Just after Jesus told his disciples who he was and what path lay before Him, He gave them — and us — the key to human prosperity.
If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it. For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)
Christ invites us to follow Him, but warns that losing our lives is the first step. It's an invitation to happiness. But what exactly is happiness, and how do we obtain it?
According to ancient thought, happiness is a life well lived, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness and goodness. For the ancients, the happy life — the life we should dream about — is a life of virtue and character. Not only did Plato, Aristotle, the Church Fathers and medieval theologians embrace this definition, but Moses, Solomon and (most importantly) Jesus did, too. Sadly their understanding is widely displaced by the contemporary understanding of happiness defined as pleasure and satisfaction, a subjective emotional state associated with fleeting, egocentric feelings.
Consider the differences:
- Pleasure and satisfaction
- An intense feeling
- Dependent on external circumstances
- Transitory and fleeting
- Addictive and enslaving
- Irrelevant to one's identity, doesn't color the rest of life and creates false/empty self
- Achieved by self-absorbed narcissism; success produces a celebrity
- Virtue and character
- A settled tone
- Depends on internal state; springs from within
- Fixed and stable
- Empowering and liberating
- Integrated with one's identity, colors rest of life and creates true/fulfilled self
- Achieved by self-denying apprenticeship to Jesus; success produces a hero
How can we be certain Jesus is inviting us to a classical understanding of happiness in Matthew 16:24-26? He isn't talking about going to heaven rather than hell, nor is He telling his followers how to avoid premature death. Where Matthew writes, "what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul" (emphasis added), Luke clarifies Jesus' teaching by replacing "his soul" with the word "himself" (Luke 9:25). The issue is finding one's self vs. losing one's self. More specifically, to find one's self is to find out how life ought to look like and learn to live that way; it's to become like Jesus, with character that manifests the fruit of the Spirit and the radical nature of Kingdom living; it's to find out God's purposes for one's life and to fulfill those purposes in a Christ-honoring way.
Eternal life as defined in the New Testament is also about having a new kind of life, a new quality of life so distinct that those without it can, in a real sense, be called dead. It's life lived the way we were made to function, a life of virtue, character and well being lived for the Lord Jesus.
We were meant to live dramatic lives of goodness, truth and beauty. We're called to be dramatic in the "little" details of our "ordinary" lives, for even little details and ordinary activities become big and extra-ordinary in the light of true happiness. Such a life makes the presence or absence of contemporary happiness simply beside the point and not worth worrying about.
Self-denial doesn't mean living without money, goods, recognition or any of the things that bring pleasure and satisfaction, but it implies that these things can't be your goal. Neither does self-denial require putting yourself down or disliking yourself. Jesus said, "Take up your cross." Taking up your cross means refusing to be your own central concern. It means living for God's Kingdom, finding your place in His unfolding plan and playing your role well. Taking up your cross means giving your life to others for Christ.
A Critical Choice
The classical and contemporary notions of happiness produce radically different kinds of people. It's here that the difference between the two shakes us to the core and demands we make a lifestyle choice. This choice is as important as any we will ever make.
If we aim our lives at pleasure and satisfaction (see row one), we'll spend all our time looking inside ourselves, constantly taking our happiness temperatures. Our activities and relationships will become means to our own feelings, ceasing to serve anything higher or other than ourselves. This sort of life leads to narcissism.
If, on the other hand, virtue and godly character are our goals, we will learn to see ourselves in light of a larger cause — the outworking of God's plan in history. We'll be preoccupied with finding our role in that cause and playing it well. We'll passionately see life's activities as occasions to draw near to God and become more like Him. We'll hunger to become people who make life better for those around us. Our long-term focus will be on giving ourselves to others for Christ.
It's critical that we understand the nature of Jesus' assertion that we only gain our lives when we lose them for His sake. Jesus isn't commanding us to do anything. He's simply describing reality. He's accurately characterizing the way we're made, telling us how we prosper (or perish) as image-bearers of God. His assertion is like saying "If you want to be fit, you've got to exercise." This isn't a recommendation; exercise isn't one among many ways to get in shape. This is an accurate description of fitness. Being rooted in reality, it describes the path you have to take if you want to be fit.
If you want to be a fit person, exercise isn't optional; if you want to be a happy person, denying yourself for Christ isn't optional. And this isn't true simply for believers. It's true for all of us, whether we believe it or not.
As secular scholar John Gardner acknowledged, "Existence is a strange bargain. Life owes us little; we owe it everything. The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose."1 If you want to flourish as a friend, you need to concentrate on others. You'll be lonely if you spend all your time trying to convince people that you're really cool, worthy of their focused attention.
Similarly, if you want to flourish as a person, you must deny yourself for Christ's sake. Only by taking this path — only by rejecting the contemporary notion of happiness — will you find true happiness.
JP Moreland is an outstanding and brilliant Philosopher and Christian; there are audios of his lectures posted here including one specifically on "Happiness".