At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Gospel Flourishing and the Search for Happiness

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I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

– Philippians 4:11-13

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” wrote Albert Camus in 1942. Yet the best he could come up with before his death in a car accident at the age of forty-six was this:

We must be happy with our friends, in harmony with the world, and earn our happiness by following a path, which nevertheless leads to death.

Most people (including many Christians) have become enslaved to the impression that our happiness or unhappiness depends on the external circumstances of our lives. We’ve become dependent on outside circumstances to bring us happiness and contentment.

Happiness has become a fragile thing because people are depending on something or someone else to make them happy. Stability in our society is quickly disappearing because of the lack of self-contained happiness.

The driving narrative of our current American culture is this search for perceived happiness.

Yet it has not always been this way in our country. Charles Taylor suggests in A Secular Age that:

  • The founders of our nation (like the Puritans) were motivated to glorify God (which is where they found happiness).
  • In the 19th century we see a shift from glorifying God to glorifying the nation.
  • By the middle of the 20th century the shift continues and the emphasis is on glorying self.
  • Today we are driven to remove all things that would interfere with our happiness.

As Christians how do we reverse this disturbing trend?

When Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich was asked about the most revolutionary way to change society, he answered:

Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step…If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

In a forthcoming research paper for IFWE, biblical scholar Jonathan Pennington writes,

All human behavior, when analyzed deeply enough, will be found to be motivated by the desire for life and flourishing, individually and corporately.

This is true because God made us that way. His desire for his creation is flourishing. Yet even in the Church we have lost the ability to tell his story in a way that “shines some light into our future” and shows everyone the way things could be.

The idea of Christians positivity influencing culture takes seriously the overall biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. It celebrates the goodness of creation and human culture. It recognizes the fallenness of creation, but it also recognizes God’s desire to restore creation by the death and resurrection of Christ, through the ministry his people.

God does want us to be happy and flourish. The way to do this in a way that fulfills our deepest need is found the great metanarrative of the Gospel.

If we want to positively impact our society, then we must learn to tell this alternative story.

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