Just recently, a Christian friend posed the question above in a Facebook status update. I have no idea what led to the question being asked, but an air of frustration, or even desperation, seemed to come through. Whether I read the situation right or not, I always feel that such questions are deserving of careful consideration and genuine answers - especially coming from brothers or sisters in Christ.
Before I get to my reply, I want to dwell a moment on some of the other responses. I was struck in two ways by some of the comments. First was the manner in which the comments were made. Despite this being a serious existential question, it was treated to humourous responses, which did have an edge of seriousness but still failed to address the gravity of the question. Second was the actual advice offered which focused on material pleasure, presumably as a source of happiness, implying that we “do life” to get as much pleasure and happiness as we can.
Now, I don’t think that it is wrong to seek happiness, but the forms of pleasure that were mentioned the most (food, sex, drugs, and the like) do not bring any lasting happiness, and if taken to excess, or in the wrong way, are severely damaging. In fact, these things have a huge potential to hurt or to disappoint! I actually think that the pursuit of happiness (or joy) is part and parcel of our number one purpose. Even more, I believe that the pursuit of joy is a divine command that, if not obvious, is strongly implicit in a plain reading of God’s revelation to us in scripture (the bible).
So getting right to it, the answer that I offered my friend is below; and I would like to explain the answer in more detail, including how our happiness is fulfilled within this pursuit. Here’s my take on how we do this thing called life:
“Love God and love your neighbour. Easier said than done but the same One who commands also enables those who try in His name.”
If I was to quote the Westminster Catechism, a document based on the bible and designed to summarise and teach the Christian faith - completed in 1647; in the very first question and answer, you might see some of how I arrived at my response:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
In only a short (and hopefully obvious) step, we can see that to glorify God (or honour Him) is to keep his commands, and in this is the meaning of life and the way to “do” life. Jesus summed up all of God’s commands by telling us to love God and to love our neighbour (Luke 10:26-28). Basically, love everyone but love God first. It also seems obvious that if we keep the opposite of this, i.e. not loving God or others (which includes ambivalence), is a dishonouring of God and is where all that is called “sin” is rooted.
Knowing that we should love is one thing, but managing to do that successfully for the rest of your life is another. Nobody can do it perfectly. God knows this, but He has mercy on those who try and he does not count their mistakes against them. He even goes so far as to strike any past offenses (deliberate or not) from their record. Even though we cannot love perfectly, we are still expected to try, and God has said that He will help anyone who tries. Even more, he inspires us to want to love, shows us how to love, and makes it so that we can love.
The final part of my response is about trying “in His name”. This is crucial, because anyone who tries to love in their own name and power will be seeking their own glory. Unfortunately for every person on earth and who has ever lived, we cannot accomplish this. We are unable to love “in His name”. This is because everything that we do is ultimately to serve our own pleasure in life. As fallen human beings, we need fixing before we can operate outside of ourselves. God steps in and does the fixing, often when we least expect it. This fixing process has many stages, but begins with being re-created or born again, and then the ongoing work that keeps us improving in our ability to love is called sanctification.
I realise that it is a huge mouthful to swallow, the claim that everyone is self-serving until God steps in, but that is a topic for another time. Feel free to discuss it in the comments if you are moved to reply.
As a concluding comment, I want to contrast the happiness that comes from loving God alongside the happiness that comes from the material pleasures of this world. For happiness to last it must be grounded in something lasting. The main contrast here is that God is eternal and material pleasures can only last as long as we are alive to enjoy them, many of them passing in scattered moments during our lives anyway. This means, that the only happiness we can count on for ever, and in any circumstance, is grounded in God. This is the truth and the means to do this thing called life.
May God bless you with joy everlasting!