The secret of happiness
Do you want to live a good life?
Me too. It seems to be the perennial pursuit of so many, particularly here in America. We really bought into the idea that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. Thank you, Thomas Jefferson. The result has been the explosion of a self-help industry. Books, programs, television shows, gurus and all sorts of other methods have been employed to achieve this slippery goal of happiness. But before we in the church scoff too terribly hard, we must take into consideration that we are not immune to the siren call of satisfaction.
While we may not call it happiness (unless you are Joel Osteen), we do seem to gravitate toward the idea of some unachievable plane on which our lives will be self-actualized. Call it Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: The Jesus Version, if you will. Truthfully, we have baptized this same idea in Bible language and the result has been, get this, a slew of books, programs, gurus and television shows geared toward finding this place in our lives. How many guided book or Bible studies have you been through that are supposed to help you get to the Christian life you have always wanted?
What is more, Biblical language has been hijacked from its original context and used to proof text this idea, reinforcing this approach to spirituality. Verses and passages of scripture, like that “peace which passes understanding” or “joy unspeakable” have been melted down to clichés and used as flimsy backing for a self-help approach to the Christian life. Instead of the pursuit of happiness, we have a pursuit of holiness.
I feel much of our contemporary approach to the Christian walk, our pursuit of holiness, is misguided at best. Yet, please do not mishear the intent of this post. For certain the Bible does speak of this peace that passes understanding and it does talk about the Christian life being a life of joy. As a matter of fact, it is so joyous that Paul could write the letter to the Philippian church while sitting in a jail cell. Perhaps though, we are barking up the wrong tree. Have we let the American cultural way of doing things bleed into our own approach to life? Have we watched our unbelieving neighbors pursue happiness and let that dictate the way we pursue holiness?
In my estimation, we may have been duped by the old bait and switch. We see one product advertised (holiness) and are told that we will get it if we follow the method in front of us, only to find out that the end product is something different (legalism). So, we are left unsatisfied and in a place we did not expect. We are confused by why we have not found this place the Bible tells us Christians should abide.
Yet, if we are aiming for the wrong thing, we will never hit our desired goal. So, the question remains, where does this pursuit of holiness begin? How do we find this place? My hope is to camp on this issue for the next couple of weeks. I believe we have taken the Biblical call to holiness and the corresponding instruction on being holy and replaced it with something less. In our well-intentioned efforts to do what we think the Bible says we need to do, we have taken the Bible out of its role in this pursuit, and replaced it with legalism.
First, let us consider how our Christian subculture has a tendency to replace the Bible with lesser knowledge. Then next week, I hope to discuss the legalism that pervades our efforts to earn holiness.
In the early days of the church, there was a nasty heresy called gnosticism. Gnostics got their name from their chief pursuit in life, “gnosis”. This word is simply a Greek word that refers to some special knowledge. Basically, they were a heretical group of people who claimed to have some secret, special knowledge about Christianity that made their lives better than other, normal Christians. This had an amazing draw, and many people ran after the pursuit of this extra knowledge. Many gnostic gospels were written that claimed additional information past what the functional New Testament canon stated.
The effects of this approach were devastating to the Christian life in practice. Gnostics developed an elitist mentality because they had special knowledge that no one else had. What is worse, it caused them to run after their goofy speculations instead of the real pursuit of holiness and life in Christ. They were constantly looking for their new knowledge, which turned out to be nothing more than ridiculous stories and mythologies, and worst of all, it took the Bible out of its central role in the life of the believer. In practice, the words of God were not enough, they thought they needed more. They belittled God’s revelation, and made it known that the way to the holy life was through extra information.
Sound familiar? Perhaps it is because our self-help approach to the pursuit of holiness can often look just like that. It becomes about the special knowledge we have to find in our book studies and methods. We place these at the central role of becoming the Christian we are supposed to be, and, in effect, remove the Bible from its formative role on our lives. Because of this, we feel the Bible is a mystery, that we cannot understand it, and need someone to explain its secrets of life to us.
We hunger for some extra knowledge that will get us to that place we know we are supposed to achieve in our Christian walk, all the while letting our actions state that the Bible is not a sufficient source of revelation. We search from book to book, study to study, method to method, until we have exhausted what is in our reach. Then, the next season of books and studies come out, only for us to run down that road again. We may apply these methods, we may use the tricks we find in these books, only to fall short of this magical place we are seeking. Then, we feel we missed it, and begin our search again. It has become the up and down cycle of spirituality in the church.
But to quote a cartoon panda, “There is no secret ingredient.”
It is no secret, God has made himself plainly visible. He has revealed himself in several ways. We know of him through creation, we know of him through his Word, and can have deep relationship with him because of the revelation of his son. God has not hidden himself. He has not made the “good life” of Christianity a mystery or a secret road we have to find. Therefore, we need not place our faith in the next study or Christian living book. Instead, we must learn to abide in what God has given us, the gift of his word and his son.