“Do whatever makes you happy.”
This is one of the major philosophies people live by these days. It’s Pinterest-philosophy, the kind of Etsy-fied life mantra that we love to paint on pieces of repurposed wood to adorn our homes.
I read an article written by a woman who was raised in London but she and her husband moved to the United States a few years ago for work. She said the greatest difference she’s noticed since moving here is that Americans are obsessed with happiness. And she’s right. Not only do all of our fairy tales end with the words, “and they lived happily ever after,” but the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” is baked right into our Declaration of Independence.
But to be fair, this is not a uniquely American problem, nor is it exclusively modern. As far back as 300BC, Epicurean philosophy was teaching a form of the same thing: do whatever makes you happy. And philosophical hedonism dates back even further, all the way to ancient Egypt and Babylon and beyond. People have subscribed to this worldview for thousands of years.
But when you break it down, this saying isn’t quite as inspirational as it sounds. I think it’s just deep cover for doing any old selfish, indulgent thing you want to do. I am going to suggest to you that doing what makes you happy isn’t a lofty enough goal. Happiness stops just short of God’s invitation for our lives. He invites us to experience something much deeper than the pursuit of happiness. And we find this invitation from God in the prophecy of Isaiah.
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.Isaiah 55:1-3
God begins with an invitation: Come, all who are hungry and thirsty. But He extends a special invitation to those who cannot buy their own food. And he who has no money, come, buy and eat! That’s a strange thing to say. How can one with no money “buy” anything? How can such a one eat? Only by grace. Only if the price has been paid by another. And I believe that’s the deeper meaning here. God is extending a gracious invitation that corresponds to a desire deeper than the appetite for food. God is speaking to us at a soul-level here.
And in the middle of this invitation is a critique: God says, Why do you…labor for that which does not satisfy? Can you relate to that? Have you ever wanted something so badly — something you thought would make you happy — but once you received it or obtained it, you realized that it didn’t really satisfy you?
I know a young man who recently lost his virginity. He and his girlfriend didn’t have the proper boundaries around their relationship and in a moment of weakness, they gave in to temptation. Afterward, this young man said he felt ashamed of what they had done. But in addition to being disappointed in himself, this young man noted that he was also disappointed in sex, too. He said that he had always heard of “sex” being talked about like it was this otherworldly experience. That’s certainly the way sex is glorified in our culture. But he said it didn’t deliver in the way he thought it would, which only compounded his feelings of guilt and shame.
I guess one point here would be that forbidden fruit is forbidden for a reason. That’s definitely true. But this also demonstrates how we tend to overexpect from so many things in this world. The kingdom of darkness is the worldwide leader in overpromising and underdelivering. It sells guilt and shame disguised as interest-free happiness. And we make that bad trade all the time.
What my young friend is really looking for is soul-level intimacy and communion; what he settled for was sex. And I’m not picking on my young friend. We’re all searching for the same thing. EVERYONE is looking for soul-level intimacy and communion. But like my young friend, we’re all capable of deluding ourselves into thinking that this soul-hunger can be satisfied by something fleeting and earthly.
We do the same thing in our marriages and our dating relationships. Relationship counselors have long pointed out that unrealistic expectations of our partners contribute to some of the greatest problems in our relationships. That’s because we listen to “Rabbi Hollywood” too much. We have been discipled by Hollywood’s ridiculous “you complete me” soulmate liturgy and we bring that expectation into our marriages. We expect our spouses to “complete” us, which creates an expectation that even the best husband or wife could never possibly meet. How could a flawed, sinful person ever bear the freight of “completing” you or bringing wholeness to your soul? That work could only be done by God. It’s not fair to put that expectation on your husband or wife.
C.S. Lewis famously said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable expectation is that we were made for another world.” This gets at the heart of the problem. I mean, if happiness is the ultimate goal in life, why are so many of us so miserable? I would say it’s because happiness is fleeting and our souls are longing for something more.