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The Tragic Postmodern Search for Happiness

March 18, 2013

Anton Chekhov said: Men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself: “I am doing God’s will on earth.”

I used this quote in a very early article as an example of the thinking about which I want to warn my children, and against which I want to arm them with defenses. In this post I’ll explain not only why this view is incorrect, but that actually the pursuit of happiness often leads to anything but its goal, and that the pairing of the search for happiness with our postmodern culture is doing more damage to our social stability and morality than ever before in history…

Man was not made for happiness, but to Glorify God

Happiness is universally seen as a “good” thing; this fact makes Chekhov’s quote all the more believable and appealing to our ears. God is good; happiness seems good; God made man – why would seeking happiness not serve well as a stated purpose for man? This fits right in line with the mindset of many purveyors of life advice in our world today, who share much common worldview ground even as they profess completely different religious views.

“If you choose to be happy you’re sowing a seed for God.” – Joel Osteen

“The very purpose of life is happiness.” – Dalai Lama

But should we believe in a purpose for our lives that is being stated by man? The key fact to grasp is that man was “made” – we were created. If we determine to search for our happiness we make the strange naïve choice to prefer our own path instead of that laid out for us by our loving Creator. Our purpose is specified by God, and we learn it in the only place He has communicated directly with us: the Bible. The Westminster Catechism summarizes all of scripture’s teaching on the topic of man’s purpose that we are “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”.

Glorifying God may or may not bring our lives “happiness” in the human sense, but it is clear that any happiness we receive from God is more than we deserve. In following Christ we are told to “take up our cross and follow Him.” He chooses how to bless us and to what extent, but those blessings are not deserved, guaranteed, and they should not be our “goal” in any way.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. – Matthew 6:33

In that obedience we fulfill our true purpose, and we are blessed by God with peace and joy of a completely higher type that any worldly level of happiness.

The Selfish Search for Happiness Leads to Anything But…

There is a darker and deeper problem with the search for happiness beyond the fact that it is based on an incorrect understanding of our place in the universe. Behind the mirage of always-approaching almost-reachable bliss, the search for happiness is truly tragic! It is a tyranny of circumstances. Our continued efforts aimed at arranging the circumstances of our lives into a narrow range of optimal conditions, worked hurriedly against competing responsibilities and social parameters, as we are often sadly blind to the fact that we are not in control of those circumstances at all! How many lifetimes have been spent striving for ideal combinations of these conditions, only to realize in the end that all of it was for naught? (Eccl.1-5) How different is this happiness from the Christian Joy which comes not from our changing fragile circumstances but from our relationship with our Savior?

From parents who trade away the most valuable gift they could give and then wager their children’s morality against poor odds in following our consumer society’s pre-packaged values and priority list, to voters who believe politicians’ appeal to their self-interests only to enslave themselves economically… From mothers who trade their children’s lives for lifestyle ease or a waist-size target, to churches who peddle self-help platitudes instead of the Power and Wisdom of the Word of God – the Creator of the universe… Man’s search for happiness on our own has always failed, and maybe never so severely and completely as in our society.

Postmodernism Twists the Search for Happiness into a Devastating Force

Postmodernism has swept the world over the last 50 years, replacing “modernism” as the de facto standard intellectual model in science and academia as the lead edge of the advance of knowledge and artistic expression. While modernism was characterized by increasing sub-divisions in knowledge and specialization of fields of study in the search for order in nature and academic reason – yielding “experts” and an amazing increase in our understanding… Post-modernism brings a wrecking ball of skepticism to all claims of knowledge and brings us to a self-contradictory solipsism.

What began as a philosophical acknowledgement that everyone perceives the world and thinks through a unique frame of reference due to our different backgrounds, social norms, ages, genders, etc. – a kind of intellectual humility that each of us might be a bit myopic and in need of eyeglasses – has now grown into an enormous phenomenon giving a philosophical veneer to moral relativism and the idea that each man can create his own “truth” equally valid with any other. We have gone from realizing that many of us need philosophical eyeglasses to now accepting anyone’s claimed philosophical “hallucinations” as perfectly valid – “within their own visual system”. It is Sophism – redux.

It has been quick, historically speaking, and it has been nearly all-encompassing, from individual ethics and social norms to literature, art, from politics to religion, to the driving force behind the push for Tolerance. It is destroying our world. And it has fed into, and fed from, our human desire to search for happiness.

This is the crux of what is different about the way we think and determine our values, even in secular society today. This is why our society’s decline is so much worse than just a few generations ago. Man has always selfishly searched for happiness – but rather than being directed in that search to a few predetermined (Christianity-informed) socially acceptable paths, today’s Man has no such limits placed on him; as a matter of fact he is often rewarded for being bold enough (“strong enough to stand for social justice”) to attack social norms – even about things as foundational as marriage and gender (re)definitions. Recently this has reached the level where one nation is inventing a new pronoun for someone between/both him/her.

1600 years ago, Augustine said: Indeed, man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.

The self-directed search for happiness is just as empty and fruitless as it always has been. Worse now than ever, though, is the damage being done to western society as this search intersects a Postmodern willingness to tear down cultural standards. As Christians, our responsibilities and purpose remain the same, and in today’s world it is as counter-cultural as it was for the earliest Christians. We are accused of fighting against others’ happiness! – this is not something of which our society will be “tolerant”! May God help us open their eyes that it is not their unhappiness that we fight for, but for something so much grander and holier and truer than they can conceive: their fulfilled purpose:

To Glorify God and Enjoy Him Forever.

“Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” – Ephesians 6:11-12


From → Bible, Creation, Worldview

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