The Illusion of Happiness and the Kindness of Want

God put eternity into our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) so that we can, if we aren’t too distracted, sense that something more awaits us.

Photo cred to Deb Zeyher

To CS Lewis was posed the following proposition and question:

“Many people feel resentful or unhappy because they think they are the target of unjust fate. These feelings are stimulated by bereavement, illness, deranged working or domestic conditions, or the observation of suffering in others. What is the Christian view of this problem?”

Today, the same question has taken on a sharper edge. Similar questions are aimed like unfriendly fire at Christianity and the character of God: If God is all good and all powerful, why does God allow evil and suffering in the world? Either God isn’t all good; or God isn’t all powerful; or God simply does not exist.

CS Lewis answered the question put to him as follows:

“The Christian view is that people are created to be in a certain relation to God. If we are in that relation to Him, the right relation to one another will follow inevitably. Christ said it was difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt, 19:23; Mk. 10:23; Luke 18:24), referring, no doubt, to riches in the ordinary sense. But, I think it really covers riches in everything – good fortune, health, popularity, and all the things one wants to have.

“All these things tend, just as money tends, to make you feel independent of God. Because if you have them, you feel happy already and contented in this life. You don’t want to turn away to anything more, and so you try to rest in a shadowy happiness, as if it could last forever.

“But God wants to give you a real and eternal happiness. Consequently, He may have to take all these riches away from you. If He doesn’t, you will go on relying on them. It sounds cruel, doesn’t it?

“But I am beginning to find out what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a cruel doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows work punishment, but I find in practice that, when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a punishment it becomes easier to bear.

“If you think of this world as something simply intended for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable. Think of it as a place of training and correction, and it’s not so bad.

“Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think of it as a hotel. The other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is what comforts and strengthens you in the end.

“The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world become pessimists; the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.”

I like to say that perspective changes everything. Because human beings are finite, our perspective is limited. Change your perspective, and the world looks different from the new angle.

Lewis had a perspective of this world that allowed him to see it as beautiful, for what it is worth. Perhaps, he was colored by his experience as a young man, not even out of his teens, fighting in World War I. He knew the worst the world had to offer.

When he became a believer in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he found the “silver lining”. He found hope and light in the darkness of the world.

Many people who live in the late 20th and 21st centuries have had a relatively good time of “this life” compared to people just a few generations before us (and even more dramatically compared to people of centuries past). Our perspective is colored by our relative prosperity. In the United States today, even those who live below the poverty line live higher and better than most of the people in the rest of the world (and in times past).

The comparative riches we have tend to make us feel independent of God. Indeed, the shift in the question of the problem of evil from focusing on individual unfairness to thinking it is proof that God does not exist is a product of our perspective.

We have enough s that we are willing to accept that what we can have in this life is all there is. We have learned to be content with the hope of no more. We have embraced a shadowy happiness in lieu of true joy that God offers to those who seek Him.

I wrote about the danger of getting what you want in another blog post inspired by a Time Keller sermon. The truth is that rich and famous and people aren’t any happier than you and I. In fact, they may be even less happy than the average person because they have achieved what people dream about, and they have found that unhappiness follows them to the pinnacle of those dreams.

Many people have struggled with poverty, racism, dysfunctional families and much more, even the lesser “evils” of failed dreams and elusive wants. Even so, they have come to believe that, if they only had what “privileged” people have, they would be happy. But, that believe has no substance. It’s an illusion.

Even secular studies show that “money can’t buy happiness”. Good fortune in life and comfort, stability, job security, strong family, and even peace within your country’s border does not guaranty happiness. If it did, no millionaires, popular movie stars, and other people who seem to “have it all” would ever take their own lives.

Yet, we go about our lives, as Lewis says, holding onto “a shadowy happiness, as if it could last forever”. We have just enough that we think a little bit more is all we need.

We settle for the shadow when God offers us the real thing!

We pursue a ghost ship in this life when God’s ship waits for us to board for a home port God has created for us that is perfectly suited to us – everything we could ever want.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

We don’t like to be told what to do. We rebel against commandments, not realizing they are meant for our good. We are created in God’s image for the purpose of having relationship with Him! When we have a right relationship with Him, everything else falls into place. Our relationships with people take second stage, but all else pales in comparison with them. Materials things have no hold on us, but we enjoy them al the more as good gifts from God, our Father.

Lewis uses the analogy of “punishment”, which is something against which we tend to shrink back, but we fail to appreciate God’s purpose for us:

“[T]he Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” (Prov. 3:13. See also, Psalm 94:12; Psalm 118:18; Jeremiah 30:11; Jeremiah 46:28; and Hebrews 12:6)

The perspective Lewis offers us – which is found throughout Scripture – is the ultimate purpose for which we were created: for people to live in right relation to God and to other people. This is God’s ultimate end for us.

The pain, suffering, sorrow, and loss that we experience are not the evils we suppose. They are signposts to us to look for something more. They are reminders that everything we seek in this world is fleeting – that what we seek is not in this world.

God put eternity into our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) so that we can, if we aren’t too distracted, sense that something more awaits us. “Everything is beautiful in its time”, the writer of Ecclesiastes says. If we understand this, we have the perspective to appreciate the world for what it is.

The fortune we have is actually a detriment to us if we think it is all life is about. The more we have, the more we want, and the more unlikely we are to reach that point where we are willing to let go of the pauper’s treasures available to us in this life to reach for the heavenly riches God desires to give us.

Conversely, understanding the purpose of our present existence frees us from the futile pull of shadowy happiness to appreciate the blessings of God for what they are and fill us with hope for what it is to come.

The more riches we have in this life, the harder it is to “let go” of them for better things.

The post-modern person mocks God with the same question put more respectfully to Lewis. While the modernist may think his fate isn’t fair, the post-modernist thinks the unfairness is proof that God does not exist at all. Both fail to grasp that God has a purpose in creating us, and this world is designed to help us grasp the goodness of His purpose.

This world wasn’t designed for our happiness. It gives us enough of a taste that we desire more than this world offers. It frustrates our desire just enough that we are willing to look for our happiness elsewhere. And, that is exactly as God intends it.

Lewis doesn’t say it, but I have come to believe this is so because God is love (1 John 4:16), and God made us in His image. (Gen. 1:27) Thus, He made us to know His love and reflect it back to him – willingly.

I can hear in my head the quip that a loving God would never subject us to the pain and suffering that exists in this world. But, how does a finite person know what kind of world is necessary to accomplish such a purpose?

Would we really be able to know love and to love in return if we had no choice in the matter? God could have made us robots, but does anyone seriously think a robot knows love or how to love?

Alas, some think we can, and play God with AI. But, I am convinced that love can’t be programmed. Love requires agency – the ability to choose the object of love.

Love also doesn’t coerce. It doesn’t force itself on another. It doesn’t manipulate or program. Thus, God had to give us a world in which we are under no constraint to love Him. We are free to ignore Him, reject Him, and even to hate Him.

I believe that Scripture teaches us that the very ability to choose influences us to want to be independent of God. That is the point of the story of Adam and Eve. Knowing that we are dependent, but we have the capacity for independence, we desire independence.

We must learn that we are meant for dependence on God, but God desires us to choose Him because we want Him. Our happiness, which we think is found in independence, remains elusive until we come home.

If we choose this world, we are not choosing what God ultimately made for us and desires for us. He desires to give us the riches of a loving relationship with Him. He desires to give us Himself. All other things follow from that, including our ultimate happiness.

That is the point of the sacrificial death of God who became incarnate in man:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

CS Lewis understands the “backwards” and “upside down” logic of God that is revealed in Scripture. Thus, he says in his essay, the Weight of Glory:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, 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. We are far too easily pleased.”

God does not make us choose Him, though. He has created a world in which we are free to choose Him – we are free to love Him because we desire Him. We are also free to choose other things. This choice is not an illusion. It is real, and the consequences of that choice are just as real.

What we find when we choose other things is a shadowy happiness. What we find when we turn from the shadow to the Light – to God Himself – is that all the things we desire are signposts to the true happiness that awaits us in relation to God. For this purpose, Jesus gently urges us:

“[S]eek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

One thought on “The Illusion of Happiness and the Kindness of Want

Comments are welcomed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.