hope. We should be obsessed with the cross because it was the means by which our salvation came, and that is important.

However, in these obsessions we must never forget that our highest obsession, our highest purpose, is to glorify the Lord of Hosts, and only in doing is our purpose served.