Personal happiness, as we judge it, can’t be our ultimate goal

‘This isn’t what I want for my life right now and I am unhappy because of this.’ So ran the line offered in a programme I was watching which was the basis for a break-up. Essentially, somebody wanted something that the other person didn’t (who ever heard of that happening?!) But the fact that it made the other person unhappy, at that particular point in time no less, was deemed a legitimate reason to disband a relationship.

And thus we see the indulgent, self-interested zeitgeist summed up in a single sentence. Nothing matters more than my individual happiness. Just be true to yourself, do what makes you happy, don’t waste time on those who would drag you down. All day long, the enduring view of the culture is to please yourself and hang the consequences.

There is little more narcissistic than the view that all that matters is your own happiness. For one, it presumes you are the ultimate arbiter of that which is good. For another, it presumes your happiness – and whatever serves it in your eyes – is your ultimate good. Both of those are flawed presumptions. It also lacks any thought whatsoever for the good of others. If it serves your happiness, who cares if it leads to the manifest unhappiness of anyone (or everyone) else?

Whilst few in the church would claim to have imbibed this sort of thinking, it is troubling how many buy into this ultra-individualism in the political sphere. All that matters is you, your autonomy and whatever serves you (as you judge it). It is interesting that many Christians of the past were happy to identify with a Socialism that, at its centre, insisted it was important to consider how your actions and behaviours affect your neighbour. Nowadays, many Western Christians identify politically with those who consider the individual über alles. The Thatcherite principle that there is no such thing as society, merely you and yours, seems to be the overriding political view within Evangelicalism. Which is scary given its lack, and active disavowal, in the biblical data as an idea.

But even within the church, we regularly consider me and my happiness to be the centre of all things. We presume that we should worship God in whatever way feels good to us. We think that the evangelism we want to do, irrespective of what anybody else thinks, is the way to do it. We believe that our personal aversion and embarrassment at sharing the gospel is entirely legitimate because we’ve decided it is. We don’t even mind hijacking entire members meetings with our own personal pet peeves. Forget everyone else, we do what we want, when we want, how we want and if we don’t get it in our church, we’ll find somewhere else that will give it to us. If we’re unhappy, something that isn’t me is definitely at fault – and my happiness is essentially what matters right?

We frequently forget that our highest aim is God’s glory. In his glory, ours is intricately entwined. It seems the good of someone else is intimately related to our own good. Our enjoyment (forever) is tied up with seeking God’s glory. But then the Lord puts us into churches. The way the church builds itself up is when the members prefer the needs of others above their own, just as Christ preferred our needs above his own. Our good, and the good of our churches, is intimately related to our serving the needs of others above our own. Then the Bible calls us to love our enemies and to, quite literally, go the extra mile. It seems our good, and God’s glory, is served as we prefer even the needs of those who hate us (and who, presumably, we would naturally hate cf. the entire book of Jonah).

The point here is that Francis Schaeffer’s maxim is alive and well: ‘Tell me what the world is saying today, and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying in seven years.’ The world puts self at the centre of the universe and the church, by and large, has imbibed the spirit of the age. It does it within the church, it does it in term of evangelism and it does it with minimal difference between it and the world’s own approach.

It is worth remembering this as we continually hear the mantra, ‘love is love’. This mantra simultaneously wants to square the circle that my happiness is the highest good whilst love of another is the highest virtue. But those two things are mutually exclusive. Your happiness as the highest goal necessarily means the good of another is a secondary goal. But loving another person means serving their good above your own. Yet the Pelagian basis of current debate (God only makes what is good; God made me good; God made me like this; therefore, the way I am is, by definition, good) is anti-love. It is, essentially, self-love. It assumes that indulging every desire and whim you have is to indulge what is good because God only makes what is good and I am like this. It is, ironically, the essence of the Satanism that considers oneself to be god and thus to indulge one’s innermost desire is the essence of goodness.

If who you are is horrible, being true to yourself seems to be terrible advice. If the Bible is to be believed, being true to yourself and expressing who you really are seems like a bad idea. But, as the world have been saying for some time, the church no longer needs seven years, it is sadly now accepting in real time the things it says.