It is my hope that the thesis I completed for my M.A. English degree is attuned to the so-called “real world.” Concomitantly, I hope that those who want to read it will find that is accessible; I want people to be able to find it, and I don’t want people to have to be used to reading academic articles to comprehend it. So, here it is:
“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” seems pretty straightforward as far as founding documents and stump speeches go. And, in a country where little can be agreed upon, this is a famous statement that anyone can nod along to. However, there are some particular problems with this phrase, and not just the hypocrisy of land-owning white men declaring these things as “unalienable rights” even while maintaining chattel slavery and a firm patriarchy. The one I want to parse out is “the pursuit of happiness,” which, while appearing to be the most obvious and benign of the three rights, may be as revealing of the American imagination as either of the other two. What I mean is, while life and liberty as rights was a newer concept in the world (The Declaration of Independence would heavily influence France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 13 years later), the pursuit of happiness has also not been something guaranteed, or even available, to the average citizen. But, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson decided to put life and liberty right next to the pursuit of things and activities that make people experience happiness.
In America today, the right to life is, for the most part, taken for granted (although this time the hypocrisy suggests that life is a right only for born persons). We assume that
all most people have the right to life. Liberty is the one that gets the most controversy, as doomsayers like Ted Cruz claim that religious Christian liberty is under assault and issues of gender and sexuality become some of the most important new discussions in society. The Libertarian movement suggests that liberty is as important as it is elusive.
But enough about those things. It’s the pursuit of happiness which has come to be America’s real sacred cow. The quality of our life and liberty have come to be predicated on how happy we are. Things and activities that generate happiness have become the very things for which Americans aim, and the rewards that are promised for hours and hours of work.
And this is fine – now that humans don’t have to fend off wild animals and we have medicine to keep us around for more than fifty years, it’s great to fill up spare time with leisure, recreation, and the things from which we derive happiness. But there’s a problem, and this is the thesis to which this overwrought introduction has built:
Happiness is cheap. And the exaltation of this cheap happiness is a road to misery that bypasses fulfillment. I hope to show that, while not having the same ring to it, the pursuit of fulfillment is the thing for which we should aim instead.
I can’t say for sure what Jeffy had in mind when he penned the Declaration – maybe he really envisioned all that I’m about to say. And I can’t really say exactly what my fellow Americans have in mind when they think of the pursuit of happiness. But what I see being sold to us, what I see being pursued, what I see being exalted and protected, is happiness that comes from fun, from thrills, from pleasure, from smiles and sunshine and puppies and rainbows. I don’t mean to be sardonic – I really think that happiness, for so many people, amounts to good food, good drink, good sex, good laughs, and good fun. And when we’re not doing one of those things, it is expected that we should keep a good mood. We should just be happy. If we’re not smiling that must mean something is wrong. And Lady Liberty forbid something should be wrong. The happiness I’m talking about isn’t just another word for materialism, but it’s the mindset that being in a happy state of mind is what makes up our quality of life, our measure of success, and the definition of our purpose.
This isn’t right. This is a distraction. We have greater aims in life than the nice feeling we get from being happy. Happiness is great – I like being happy – but devoting our lives to gaining as much happiness as we can is doomed for failure. C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” I think we might say, for the purposes of this essay, “Aim at fulfillment and you will get happiness thrown in. Aim at happiness and you get neither.”
The song “Injoy,” from Beleaf’s depression-riddled album Red Pills + Black Sugar, presents this tension as Beleaf and his guests rap about the troubles of life but also the pressure they feel to appear happy. Beleaf laments that his “smile is counterfeit” and wishes that he could appear happy while also growing as a person. It’s a pretty good song, but its best moment is the very end, in which Beleaf says, “Yeah I’m supposed to fake it till I make it huh/Yeah I’m supposed to be happy, happy/But this life keeps getting worse/But I just keep smiling and pretend that I’m happy, happy.” It’s unsettling, and it should be. The song is inspired by the second verse of the Book of James, in which Jesus’ brother implores his audience to “Count it all joy when you meet various trials.” What Beleaf reveals in this disconcerting end to an anguished song is that to count it all joy does not mean “don’t worry, be happy.” He is struggling with the Christian belief that Christ is ultimate joy, even while experiencing human suffering.
Despite the call for joy, I don’t think there’s much case to be made that the Bible directs Christians to be “happy” all the time. Was Jesus happy when he wept for Lazarus? Do all of the Psalms end with cheerful assurance of God’s help? On the contrary, the Bible is full of sorrow and even anger (Ephesians 4:26, Jesus clearing the temple, etc). And there’s a very good reason for that – it’s through trials that we grow. Growth doesn’t happen in times of ease and comfort – rather, it happens when the trials are very real. C.H. Spurgeon, who struggled with depression throughout his life despite his spiritual zeal, said that “They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.” Some Christians like to say the world will know them by their love, or by their hope, and neither of those are the same thing as happiness.
I generally approach this sort of topic with a Christian and American framework, but I don’t mean to confine it to that lens, even if Christianity is important for my angle on this in particular. The Tao Te Ching, a spiritual text for which I have great admiration, is also lowkey on happiness. Peace, wisdom, balance, harmony, and humility are some of the things of much greater importance to Lao Tzu and other followers of the Tao.
But this issue can’t be confined to spiritual and religious persons either – I think this plays out for just about any spiritual worldview.
Where else to look first but the song “Pursuit of Happiness,” by Kid Cudi, one of the great secular philosophers of our time? In all seriousness, I don’t care if Cudi makes terrible albums for the rest of his life – Man on the Moon: The End of Day is enough to make him a genius forever. The thirteenth song on that album, “Pursuit of Happiness,” has become an anthem for the party lifestyle, but the song isn’t about celebrating drugs, alcohol, and the other things associated with wealth and fame. Rather, the message is that, no matter how much he pursues happiness through the party lifestyle, he’s left unsatisfied: “I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know/Everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold/Hey, I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good.” He knows that there is something higher beyond getting high that will satisfy, but has yet to find it. This is one of the messages of his masterpiece album, summed up in the album’s final poem by fellow rapper Common: “The end is never the end. A new challenge awaits/A test no man could be prepared for/A new hell he must conquer and destroy/A new level of growth he must confront himself/The machine in the ghost within/This is the journey of the man on the moon.”
Of course, you might reject Cudi as an outlier with a troubled psyche and a drug problem, but this sort of pained expression is hardly unique to Cudi. It begins with slave songs and black spirituals, which created the blues, which would become the taproot genre for jazz, rock ‘n roll, R&B, Gospel, and hip-hop. In other words, the pain of slaves eventually evolved into almost all of the most popular genres of American music. It also appears in the written poetics of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and others. This music, this deeply affecting music, does not spring from sunshine and rainbows, but rather comes from the stirring of pained souls longing for something else.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to America in the early 1930’s, he was affected by the mistreatment of black Americans, by the beauty of black spirituals, and by the sound preaching happening in black churches. His time in America moved his theology to theologia crucis, in which the Gospel is hidden and found in suffering. This was a change from his theologia gloriae, which placed God in the presence of a people’s success and well-being, a theology that would have exalted the success of the Third Reich and turned a blind eye to the Jewish people. Finding the Gospel among the oppressed in America helped move Bonhoeffer away from supporting the German government to become a conspirator plotting to overthrow Hitler to save oppressed people from his murderous policies. (ht Reggie Williams, PhD).
I’m not saying that the black experience was bereft of happiness, or that good music and good religion can only come out of prolonged suffering, but these examples illustrate something lasting and something gratifying that exists even when happiness proves difficult to pursue. These examples hint at deeper longings that are more crucial to our well-being than fits of happiness.
This calls to my mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s statement about spiritual longing: “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” This truism shapes his fiction, and we can see some of the ways in which a longing for something better supersedes our quest for happiness. In Middle-Earth, the hobbits are not materialistic happiness-seekers because they spend their time eating, drinking, and smoking. Hobbits do those things, but that’s because that’s what hobbits do – they’re bucolic beings with a love of growing things, and they are in a state of fulfillment when they are growing plants, eating plants, and, of course, smoking plants. Not because they’re bent on happy feelings, but because they are earthy beings with a love for hearth and home. Likewise, the elves are not somber because they can’t find fun things to do – they’re somber because their time is fading away as connections to the natural world become weaker. They aren’t sad because they don’t have meadows to play yard games in – they’re pained because their natural way of life is fading from the world. In short, the joy found in Tolkien’s world is not based in the pursuit of happiness, but in the glimpses of Eden that drive characters to do what is right – to defend their friends, to fight evil, to take care of the earth.
It is clear that many people – writers, ministers, artists, philosophers – have found their greatest meaning not in happiness, but in fulfillment. Why? Maybe it’s because happiness is fleeting but fulfillment endures.
What can pursuing happiness guarantee other than the insatiable need to pursue more happiness? Food, drink, cars, houses, sex, sports, and things like these brings happiness, but do not secure our position against the storms of life. Trials will come. And we need those trials. But how can we expect to face trials and grow from trials, or how can we even expect to survive trials if we are determined to make happiness our default setting? If we spend our lives running as fast we can away from pain and sadness, what foundation do we have when trouble comes?
I find many of these answers presented by Beautiful Eulogy in their song “Anchor,” which has given me much peace and profound joy, even though it has never made me happy and even though it is not a happy song: “It helps me/To understand that we stand on solid rock not on sinking sand/Through the providence of pain you perfect your plan/Predestined to be tested when the works and the Words of/God cooperate and educate men in the great gift of Grace/And Faith. And even though its obvious when my outlook’s/Ominous you’ve bound my heart and my conscience and gave me a constant calmness.”
Whether you believe in purpose and design, there is a space inside all of us that is reserved for fulfillment, and this space can’t be filled with happiness, no matter how hard we pursue it. As a Christian, I might call this “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I expect that a non-Christian would have their own answer for purpose and fulfillment, pre-ordained or otherwise – but I should hope that it recognizes the futility in filling life up with happiness generators rather than the things that lay the foundation of fulfillment and thus provide happiness in turn.
Stop chasing happiness. I don’t think you will ultimately find it. Life is tough and people are fickle. What pleases you today may bore you tomorrow. Pursue fulfillment instead. There are deeper, more beautiful, more worthy things to set your attention on than a comfortable, easy, happy life. The most beautiful roses in life come with unhappy thorns.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
In the wake of the findings of the Pew Research Center, I’ve been compelled to share my heart on some of the shortcomings of American Christianity (AC). This is the first installment in a series called “Love is the Why.” For more information on this series, see the previous article. This topic, sinning, should work well to set the stage for some of the future posts, as a misunderstanding of sin and sinning is at the root of many of AC’s failings.
One of the most important traits of religion is the renunciation of evil ways. In just about any religion you will find adherents instructed in “good” things to do and “bad” things not to do. Oftentimes these rules are really just a codification of what humans, for the most part, accept as good and bad behavior.
Christianity works in a similar way. Part of becoming a Christian involves repenting of evil, and going forward a follower of Christ is expected to do some things and not do other things. This creates a language of “sin” and “not sin,” and considering that according to the Christian tradition sin is a pretty big deal and the penalty for sin is death, it makes sense that Christians would be concerned with whether or not they are being sinful.
However, non-Christians have come to see this lifestyle and worldview in a fairly negative light. Stressing over sin has made Christians appear as socially irrelevant, uninteresting, goody two shoe, self-righteous, legalistic, holier-than-thou rule followers. Of course, the Christian life is supposed to look strange – in some respects – to the rest of the world, but much of this condition does not have to be so. Christians have distorted the idea of sin and sinning in a way so as to not only impede their own spiritual growth, but to give fuel to anti-Christian fires. By splitting hairs over legalistic rulings over what is sin and what is not sin, Christians have not only distorted their own goals but alienated non-believers.
I’ll get into the specifics of how this works out later, but first it’s important to outline what I believe to be the important misunderstanding that leads to this issue.
Sin is not so much something you do as it is something you are.
I’m just now realizing that I’m going to spend only a couple hundred words explaining the doctrine of sin, which has taken up innumerable pages of work by Christian thinkers. I’ll give you the ground rules that will help us move forward and you can do more research on your own if you’re so inclined (I’m open to being wrong).
Sin is separation from God. God is perfect, people are not, and therefore we are separated from our creator. In our imperfection we dishonor God through our actions, and this puts us at odds with God. In fact, we are bound to be punished through death and eternal separation from God. In order to save us from this fate, God came in the form of a man (Jesus) and died to pay the penalty for our transgressions, and then he rose from the grave to conquer death. By accepting Jesus as lord and savior, a Christian turns from their sin and gives their life over to God.
Okay so where does sin work into this picture?
The important thing to see here is that before accepting Christ, human beings live on their default setting, which is sin. This means we do bad things and we keep doing bad things (and yes I know the “good” and “bad” thing is really big issue, and I will be writing about this in the next couple weeks. Bear with me for now). After accepting Christ, the new Christian now becomes able, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to not be in sin. Every Christian still does bad things, but they are no longer under the dominion of sin and are able to experience spiritual freedom in Christ.
Okay, that’s a lot of theology in two paragraphs. But hopefully you see a little more clearly what I mean by sin being something you are and not something you do, and it’s a lifestyle more than it is an action.
This is why, if you look at Paul’s letters in the Bible, when he refers to someone as being sinful or in the wrong, it generally refers to someone who is living in sin, not living and committing sins. Paul writes that he continues to do the things he does not want to do instead of doing the things he wants to do (Romans 7:15). Christians go on sinning even after receiving the Holy Spirit. But this is not a license to sin at will, as Paul writes earlier in Romans 6. Sin is a very serious thing, and violent imagery is used to describe the Christian struggle with sin (spiritual warfare, Make War (Tedashii song), armor of God, die daily, etc etc). As John Owen said, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” However, the condition which Paul repeatedly condemns is more likened to a state of continuous and unrepentant sin. Christians are covered by the blood of Christ and take on Christ’s perfection when they accept his death and resurrection. Christians are no longer under the dominion of their flesh and the rule of evil. So while they will, without a doubt, continue to sin every day, even every hour, the peril lies most plainly in habits of sin, and most dangerously in habits of sin that the Christian carries out knowingly and in rebellion against God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that they claim to embrace.
Okay that’s yet again a lot of theology. Here’s what I think are the problems Christians have in living with the doctrine of sin and the ways in which they alienate and offend non-believers in a way that is unhelpful and unloving.
Christians have converted sin into acts that can be adjudicated to be sinful or not sinful and then categorized into acceptable or unacceptable Christian behaviors. Instead of examining the condition of their hearts and minds and earnestly striving to live in a way that is pleasing to God each day, Christians justify themselves by examining their activities and determining whether or not they were sinning or not sinning.
So when we talk about sins, we talk about them as items of activity. In almost all Christian circles, you sinned if you:
- broke the law
- had sex with your girlfriend/boyfriend
- watched porn
- drank alcohol illegally
- used illegal drugs
- physically hurt someone
- stole something
Just to name some of the big ones. Of course there are more, and in some Christian traditions there are a lot more.
This itemization of sin has two major negative side effects. The first is that it turns Christians into Pharisees, the people Jesus spent a lot of his time torching for their self-righteous superiority. If someone can not do the things on this list, they may think of themselves as being a good Christian while considering people who do these things to be wicked sinners. It’s only a matter of time before that way of thinking makes someone think of themselves as being a better human being. All you have to do is read through the Gospels and you will see how outrageously un-Christian this mindset is. But it exists all the same. Drug users and prostitutes are looked at as yucky and scummy, and many Christians would like them ushered out if they showed up on a Sunday morning.
Seriously. If you claim to love Jesus and follow his teachings but you look down on the drug dealer, the pregnant high schooler, and the foul-mouthed drunkard, you have some messed up theology.
The second effect of the itemization of sin is an arbitrary masquerade of self-justification that looks a lot like earning your way to heaven and nothing like picking up your cross daily and following Jesus. Let’s go through some examples that reveal the problem with asking “Is it a sin if…?”
Some people think it is sinful to drive even one mile over the speed limit because that means knowingly breaking the law. Most Christians hear this and roll their eyes (side note: as long as you think something is sin and still do it, it is sin for you. Regardless of the “right answer,” if you do something thinking it is sin, it is). But then here’s my question for the Christian rolling their eyes: Is it sinful to drive 50 miles over the speed limit? I imagine the answer is probably yes. If you drive 75 in a 25, you are putting other people in serious danger and blatantly breaking a law.
Because if driving 50 over is sinful but one mile over is not, here’s what I’ll ask next: 49? 48? 47? 46?
Eventually you will reach an arbitrary number that is, for you, not sin.
Next example: Christians spend a good deal of time worrying about the media they consume, and what media they should let their kids consume. And of course they should, as Christians should be mindful of what they are focusing their minds on, but these questions often create opportunities for absurd loopholes and self-justification gymnastics. Here’s how this works with R-rated movies.
Let’s say a Christian family wants to watch an R-rated film. Well, until the kids are a certain age, the R rating alone probably rules the film out.
The first hurdle is sex. Is there a sex scene? Throw it out. Bare breast? Toss it. Bare backside? Probably okay. But… if the breast is only visible for a quick second, that might be okay. And, if the sex scene is under the covers, that might be fine. And, the scene is really pretty quick anyway. And the couple love each other very much. The family probably just fast-forwards through the scene and tells the youngest ones to close their eyes, but the teenage boys watching Enemy at the Gates probably get really quiet when Vasily starts thrusting on top of Tanya and conveniently forget to fast-forward.
So how about violence? Well some Christians just refuse to watch violent content. But most are more concerned with the way the violence is portrayed. Is it historical violence? Oh, then that’s fine once the kids are old enough to not have nightmares. Is it just a ridiculous action movie? Well there’s nothing malicious about that. It really doesn’t take long before the only wanton destruction of images of God that Christians stay away from is the horror movie genre.
What about profanity?
Pardon my French, but I don’t know where the fuck Christians get their rules for swearing.
These decisions, in all facets of a Christian’s life, so often come down to arbitrary rulings subject to personal whims and cultural influence. There is nothing in the Bible explaining which movies are okay to watch. There is nothing drawing a line of sin in the sex scene: bare backside? bare breast? moaning? orgasm? Christians can loophole their way past sin in ways that make a mockery of their beliefs. Let me really mess with your mind: If you try to come up with a case defending masturbation as a Christian, you should find it to be really, really easy.
This itemization process creates disproportionate attention for the outward actions instead of the inward condition of the heart. Rather than asking themselves if they are gracious and merciful and loving and seeking purity and desiring God, Christians keep an unofficial scoreboard of legalistic rulings. A wall is built between thoughts and actions. Tell me who sinned: The Christian who flipped through the channels and for a brief moment caught a glimpse of a porno on HBO, or the Christian who got aroused watching the passionate kiss in the PG-13 movie?
Being a Christian is about waking up every day ready to live for God and not for yourself. It’s about wanting to sin but restraining. It’s about knowing God still loves you even when you do sin. And it’s about filling the space in your life that you might fill with sin with extreme love for your neighbor.
Christians sin. A lot. And all sins, even a quick fantasy over the Hannah Davis DirecTV commercial or a slanderous word of gossip about your ex-boyfriend are punishable by death.
But Jesus Christ died and to pay the penalty for every single sin, and he rose from the grave to defeat the reign of death. The Gospel, the greatest demonstration of love in history, should cause Christians to be filled with joy because of their redemption, to celebrate being a new person in Christ, to fight each day to defeat sin, and to find comfort knowing that although God does not withhold the battles he still grants the victories and lifts his children up when they fail. The Gospel should fill Christians with radical love and joy that causes them to love all of their neighbors, and perhaps especially the ones engulfed in sin, neighbors who are no less worthy of salvation than the Christian was before accepting Christ. Christians living in this way should be honest with themselves and see how they still continue to fail, and never think of themselves as being more righteous than others. Rather, they should humble themselves and speak of the mercy and grace of God while showing mercy and grace to others.
This understanding of sin should also provide a freedom for Christians; they should be unburdened by the self-governing adjudication of sin and not-sin. Dear brothers and sisters: if you are reading the Bible and praying regularly and are involved in a healthy Christian community, you will know what is sin and what is not sin. You do not have to rely on arbitrary rules. In fact, those rules will more often than not be your own sinful flesh’s way of justifying something you know to be unhelpful for your spirituality. Or it may be that your reasoning is really just a means of making yourself feel more holy. Stop asking, “Is it a sin if…?” Because if you are living each day in pursuit of knowing God better and finding joy in the love of Jesus, you will know. And, if you are more focused on what you should be doing, particularly loving your neighbor, than on what you should not be doing, that will also be to your immense benefit.
If you believe the Gospel, then your life should not be about what not to do. Rather, it should be about knowing what God did for you and does for you, and how that affects your life. If you grasp even the beginnings of the height and breadth of God’s love, mercy, and grace in spite of the size of sin, then you should not only pursue a life of daily growth over arbitrary answers, but you should feel that much more love for every other human being. Freedom from sin does not make you better than other humans. Rather, freedom from sin makes you better equipped to love other humans.
Soli Deo Gloria