My single New Year’s resolution is to put to death my desire for happiness. I want to treat it for what it is – a counterfeit version of the real life God intends for me. Far too many of my decisions in 2012 were motivated by the pursuit of avenues that promised to make me ‘happy’. In retrospect I can conclude that they all ended with a shallow experience followed by a sense that in achieving the goal I had somehow forfeited the prize.
But isn’t that the American dream – the promise that drives our hunger for affluence and the goal that so whets our insatiable appetite for success? It has always bothered me that the profound words of the framers in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty…” were followed by, “and the pursuit of happiness.”
Is that really the defining pursuit of free people? I learned something about that recently that reshaped my understanding of this phrase and impacted my own life’s pursuit. In writing on the phrase, J.P Moreland and Klaus Issler state that our modern definition of happiness as a “sense of pleasurable satisfaction” is a significant departure from the ancient definition that the Declaration’s authors had in mind. Happiness to them was defined as “a life well-lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness and goodness.” [i]
The contrast in definitions is stunning, as are the implications for each form of pursuit that follows. According to Moreland and Issler, the modern pursuit of happiness as a sense of pleasurable satisfaction has created a nation of ‘empty selves’ characterized by individualism, emotional immaturity, self-centeredness and a passive apathy. God did not create us to thirst for this kind of ‘happiness’. When we pursue it, our lives are robbed of their true meaning and purpose.
Instead, God created us to know the real joy of a ‘well-lived’ life. How do we pursue such a life? Jesus told us plainly, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25) The way to the well-lived life is the denial of pleasure-seeking in lieu of the holy pursuit of the life that is sold out to Jesus Christ.
The two are not only in contrast, they are antithetical to one another. One curves us in on our self, the other opens us out towards others. One looks for what will serve our desires, the other requires our sacrifice in service of friends and enemies alike. One deceives us into believing that we can consume our way to contentment, the other invites us to ‘squander ourselves for a purpose.’[ii]
I believe that nothing will destroy our soul quicker than a consistent pursuit of personal happiness. For that reason, I am starting 2013 with a passionate quest to drive it out of my life. I realize that every day of this year I will stand at multiple moments of decision where my true pursuit will be tested. I will hear the siren song of the enemy enticing me to choose for myself; for my comfort, my pleasure, my pride, my self-reliance, my need to control and my reputation.
Is it the same for you?
If so, my prayer is that in 2013 God will grant us the faith and courage to make different choices than we have made in the past. I believe each such choice will lead us down a new path replete with amazing scenery, filled with wondrous drama, and overflowing with meaning, purpose and life. We may not experience the vacuous little flashes of momentary pleasure that dominated our decisions in the past. But I am convinced that day by day, choice-by-choice, God will lead us through a year that will be truly ‘well-lived.’
I encourage you to start this year by defining the characteristics of a life well-lived. What brings you the deepest satisfaction, the most profound sense of purpose and meaning? What is worth sacrificing everything to attain? Then pray passionately for that life. Pray to set aside the counterfeit version of life that the world will push on you at every turn. And pray instead for the courage and wisdom to make the choices in 2013 that will lead to the kind of engagement in life that will leave you muddy and bruised and sweating and out of breath…and smiling ear to ear.
Happy New Year? Not on your life. There is so much more to live for than that!