The chief aim of life today is the pursuit of personal happiness — by any and all means necessary. To be happy is to be healthy. Anything that gets in the way of a person’s happiness is therefore unhealthy. This is life in “therapeutic culture.”
One of the greatest threats to this new world is the oppressive morals imposed by Christianity. “Many of the ethical commands of Christianity and the concept of divine judgment fly in the face of the prevailing norms of our culture.”1
The moral claims of Christianity lay a burden of guilt on any person who violates the outdated value system. If a person is made to feel guilty, he or she will be unhappy, and unhappiness is unhealthy. Churches, concerned about harm, have chosen to avoid talking about moral sin, and instead, have placed their focus on encouraging people to live their best life.
This leads to the dilemma of Christianity’s impact on happiness. Should the goal of Christians be the happiness of believers and even those outside the faith? At the heart of the issue is who defines happiness. What kind of life will lead to human flourishing or “the good life?”
In an effort to find a moral consensus outside of the baggage of various religiously imposed virtues, a “science of good” has developed. There has been no shortage of effort in seeking a scientific answer to define what is good for society.
To summarize the findings: “After five hundred years of scientific inquiry into the nature of morality, the most noteworthy scientific findings…” were only able to determine the possibility that humans may have displayed behaviors that might imply a moral preference.3 All the energy and efforts of moral foundation theory have “provided no clear empirical support for any moral theory, let alone for any claim about what is right and wrong, good or evil, or how we should live.”4
Their inability to find a scientific solution has led to efforts to establish a morality by consensus. This approach has also proven problematic as “the empirical part of the “science” of happiness relies on respondents’ self-reported levels of subjective positive emotions that specify, along a single metric, how satisfied they are with their lives.”5 One can only imagine extreme ambiguity of exploring “subjective positive emotions.” How does a Hindu in Nepal define and experience happiness, much less an Ecuadorian living in the rainforest, or an Isis soldier in northern Syria? As Martha Nussbaum thoughtfully critiques:
Pleasure is only as good as the thing one takes pleasure in: if one takes pleasure in harming others, that good feeling emotion is very negative; even if one takes pleasure in shirting one’s duty and lazing around, that is also quite negative. If one feels hope, that emotion is good only if it is based on accurate evaluations of the worth of what one hopes for and true beliefs about what is likely.6Martha Nussbaum
Family relationships that once provided stability and love are increasingly fractured and complicated. Parents may attend their child’s ballgame or ballet but be mentally absent while looking at the iPhone. Rather than experiencing happiness and fulfillment, Americans report record levels of anxiety.
Reconsidering Christian Happiness
In his book Telling a Better Story, Joshua Chatraw offers three ideas informed by a Christian view of happiness. The first is the acknowledgment that we live in a sinful and fallen world that can never provide perfect fulfillment and happiness.8 This does not mean life is void of experiences of joy and happiness, but to risk love is to risk loss. We will all experience loss, suffering, difficulty, and disappointments. Some of these trials occur because the world is broken, some because of others’ failures, and some because of our own mistakes.
Secondly, “the Christian story sees physical pain and emotional distress as a sign that beneath the surface of suffering, deeper problems exist.”9 Pain is not the problem but a sign post alerting us of a deeper problem. If we never experience pain, we will never experience gain. The pain of a broken relationship or friendship can lead us to improve our communication or end a destructive habit.
Thirdly, the life and teaching of Jesus demonstrated that “the only way to find true joy is to deny yourself. We were made to love God and to love others.”10 “Self-absorption dehumanizes us, eventually leaving us bitter and alone because we were made to turn outwardly rather than inwardly on ourselves.”11
While giving the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-10), Jesus offered a joy and happiness that was not contingent upon circumstances. Jesus offered a happiness that was tied to a different world, the Kingdom of God.
The Christian view of the good life is not found in self-gratification nor self-expression but in a selfless love for God and others.
1 Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Reflective, 2020), 11.
2 James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 116.
3 James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Science and the Good, 100.
4 James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Science and the Good, 117.
5 James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Science and the Good, 160.
6 James Davidson Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. Science and the Good, 161.
7 Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, 6.
8 Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, 109.
9 Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, 110.
10 Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, 110.
11 Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story, 111.