This semester, I am enrolled in a freshman seminar, Happiness in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. The course description ends with the following words: “We will ask whether the very idea of happiness intervenes as a kind of unhealthy moral ideology, and thus whether a notion of sanity might offer a better standard of human flourishing.” Is the idea of happiness an unhealthy moral ideology, or is there something significant about the human longing for happiness? Interestingly, this question lies not at the periphery of Christianity, but at its core.
French mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object.”1 Happiness is the ultimate end of everything we do; it is, inescapably, the highest good. As Aristotle says: “…we choose [happiness] always on account of itself and never on account of anything else, while we choose honor and pleasure and intelligence and every virtue indeed on account of themselves, but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, supposing that we will be happy by these means.”2
The question we ask ourselves is not whether or not we want to be happy. The answer of every human being would be an obvious ‘yes’. The real question is what, if anything, can make us happy.
Christianity says that the human longing for happiness is no accident. “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing,” C.S. Lewis says, “I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”3 The Bible’s diagnostic of the human problem, then, is not that we want to be happy, but that we are looking for happiness in the wrong things.
In Jeremiah 2, God says, “Be appalled, O Heavens. Be utterly shocked…for my people have committed two great evils: They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and have hewn out for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). This is idolatry, which is the essence of sin. Idolatry is seeking happiness in anything other than the one true God, the Fountain of living waters, from which our souls were made to drink. As John Piper says, “Evil is to be presented by the living God with a fountain of water that will carry you into eternity and satisfy your heart forever and ever…and then to turn your nose at it! Then you turn around and take a little shovel and start digging in dry dirt, putting your mouth to it, trying to get something satisfying out of it.”4
Notice especially what the people in Jeremiah 2 are guilty of. God does not merely say that His people have hewn out other cisterns, as if there were an alternative to the water that He offers. He describes the cisterns. They are broken, and they can hold no water. Our idols, God is saying, cannot satisfy.
We know this. The things to which we look for happiness—the praise and recognition of other people, status, power, money, sex, relationships, the American dream—when obtained, fail to satisfy us permanently. Hip-hop artist Lecrae writes, “You find [that] when you can buy the park, you can hate the rides.”5 We could look at remarkable rates depression at Harvard to impressive suicide statistics to Freud’s diagnosis of the moderate discontent of everyday life and everything in between, but I think we each have our own examples much closer to home. Pascal says, “What is it then that this desire [for happiness] and this inability [to lay hold of it] proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself.”6
The problem with humanity, the Bible teaches, is sin. Our fellowship with God has been broken by the fall, leaving a void in us that we try to fill with idols. This God-shaped void is what Pascal was referring to when he said that there remains within us an empty trace of a true happiness. To fill this void, we turn to other things; we turn to broken cisterns. But in doing so, we are just making ourselves sicker and thirstier. We are “dying of thirst,” Lecrae writes, “yet willing to die thirsty.”7
Jesus Christ, using the divine language of Jeremiah 2, called Himself “living water” in the gospel of John. “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him,” Jesus said to the woman at the well, “will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). The human longing for happiness, according to Christianity, can ultimately be fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.
On the cross, Christ paid the price for our idolatry and reconciled idolaters to God. The subsequent Christian life is one of continuous idol destruction, as we turn from drinking out of broken cisterns to drinking from the infinite fountain. Our duty is to find the culmination of our happiness in Jesus Christ, for He offers us living water, the only thing that can satisfy our thirst.
So, is the idea of happiness an unhealthy moral ideology? Well, I would just insert a few words. The idea that you can find lasting happiness in anything apart from Jesus Christ is, yes, an unhealthy ideology. To believe that is to embrace false hope, and to set oneself up for despair. God’s standards of happiness are so much higher. “We are half-hearted creatures,” C.S. Lewis says, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”8
The God of the Bible wants human beings to find their happiness in Him. In fact, the Bible closes with this invitation: “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). It is no wonder that people in Heaven spend eternity around the throne of God. They are freely drinking from water of life, and they will never be thirsty again.
1 Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées, trans. by W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), p. 113 (thought #425)
2 ARISTOTLE, & SACHS, J. (2002). Nicomachean ethics. Newbury, MA, Focus Pub./R. Pullins.
3 LEWIS, C. S., & LEWIS, C. S. (1949). The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York, Macmillan.
4 Piper, John. “Let Your Passion Be Single.” Desiring God. Desiring God Ministries, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2012. <http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/let-your-passion-be-single>.
5 Moore, Lecrae. You find when you can buy the park, you can hate the rides. “Confe$$ions”. Gravity. CD. Reach Records. 2012.
6 Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées, trans. by W. F. Trotter (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), p. 113 (thought #425)
7 Moore, Lecrae. Dying of thirst, yet willing to die thirsty. “Boasting”. Rehab. CD. Reach Records. 2010.
8 LEWIS, C. S., & LEWIS, C. S. (1949). The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York, Macmillan.