The point of life isn't happiness

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Part 4 in a series of posts about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a religious phenomenon which the National Study of Youth and Religion suggests is the largest religion among young people in the United States. For more, check out Kenda Creasy Dean's Almost Christian.

In Acts 14, ministering with Barnabas in the city of Lystra, Paul healed a crippled man. This amazed the crowd and they exclaimed in response, “The gods have taken human form and come down to visit us!” Paul and Barnabas displayed such impressive power and authority, they assumed Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes (since he did most of the talking). The priest of the temple of Zeus even rushed in with some bulls to sacrifice to them! Of course the two Christian missionaries were alarmed by this, and did their best to correct the mistake (it didn’t go well - they ended up throwing stones and trying to kill Paul).

But isn’t it interesting how close this huge mistake was to the actual truth? Paul and Barnabas weren’t gods - but they were in Lystra to tell the people there that the One God has taken human form and come down to visit us - and to unpack some of the implications of that. And even though they were not themselves gods, they were members of Christ’s body, the Church, and so they did represent God and they were witnesses of his actions in the world and his will for the people of Lystra.

The most interesting heresies in the Church are almost always the same type of thing. Look at them one way and they are a gross misunderstanding. Look at them another way and they seem just close enough to the truth to be dangerous. This applies no less to today’s most popular heresy, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), whose beliefs are summed up by the following:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
— "Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," Almost Christian, p. 14

In this series of posts we’ve already checked out #1 and #2. Today, how about #3 - is happiness the basic goal of our lives?

In a way, Aristotle thought so. He assumed that happiness (eudaimonia) was the highest goal of life. Christians can affirm some version of this idea - and many (most?) of us have. The idea is that God made us not just to unthinkingly do what he says, and not just to suffer our earthly lives until we get to heaven. Rather, God made us to flourish. God created humanity - you and me and your grandma and Hitler and Mother Theresa and that jerk who cut you off in traffic - not just to survive, not just to strive, but to thrive

Naturally for us our earthly attempts at thriving are only a cheap knockoff of the thriving we’ll one day experience in perfect communion with God, and naturally we’ll have our best chance for thriving in this life if we obey God and do what he says. But none of that changes the fact that feeling good, and being happy, and living life fully and richly aren’t sins in and of themselves. In an ideal world we would all experience such fulfilling lives even here on earth.

MTD Guiding Belief #3 says, “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” So did we find a belief of MTD that Christians can wholeheartedly embrace? 

We can embrace it in a way, but not wholeheartedly, because it leaves something major out: the fact that Christians define happiness not in terms of feeling good about oneself, but in terms of love for God (and, subsequently, neighbor). To take only the two pithiest and most quotable examples that leap to mind, Augustine said that God made us for himself and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in him. And The Westminster Catechism opens with the claim that the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. You were designed to be happy, but that happiness you were designed for is a function of your relationship with God.

Along the way there’s no particular virtue in being miserable or feeling bad about yourself. But this Christian view keeps the main thing squarely in focus: God defines what the good life is; my desires and wishes and wants and even needs, on the other hand, do not. So I hope you are happy, and I hope you feel good about yourself. But I also hope you know that there is more to life than what usually passes for happiness, and I hope that you spend your life in pursuit of that. 

Last week we looked at the moralism of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, while this week we chewed on its therapeutic aspect. Next week we’ll discuss deism - the idea that god is distant and at most casually involved in the affairs of our lives.