I’ve been thinking lately about how truly American I am. Though impressively diverse, one of the primary characteristics that unites Americans is our undying belief in independence and freedom. Those two words tend to be synonymous in our culture–we define both freedom and independence as being able to do what I want when and how I want to do it. And if any person, organization, or entity challenges my ability (and right) to do as I please, they should expect wrathful protest (and possibly a lawsuit). We stand firmly on the founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
We place limits on this right to be free, of course. A serial killer isn’t free to do as he wants and murder people. If someone’s desired action causes harm to another, or breaks a law, or encroaches on the freedom of another, we enforce necessary boundaries, limits, and consequences. No one likes to be told “no” or experience the consequences of crossing those necessary boundaries (such as jail time for the convicted serial killer). But, as a society, we firmly believe that individual freedom and independence are both the ideal and each person’s right, as long as that freedom stays within the law and certain necessary boundaries. Culturally, we are focused primarily on the individual and his or her personal choices and individual freedoms.
Other cultures have a different focus. In many other countries, the focus is primarily on the community rather than the individual. Personal choices are filtered through these questions: How will this affect my family? My neighbors? Will this bring honor or shame to my community? Kenneth Bailey, a New Testament scholar and author who spent most of his life in the Middle East, does an excellent job of highlighting this aspect of Middle Eastern cultures, which is so foreign to much of American culture.
When it comes down to it, the main criteria I use when making a decision or choosing an action revolves around these questions: How will this affect me? How will this affect the people or things I love? Will this make me (or us) more happy?
There’s nothing wrong with happiness. Growing up, I learned that I must “deny myself and take up my cross,” which in my mind, translated mistakenly into “try to choose the hard, painful things and avoid those things that you enjoy or that make you happy.” My definition of self-denial consisted of attempting to ignore or squelch my own emotions, desires, and needs. I’ve since discovered that my old definition aligns more with a philosophy called Stoicism than it does with Christianity.
The problem isn’t happiness. The problem is mistaken ideas about how to achieve happiness–the problem is thinking that certain choices, actions, or objects will bring personal satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness when they actually won’t (and can’t).
The actions and objects we chase in our pursuit of happiness vary widely from person to person. A few people have noticed, however, that many of the things we chase fall into 3 broad categories: wealth, sex, and power. Some people think (even if it’s a subconscious thought) that if they can just get that certain house, or car, or phone, or item of clothing, or object, THEN they will finally be fulfilled and happy. Others think that if they can just have this certain sexual encounter or experience or partner, they will finally be satisfied. Others are convinced that getting a certain job, position, or company–where they will finally get to do what they want and tell others the right way to do things and make that big paycheck–will finally help them achieve their goals and be content.
For those, like me, who tend to be more “spiritual,” our goals for happiness often have qualifiers or don’t fall quite as obviously into those categories. For example, one of my recent convictions is that if only I could live in the Pacific Northwest, my life would be much better. Beautiful scenery for hikes; the perfect weather for being outdoors; delicious food for my vegetarian family…it really seems ideal. If only I could live there instead of Oklahoma!!
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wealth, sex, power, or the Pacific Northwest. The trouble lies in believing that their acquisition will bring total happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. Because they won’t. They can’t. It’s like trying to satisfy hunger by eating a bowl full of plastic. Or trying to quench thirst by drinking a bucket of seawater. Our bodies weren’t made to digest plastic, and the ocean isn’t made to satisfy our thirst. The hunger and thirst are real–it’s no use denying them–but those things won’t satisfy. They just…can’t.
Long ago, someone named Augustine said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” That sounds very poetic, and I think he’s actually right, but what does it mean to rest in God? And what does a restless heart have to do with freedom or being an American?
We get hungry because we were made to need food. We get thirsty because we were made to need water. And we long for happiness and fulfillment because we were made to need happiness and fulfillment. The trouble is that we try to find happiness and fulfillment by “eating plastic” or “drinking seawater” (when I first typed that, it auto-corrected to sewage, which would also be accurate…haha).
So what will satisfy our longing for happiness, purpose, and fulfillment?
To answer that, we need to know what we were made to do. And to discover what we were made to do, we need to ask our Creator.
Thankfully, we have an ancient book full of stories and images and words that has been carefully copied and preserved century after century. It has quite a few answers for anyone willing to admit their hunger and thirst and who really want to find the true source of satisfaction.
The very beginning of that book tells about the very beginning of the world. And that story, I think, is one of the most important in the whole book.
In the beginning, God made everything good. Evil, suffering, and death were not part of people or creation. God made a world full of joy, beauty, and bounty for both people and animals. Everything was very good.
Here’s where we run into a major problem. No one has ever seen a world even remotely similar to this. We are all like the man sitting in the cave in Plato’s analogy–we’ve only seen shadows on the cave wall; we’ve never seen the sun. It’s extremely difficult to imagine a world of perfect beauty, love, and bounty. It’s almost impossible to imagine a world free of death, suffering, evil, or fear. But that perfect world is the kind we were made for–that’s how things were in the beginning.
I think our nostalgia, our dreams, and our longing for happiness stem directly from the fact that we were made to live in a perfect world. We were made to enjoy perfect friendships with God, with other people, and with all of creation. We were made to love and be loved. We were made to dance in the freedom of loving and knowing that we are loved, of enjoying the beauty of relationships utterly free of abuse, selfishness, jealousy, or being used. We long to be restored to that world and to that state of perfect happiness and fulfillment. We know that something isn’t right; we know that there must be something more. Surely this world of natural disasters, war, abuse, broken relationships, selfish ambition, and horrifying evil isn’t all there is!
There IS more. But here’s where we run into the second major problem. When we lost paradise, we also lost our ability to love…and love is what made that perfect world a paradise.
What is love?
Love is not sexual attraction or sex. Love is not companionship or enjoying someone’s company. Love is not even wanting the best for someone else. Love is so, so much more than any of these.
Real, true love is wanting good for someone then doing that good for them. Real love is meeting the needs of another even at great cost to yourself. True love is willing self-sacrifice for the good of another. Love is breathtakingly beautiful. Love is the one thing we were created to do and enjoy…and it’s the thing that we now, in our current state, cannot do. No one can truly or consistently love on their own.
How did we get from a paradise of perfect love to this broken world full of broken relationships, evil, pain, and death?
An evil snake crept into the Garden of life, laughter, and light, whispering lies. And the first man and woman chose to believe his lies rather than the truth spoken by their good Creator. Before, they had known only good. But when they ate from the tree of knowing good AND evil, everything shattered. Then they knew good and evil…and evil was unspeakably horrible.
Selfishness and blame replaced perfect love. And their evil spawned more evil. Selfishness and evil twisted both thoughts and intentions into cruel, wicked ideas and actions. And that’s where we are today.
But, praise God, that’s not the end of the story. When everything shattered, God spoke a promise: One day, a Son would come to crush the head of the serpent. This Promised Son would crush evil and destroy death. He would fix all that we broke, and make everything good and new again! But this renewal and rescue would come at a very high price.
This story–the story of broken humanity and this broken world–is told clearly in that ancient book called the Bible. I’m re-telling it for 4-8 year olds in my illustrated book, The Advent Storybook. But this story shines light into darkness, revealing both why we long for happiness and where that happiness can be found.
Happiness is found by truly loving and being loved.
And Jesus came to restore our ability to love. True love is what creates a real paradise. And true freedom is actually much better (and deeper) than doing whatever I want, whenever and however I want to do it. The trouble with that first definition of freedom is that it assumes that we always want good things that will actually bring us happiness. But the truth is, we often try to gain happiness through means that won’t satisfy. It’s a little bit like attempting to dig a swimming pool with a cooked, limp noodle…we may give it our best shot, but it’s just not possible. Freedom is actually the ability to what I was created to do…the ability to do that which will bring me happiness and fulfillment.
So, I’m an American because I long for individual freedom in order to pursue and obtain happiness…but so often, my pursuit of happiness misses the mark. I wasn’t made to exist on my own, doing whatever I want whenever I want and however I want. I just wasn’t. I was made for community…for perfect love and perfect friendships with God, with others, and with all of creation. But I can’t get those by myself, because I’m thoroughly broken and full of evil. I long for good, but that’s about all I can do on my own. That’s why the Promised Son, Jesus, came. He came to bring true freedom, life, and happiness by taking the death we chose and giving us true life in its place. He came to make everything good and new again, like it was in the beginning, by restoring our ability to love and to know we are loved. This renewed ability to love is the cure for our restless hearts.
Jesus is the living water that satisfies all thirst! Pretending not to thirst won’t work, and neither will drinking seawater. Drink deeply of the life and love offered by our good Rescuer…and then you’ll find true happiness, true love, and true life. Your heart will be free to love and to rest in being loved.
All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:3-5 ESV