“I’m simply unhappy. If anyone is unhappy, I am.” So mourned Leo Tolstoy’s doleful character Anna Karenina in the famous novel that bears her name. Chances are that we can all identify with her dejected state at some point in our lives. Although some may tend to romanticize unhappiness, who among us, when actually miserable, doesn’t wish that a present condition might change somehow for the better?
Happiness—we all want it, whether or not we are willing to admit it. Although we are rarely reluctant to wish people happiness on their birthdays or at the beginning of a new year, cynicism often abounds when people broach this topic overall. As the character Mac Sledge in the film Tender Mercies uttered on one occasion, “I don’t trust happiness. Never did, never will.” The humourist Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame, talking about being raised with a mid-western American fatalism, said something similar in a 2006 interview. “We come from people,” he said, “who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle. And if you should ever feel really happy, be patient. This will pass.”
We may be suspicious of happiness, but it is an innate human yearning, even a God-given desire. We are all, according to one truth-telling bumper-sticker, “In Search of the Eternal Buzz.” If we are to be genuinely happy, then we need to know something about it. I am convinced that truth about the happy life is bound up with the essential components of the biblical narrative and the order of our loves.
God’s recipe for the hapy life
In the account of creation in Genesis 1 & 2—a good news story if there ever was one—we discover that God formed, filled, and illuminated an initially formless, empty, and darkened earth. In six creative days, he fashioned all things into a beautiful world, designed for human habitation and well-being. Everything necessary for us to flourish was present in the beginning. Spiritually, we were made to enjoy intimate union and fellowship with God the Creator. Vocationally, we were made to undertake fulfilling work based on the commandment to rule the earth. Socially, we were made for companionship with our neighbours, especially as man and woman in the context of marriage and family. Nutritionally, we were made to partake freely of food and drink, as seen in the generous provision of plants, fruitful trees, and water in the Garden of Eden. Sabbatically, we were made to rest and play, based upon the blessing and sanctification of the seventh day. Habitationally, we were made to take pleasure in our surroundings since God set us in the delightfulness of Eden amidst the astounding beauty of the whole creation.
These six ingredients make up God’s recipe for the happy life as He ordained it—God himself, work, people, food, rest, and place. Boethius, according to Thomas Aquinas, defines happiness as “a state made perfect by the aggregation of all good things.” God intended us to live fully in Him and in the multifaceted aspects of His marvelous creation in a complete and satisfying way. This is not a “hedonistic” but an “edenistic” happiness, rooted in the Creator and His creation. The Hebrews called it “shalom.”
What robbed us of this blessing and peace that God originally intended? The answer is found in Genesis 3, which contains the bad-news story of the fall of humanity into sin. Some may brush it aside as an inconsequential myth, but we must take its message seriously. As Peter Kreeft writes in his article, “C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire”: “What happened in Eden may be hard to understand, but it makes everything else understandable.” What this story enables us to understand is the origin of evil and suffering in the world. It accounts for the tragic character of the human condition—idolatry, immorality, falsehood, warfare, disease, famine, earthquakes, poverty, injustice, greed, and so on. Things are no longer the way they are supposed to be. Shalom has been vandalized, to use Cornelius Plantinga’s terms—the peace has been disturbed. As Bob Dylan has reminded us in his 1989 lament, “Everything is Broken”:
Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates,
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts.
Broken words never meant
to be spoken,
Everything is broken.
Searching all our lives
Despite this major alteration in our consciousness and circumstance, our interest in the happy life remains intact. Perhaps, it has even intensified. As Augustine writes in The City of God, “For certainly by sinning, we lost both piety and happiness; but when we lost happiness, we did not lose the love of it.”
The German term Sehnsucht is used to describe this obstinate aspiration for something that satisfies, even though we seem perpetually estranged from it. Amidst the storms and stresses of daily life, this “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what” gets triggered unexpectedly and “stabs” us in mind and heart in most unexpected ways and times, as C. S. Lewis wrote in the preface to the third edition of The Pilgrim’s Regress. “Because the sky is blue,” sang The Beatles on their Abbey Road album, “it makes me cry.” In whatever way it is evoked, we occasionally experience a mysterious and tremendous feeling that attracts and baffles us simultaneously. We need “it” and want “it,” whatever “it” is. It seems to be what we have been searching for all our lives.
But right here we often go wrong, terribly wrong. In our desperate search to find something that satisfies, we attach our loves in disordered ways to things we think will make us happy. Our spiritual ignorance and the deceptive images and messages of our culture lead us astray. Problems don’t arise because we need or love things or because of the things themselves that we love and need. Problems arise when we fail to grasp the nature of the objects that we need and love, the manner in which we love them, and the expectations we have regarding the outcome of our love. Many of us fail to grasp the unique character of each object, the place it should hold, and the purpose it is to fill in our lives. In Augustine’s words in The City of God, people “do not observe the value of . . . things in their own sphere and in their own nature; their position in the splendor of the providential order and the contribution they make by their own special beauty to the whole material scheme, as to a universal commonwealth.”
Since we are metaphysically discombobulated, we love things unintelligently, excessively, and unrealistically—that is, in the manner of disordered love. Augustine used sobering words like “cupidity” and “concupiscence” (cupiditas and concupiscentia) to describe misdirected forms of “love” and “desire.” He also used the word “curiosity” (curiositas) to refer to our consuming interest in created things but without reference to their Creator. When cupidity, concupiscence or curiosity happens, then the happiness we hoped to obtain from loving things the way we do is surely to be frustrated.
Things can only impart what they possess, a trait of reality we must surely remember. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip or get water out of a rock. In loving things immoderately, our inconsolable longings continue. Our hearts feel empty, our souls shrivel up. There’s got to be something more.
The New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady testified to this void in his own life in a revealing interview on the November 6, 2005, edition of CBS’s 60 Minutes.
Brady: “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is.’ I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think, ‘God, it’s got to be more than this.’ I mean this isn’t, this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be.”
Interviewer Steve Kroft: What’s the answer?
Brady: “I wish I knew. I wish I knew . . . I love playing football and I love being quarterback for this team. But at the same time, I think there are a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find.”
Since finding real fulfillment is a matter of life and death, we keep on looking, keep on striving, keep on hoping, keep on demanding that something, somewhere will finally work. Is it him? Is it her? Is it this? Is it that? Is it here? Is it there? Is it now? Is it then? In the midst of needing to have some happiness, we quietly change— typically not for the better. In other words, our disordered loves become disordered lives of idolatry, and our idolatry transitions naturally into the seven deadliest sins of all—pride, envy, and anger rooted in an undue love for ourselves; sloth in a deficient love for God; avarice, gluttony and lust in an insatiable love for money, food, and sex. Should these sins convert into habits and addictions, as they often do, they can foster crime or even warfare, if we think violence is necessary to remove obstacles to get what we want. “You desire and do not have, so you murder” (James 4: 2). Who can calculate the consequences of these missteps in our quest for the happy life? What shall deliver us, who shall save us from this deadly living, from this living death?
Cosmos to chaos
“Jesus wept” (John 11: 35) may be the English Bible’s shortest verse, but it contains the core of the gospel. When Jesus “burst into tears,” he was approaching the grave of his beloved friend Lazarus. Jesus wept because he had lost a dear friend, and because he was sad for his friend’s surviving sisters. The Saviour was no stoic. Jesus wept not only out of sorrow and sympathy, but also because he was mad and filled with rage. Twice in the story about Lazarus we read that Jesus was emotionally disturbed and troubled within (John 11: 33,38). According to Princeton’s late 19th-c., early 20th-c. principal and theologian B. B. Warfield, the original wording indicates that there was something about the heartrending scene before him that evoked his indignation, as tears flooded his eyes and fell from his cheeks (see “The Emotional Life of our Lord,” in The Person and Work of Christ).
What was it that prompted this geyser of indignation? It was death—the sickness that caused it and the grief that followed after it—that angered Jesus so. It was also the underlying source of death in the devil against whom his anger burned. Jesus was “mad as hell” at the devil—the enemy who was a murderer from the beginning and the father of all lies—because he was the one who was ultimately responsible for all the desolations and anguish inflicted on humanity and the earth. The death of Lazarus stood for “the general misery of the whole human race,” according to John Calvin (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John 1-11). Sin, Satan, and death had reduced the cosmos to chaos. Life itself was in ruins. God’s very good creation had become a deviant uncreation. “Jesus wept” because of the vandalism of shalom.
But Jesus had a plan all along. After offering a prayer to God, Jesus cried out before the tomb with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out,” and that’s exactly what Lazarus did. Death was no match for Jesus’ prevailing word (John 11: 43-44).
This sign of release and renewal showed that Jesus was moved to redemptive action to salvage a sin and death-wrecked world. Sinners needed forgiveness. Falsehood needed correcting. Diseases needed curing. Demoniacs needed delivering. Hunger and thirst needed satiation. Storms needed stilling. Death needed defeating. Life needed restoring. In Christ, we see the kingdom of God in dynamic action. It was the divine empire striking back! The restoration of shalom was underway.
The gigantic secret of the Christian
Paul interpreted God’s mighty deeds in Christ in terms of propitiation (substitutionary sacrifice), redemption, and reconciliation. For him, Christ was the truly good news story that God’s justice has been satisfied and his anger has been averted. By grace those who believe are delivered from bondage to sin and death, and restored to friendship and peace with God.
Although many seem to think that salvation has to do with an escape from earth to heaven, from the physical to the spiritual world, this is a major mistake. We are not saved out of the world, but in it! The only way we are saved out of the world, to employ Charlie Peacock’s language, is by God’s choosing us for Himself, by replacing the world’s ways with His ways, and by leaving us here in the world to complete the work He has given us to do. This is the new way to be human, the only way to be human. At the heart of this incredible transformation is the reordering of our loves.
“Who would have thought my shriveled heart / Could have recovered greenness?” asks George Herbert in his poem, “The Flower.” Yet this is one of the chief benefits of the gospel! It reorders our love for God, ourselves, other people, and for all things. Then we experience newness of life! In the holy of holies of the first commandment, we learn to love God the Creator and Redeemer supremely with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. In the holy place of the second commandment, we learn to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. This necessarily includes a love for creation since that’s what we and our neighbours are! If Christians sported a tattoo, then love would be it. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, “said Jesus, “if you have love for one another” (John 13: 35). There is no greater sign of the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ at work than in the reordered loves of Christians. Love is “the mark of the Christian” (Francis Schaeffer).
A reordered life born of reordered love results in a major transition in our character from vices to virtues, whether of the intellectual, moral, or physical kind. Reordered love for God reorders how we think and prompts us to cultivate intellectual virtues and the habits of a godly mind. The overall goal is “devotion to Christ set on fire by truth” (John Stott ). Reordered love also displaces the seven deadly sins with the seven cardinal virtues. These make a huge difference in how we live our lives and in the impact we have on others—in terms of faith, hope, and love; in pursuit of courage, justice, temperance and prudence. Reordered love generates new attitudes and actions with regard to all things physical. We discover that ‘matter matters’ since it is God’s creation, especially when it comes to how we treat our bodies, in stewarding the resources of the earth, and even in how we relate to the kingdom of the animals. Finally, if we do the math, we will find that the love of God and these virtues will give us strength to overcome bad habits and addictions, and to thwart any propensities toward violence, crime, and warfare. How we live is rooted in how we love—whether well or badly. As Augustine noted in his “Reply to Faustus the Manichean”: “For every man’s life is good or bad according as his heart is engaged.”
The problem is that in our insurgency against God we have abused our loves in search of an enduring happiness, but with miserable results. Disordered loves equal disordered lives. The grace of the gospel has quelled our revolt against God and ended our alienation from Him. In our redemption, we have redirected our loves with satisfying results. Reordered loves equal reordered lives. Now we know something of shalom. We have discovered the happy life in Christ, the satisfaction of that inconsolable longing, a “foretaste of glory divine.” There is no reason to be skeptical about it. “Joy . . . is the gigantic secret of the Christian” (G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy). We must persevere in order to experience it. With Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem, “Thou Art Indeed Just,” let us pray: “O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.”