Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness seems to have become shorthand for the objectives the modern world places before us as being desirable: we should exercise and take care of our bodies not because they are the temple of the Holy Spirit, but because that will allow us to live longer; we want to be as free as possible because that will allow us to fulfil all our needs; and we are entitled to be happy. I don’t blame this on the Americans (although they have to answer for popularising it), it is the underpinning ethos of the liberal ideology which pervades the modern world. There is nothing in this of repentance, self-denial and self-sacrifice, let alone of obedience to the divine law as revealed to us through Christian practice and theory. We must be free to believe what we want, do what we want (as long as it is not illegal), buy what we want (with the same caveat); the accumulation of goods is a proxy for the good life; the more ‘stuff’ we have, the happier we are – as the Rolling Stones put it many years ago:
When I’m watchin’ my tv and a man comes on and tell me
How white my shirts can be
But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I sometimes wonder whether the modern definition of bliss is not quite close to older definitions of a kind of hell? A raucous cacophony of the assertion of ‘my right’ to have what “i want’ when ‘I want it’, and devil take the hindermost.
Christianity is the real counter culture. We are adjured to take care of the orphan and the widow, we are told to share of our good things, and we are required to do so within God’s plan for these things – His will, not our will is what we ask to be done – not much liberty of happiness there in the world’s eyes, but for Christians this is where we find both – as well as a purpose in our lives which raises us above the ranks of apes gathering fruit in the forests. Jesus is not hot on possessions, and he is not big on self-indulgence – the parable of the Prodigal is, among other things, a commentary on where hedonism leads. We see, in the Christian communities in Acts, the way in which coming to Christ led men and women to a more generous attitude toward their fellows, and we see how the different communities would try to help each other. We know from the history of the very early church that it was this sort of community spirit which gave such a powerful witness that others came to be helped, and stayed to help others.
Christian men and women know we hold our lives on trust from God – we are stewards working for him, and to him we are responsible for the use we make of our talents; we are free to ignore these Christian imperatives, but that’s not the sort of freedom we want. Liberty to pursue our worship of God as we have come to do it is something to be valued. but our ancestors did so in private, and if we have to do so, then so be it. Our true happiness lies in service to God, and of that, the world knows and cares little.