Christian, Why are You Happy?
In addition to our weekly blog pieces, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 9 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. Since these pieces represent some of our best work, we want to give them greater circulation. So, starting this semester, our blog will post a new piece each Wednesday as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “The Great Commission,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the third of ten installments.
Now that I have captured your attention, let me assure you, dear reader, that the forthcoming discussion aims not to compel you to join a monastery or lead a life of Stoic self-denial. Rather, we will explore how Christians are to reconcile the concept of satisfaction with our sanctification and commission as God’s vice-regents; the extent to which we are indebted on account of God’s perfect love and redeeming grace; and the manner in which we are called unto Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation. Before we proceed, though, I think it prudent to respond to some of the more disturbing claims advanced by a popular doctrine that has framed much of the current conversation around Christian happiness. It is what Dr. John Piper calls “Christian Hedonism.”
Piper is famous for often saying that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” While this nice-sounding platitude is not itself problematic, his attempt to distill from Scripture a simple, unifying “philosophy of life” raises several questions. The thrust of his argument descends from his mutation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which he distorts to say that “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” 1In doing so, he transmutes the purpose of man into a self-seeking one, rather than one which is modeled in the gospel.
In Desiring God, 2 Piper considers our incontrovertible desire to be happy, claiming that our true happiness is in God alone. He wants to show how we ought not just obey God and follow Christ but do so in order to satisfy ourselves. Accordingly, he says that “pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling.” 3 Jesus, on the contrary, says simply:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 4
Nowhere does He tell us to love God so that we can be happy. For love is not motivated by joy but is its own motivation. We are created to reflect God’s love, not to treat the Almighty as instrumental in our search for happiness, but Piper unnecessarily conflates the love.
He claims, “the desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy you cannot love man or please God.” 5 To Piper, “it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him.” 6 Yet again, this is just not consistent with the gospel. For by trying to supplement God’s greatest commandment in this way, we might find ourselves dictating to God what we ought to get from being obedient. This is the mistake of Job, the mistake of Adam. God calls us to obedience, even joyful obedience, but the outcome is His alone to determine.
What is most frustrating about Piper’s argument is his impressive deployment of Scripture to buttress his erroneous claims. For example, he takes Psalm 37:4 out of context, making “delighting in God” the fundamental Christian duty—and the sole means of sanctification—instead of one among many. The psalmist actually outlines a set of such duties, such as “trust in the Lord and do good,” “wait patiently,” and “commit your way to the Lord.” 7 All of these we do because we love Him, not because we want happiness for ourselves. We obey Him because He abhors sin and because it destroys us. We serve Him and serve our neighbors out of indebtedness and compassion. But Piper even tries to twist Jesus’ words, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” 8 by arguing that our “blessedness” motivates the love we show our neighbors. Piper calls this the “overflow of joy in God,” love that “is experienced consciously as the pursuit of our joy in the joy of another.” 9 But this is not love, at least not Christian love. Our love must be selfless and even sacrificial; for the gospel demands our holistic devotion, not a selfish devotion contingent on our own satisfaction. We are blessed beyond measure because we obey God, because we love Him, and because we serve His people.
Eudaimonia or Beatitudo?
Despite the holes in his theology, Piper does a good job articulating just how deep our age-old desire for “ultimate happiness” goes. 10 Like Aristotle, he sees happiness as “something final and self-sufficient and the end of action.” 11 It is the “chief good,” but practically “a sort of living and faring well” 12 by way of certain virtues. Centuries later, St. Augustine reconsiders this view, concluding that it is not wrong, just incomplete. The proper end of human life is a relationship with God. In cultivating that relationship, man can live virtuously by conforming to the will of God, but he must recognize that virtue is not a sufficient means for attaining earthly happiness; instead, it is merely instrumental in the achievement of the eternal peace and harmony we are promised in the afterlife. This is, to Augustine,
The full satisfaction of souls, this the happy life: to recognize piously and completely the One through whom you are led into the truth, the nature of the truth you enjoy, and the bond that connects you with the supreme measure 13
Augustine, however, does not abandon his discussion of happiness here, but continues to explore the concept throughout his work. In City of God, he begins to draw a distinction between earthly and eternal happiness. The first is the kind we have just described, obtained by faith, while the second kind is linked inextricably with our salvation, for “as we do not yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this with patience.” He goes on to say that, “Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness.” 14
St. Thomas Aquinas 15 and old Solon agree that “no man is happy in this life.” 16 But I wonder, is it better to be happy or blessed? This is, perhaps, where a great deal of the confusion arises in philosophical discussions about happiness, for the Greek and Latin words—eudaimonia and beatitudo, respectively—used to denote it have different meanings. The Greek is understood as a kind of “flourishing,” while the Latin (the language of St. Augustine) literally means “blessedness.” Unlike happiness, which by one’s own merits or deeds can be “accumulated,” a blessing must be bestowed. In that sense, the Christian conception of happiness ought to bend more in the direction of beatitudo, for our ultimate happiness will be attained when we share in the everlasting blessings of the Creator.
And yet, as Jesus demonstrates, we can and do receive blessing in this life. In the Beatitudes, Jesus outlines eight specific ways in which His disciples find favor with God on account of things done by or to them. 17 Whereas under the old covenant, only the righteous adherents of the law were thought to enjoy contemporaneous rewards for their faithfulness, it is now “the meek,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” who are to be rewarded under the new paradigm. 18 This “blessedness” clearly refers not to an internal state, but an outward mode of being. One is blessed by God, not happy of his own accord or as a result of an emotional response to the material world. And he is blessed by God because he will inherit good things in the hereafter, the kingdom of heaven, and for that reason serves and obeys Him.
Sanctification and Rest
When Augustine cried out to the Lord, “you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You,” 19 he captured precisely the kind of desperation we feel when we grasp at earthly satisfaction. For Scripture tells us that we cannot find rest, save in the bosom of the Lord, our “fortress” and “refuge” 20 who delivers us from death unto life eternal. Still, it seems to me that we are often deluded by the promises of earthly rest and present satisfaction.
This is because we are impatient, unwilling to stay awake through the night for Him. We want the comfort and the contentment and the joy every hour but without any strings attached. For while His love is certainly unconditional, the fruits that are borne within us depend entirely on the manner in which we respond to God’s love. Our faithful response to God’s grace is characterized by our obedience, by our service, and by our suffering. We must recognize, as Paul did, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Indeed, “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” and we hope for the Creation’s liberation.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 21
For all intents and purposes, God has already signed our adoption papers; all that is left for us is our own death and resurrection, that we may dwell forever in the house of the Lord and share in His glory.
This is our ultimate sanctification. For while we live, we give off the aroma of Christ. By God’s grace and our faith in Jesus Christ, we are justified according to the law, so that when God looks at a Christian, He sees not the sin corroding every fiber of our being, but the righteousness and holiness of Christ. Upon death, we are absolutely and permanently liberated from the very presence of sin and perfected in God’s sight. After all, if as Paul says, Christ atones for both the original sin of our very nature and every act of disobedience to the Father, 22 then death simply takes away our ability to keep disobeying. But while we live, we are not yet fully “in Christ,” instead we live on hope and “walk by faith.” We must recognize that our “earthly home” and our bodies, are bound to be destroyed. But “while we are at home in the body,” we are yet “away from the Lord.” We “groan that we would be further clothed,” and we groan “that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” 23 This life, Paul seems to say, cannot provide for our greatest needs, nor can it fulfill our desire to be satisfied. Only when we walk with Jesus in the newness of life are we given rest.
The Christian, a Debtor, and a King
Though the beauty of God’s created order is manifested in myriad ways, we have a tendency to dwell on the evil in this world, and this not without cause. The world is eagerly awaiting the day when it will be entirely redeemed, and we likewise groan and wait with it. But this wait cannot be passive. We cannot stand idly in the shadow of the cross, but rather we must go forth proclaiming the Lord’s death, working actively to share God’s abundant love with our neighbors. Though we are patient, our patience is not lazy; we are called to take part in reconciling creation to the Creator.
After all, dear reader, “we are debtors.” 24 We are debtors to God’s love, to His grace, to His forgiving mercy, and to our covenant with Him. As 19th-century Christian minister Charles Spurgeon puts it,
We are all born God’s creatures, and as such we are debtors to Him; to obey Him with all our body, and soul, and strength. When we have broken His commandments, as we all of us have, we are debtors to His justice, and we owe to him a vast amount of punishment, which we are not able to pay. 25
This justice, though, is satisfied by the blood of Jesus Christ. The punishment He bore for us on the cross wiped away whatever we owed. As Spurgeon notes, when Christ with His final, agonizing breath exclaimed, “It is finished,” we became debtors to God’s wrath no longer. In his words:
But then because we are not debtors to God in that sense, we become ten times more debtors to God than we should have been otherwise. Because He has remitted all our debt of sin, we are all the more indebted to Him in another sense. 26
“Are we not His sons, and is there not a debt the son owes to the Father which a lifetime of obedience can never remove?” 27 Indeed, Christ’s labor of love and consummate sacrifice upon the cross goes deeper than the remission of our sins. It makes our adoption to sonship possible. “And if we be His sons, are we not thereby bound to love, serve, and obey Him? Sonship towards an earthly parent brings with it a host of duties, and shall the Everlasting Father be unregarded?” Spurgeon urges us to honor our Father, who not only gives us life, but showers us with blessings, among them the companionship of Jesus Christ who died and rose again that we might be able to come home and embrace our loving Father, basking in the fullness of His glory. And, since we are assured of our place in the Lord’s house, Spurgeon tells us that we must be zealous for our Father. “Though we cannot pay all, we can at least acknowledge the debt,” and we can go forth daily, recognizing God’s “stupendous mercy” and proclaiming: “I am a debtor, I must serve my God. It is not left to my pleasure whether I will do it or not; but I am a debtor.” 28
And though our very existence is a divine gift, for which we are indebted unto God, we are also created to share in His royalty. For we are made in the “image and likeness” of the God of unconditional, sacrificial, perfect love. He is a God who so overflowed with love that He saw fit to bring the universe into being, who made man as an extension of His love. He is a God who entrusted to mankind the care and dominion over His Creation, who made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings,” crowned us with “glory and honor,” and gave us dominion over His mighty works. 29 Moreover, we were called, as Abraham was called, and blessed so that we might be a blessing. As God’s vice-regents, we have a profound duty to rule as servant-kings. Yet when we fall short of His eternal glory—that is, when we selfishly turn away from Him, neglecting the call to serve and obey—we lose the promise of our eternal rest. When we look to “other gods” for our satisfaction, or even when we make gods of ourselves, we are straining against our very nature. Indeed, every fiber of our being was beautifully designed to reflect the love of God. Only when, by virtue of our faithful response to the grace of Christ, we are redeemed and renewed in God’s sight can we become that which we were made to be.
As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, we are “new creations,” reconciled to God through Christ and given the “ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” 30 His message, I think, is quite clear. Since in Christ we are new creations, we are called to participate in the reconciliation of mankind—this is the whole point of the Great Commission. Having been made co-heirs with Christ, we are called to help Him with His work and to do so lovingly and with abounding joy. Indeed, what better way could there be to honor our Brother, who shed His blood that we might be saved, than to shoulder a part of His load? Surely, the God of the universe doesn’t need our help, but He wants us to take part in this ministry. He has entrusted us, His ambassadors, with this profound mission to spread the gospel and proclaim the redemption of the world.
If You Love Me, Feed My Sheep
Upon the cross, Jesus recasts the imago Dei for us as the imitatio Christi. His perfect, sacrificial love and radical grace cry out to us from the Book, in response to which we live to serve. In particular, Jesus tells His followers: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” 31 As a part of living our lives in worship, for and to the glory of the one true God, we are instructed above all else to “love our neighbor” as ourselves. This seems simple, but the implications are profound. For we have been given the ministry of reconciliation through which God is reconciling the whole world to Himself. This is a part of His loving nature. To truly love our neighbors is to love as God wants, to share the gospel and do good works. We are, after the fashion of Christ, to be outwardly focused, focused upon the reconciliation of all of God’s creation, not just on our own relationship with Him.
Having received the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we are blessed beyond all imagination. Having believed in Him, we take the first step in responding accordingly to His redeeming grace. But our service, like our sanctification, is ongoing. This is what Jesus tells us it means to truly love Him. Indeed, when He reveals Himself on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius, He asks Peter thrice whether he truly loves Him. When Peter tells Jesus that He loves him, Jesus then commands Him as follows: “Feed my lambs” and “Tend my sheep.” The scripture continues on to say: “And after saying this He said to him, ‘Follow me.’” 32 Christ’s call for us to follow Him echoes throughout the Bible, but so often we lose sight of what that means. To follow Jesus carrying your cross is not something to be taken lightly. It is not an easy task. For when we take up that cross, we must realize where we are taking it. We must understand the gravity of its message: sacrificial, other-directed love that might bring us great suffering. Indeed, Jesus tells us that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” 33
If we are servants of the Lord, then we must follow Him. If we love Him, we must feed His sheep. We must daily strive to conform to His righteous image of humble servitude in order that the “aroma of Christ” might fill the air. We must abandon the vain and selfish search for our own happiness, our attempts to use God and His Word to fulfill our desire for comfort and satisfaction here and now. True commitment to the gospel and the Great Commission requires disavowing our self-centered relationship with God. No longer can we pray solely for our own success, or safety, or comfort, but we must listen for the groaning of our earthly brothers and sisters. We must seek the kingdom on their behalf, proclaiming the gospel but serving them. Once we recognize our own depravity, we can press onward with relative ease, for we are confident that by the grace of God we are saved. But what about the rest of the world? What about the sin and injustice and unbelief of our age? Do we rest on our laurels, satisfied that we have found comfort beneath Christ’s bloody feet? No, in fact, we must do all we can, giving up our very lives, our own dreams and ambitions to carry forth the light of Christ into the darkness. Do not go in peace, but go to bring peace. Do not go with joy in your own heart, but go to fill the hearts of others. Do not weep, but comfort those who weep. Do not allow yourself to be content, for there is a world filled with despair and wickedness; instead crucify yourself every day for the sake of someone else.
Yes, dear reader, this is the true meaning of the Great Commission: to surrender yourself to Christ, take up your cross, and go forth in service, proclaiming the Lord’s death. C.S. Lewis says it brilliantly in Mere Christianity:
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. 34
Chris Bolton (CC ‘19) is a proud Virginia gentleman. He loves his friends, his family, the Army, America, and Jesus. He studies Mathematics and Philosophy by day, but by night plumbs the depths of his soul for complex emotions that he can spew onto a page, hoping something beautiful manifests itself out of the madness. He writes poetry, fiction, and libretto, hoping one day to watch one of his operas performed live.
- The catechism originally reads: “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” ↩
- This is the summa of Piper’s theology, which it is worth noting, Piper initially constructs not by consulting Scripture, but thinkers like Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis, and Pascal. The resultant theology is bound to be defective, or at the very least, incomplete, as its starting premises lack authority. ↩
- John Piper, The Dangerous Duty of Delight (Colorado Spring: Multnomah Books, 2001), 22. This text is basically a recapitulation of Desiring God. ↩
- Matthew 22:37-39 (ESV). ↩
- John Piper, Desiring God (New York: Multnomah, 2003), 112. ↩
- Ibid., 18. ↩
- Psalm 37:1–5. ↩
- Acts 20:35. ↩
- Piper, Desiring God, 123. ↩
- The Greek, Eudaimonia has a curious etymology. Aristotle uses the term to mean “flourishing” or “living well,” but literally, to be eudaimon is to obtain a divine state of being, or live in a way that is well-favored by a god. ↩
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.7, 1097b20-2. ↩
- Ibid., 1.8, 1098b2. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- St. Augustine, De Civitas Dei, XIX.4.]True happiness in this life, it would seem, is but an illusion. ↩
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III.48. ↩
- Herodotus, The Histories, I.32. ↩
- A list of eight blessings given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. ↩
- Matthew 5: 3–11. ↩
- St. Augustine, Confessions, I.1. ↩
- Psalm 18:2. ↩
- Romans 8:22–23. ↩
- Romans 5:12. ↩
- 2 Corinthians 5:2–4. ↩
- Romans 8:12. ↩
- C.H. Spurgeon, “The Christian—A Debtor,” Sermon No 96, Exeter Hall, 1856. ↩
- Spurgeon ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Psalm 8:5–6. ↩
- 2 Corinthians 5:18–20. ↩
- Mark 8:34. ↩
- John 21:15–19 ↩
- Mark 8:35. ↩
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1952), 227. ↩