Theology Thursday: Obtaining True Happiness

friends studying the Bible and discussing what is true happiness

Curious as children are, it’s no surprise they love to ask "why?" Why is the sky blue? Why do we dream? For example, my child James asks, “Daddy, why do you like to run?” I answer, “Because Daddy wants to stay fit.” His response: “Why do you want to be fit?” In times like these, we need an answer that stops all the follow-up “why” questions. Thankfully, I knew Aristotle’s question-stopper.

I answered James this way: “Because it makes Daddy happy.” Now if James or anyone else ever responds by asking me, “Why do you want to be happy?” The only response they’ll get is the incredulous stare. Because happiness is the final good—it’s what we’re all after. It’s self-evident: happiness is our goal. How silly to ask why one wants to be happy?

What is Happiness?

But what is happiness? Some may think happiness is having lots of wealth, respect, fame, pleasure or power. Aristotle had a different answer. In the “Nicomachean Ethics,” he said happiness is successfully flourishing at living life. But ask ten people, “What is a flourishing life?” and you’re likely to get ten different answers.

Aristotle has an argument to prevent an “anything goes” approach. It’s called the function argument. Aristotle says goodness is determined by discovering something’s chief characteristic function.

Consider a good knife cuts well; a good pen disperses ink well; a good cell phone processes information and communicates well. Goodness is understood as a thing’s function, grounded in a thing’s essence.

For Aristotle, the chief characteristic function of humans is manifesting the soul’s capacity to reason well. Reasoning requires virtuous character. The happy person needs to live all facets of life well because one’s reasoning and actions are informed by virtuous character. Virtuous character doesn’t come cheap: you need to practice developing moral and intellectual virtues by emulating exemplars.

This account of happiness is better than most. If you’ve ever watched the movie "Groundhog Day”? It’s hard to argue Phil Connors doesn’t move closer to happiness by the end. Indeed, after chasing wealth, pleasure and power he ends up emptier than when he began the journey. It’s not until he starts putting himself together by doing what Aristotle prescribes—namely, cultivating virtuous character—that Phil begins tasting some genuine appetizers of happiness.

Christianity Can Improve Aristotle’s Conception of Happiness

Christians believe Phil Connors isn’t feasting on the main course of happiness for the following reasons. First, Aristotle doesn’t adequately address the human condition. If Christianity is true, humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). However, given the effects of sin (Romans 5), the human condition has been corrupted. The reasons responsible for making God’s presence as obvious as the noses on our face have been damaged by sin thereby making God’s presence hidden (Psalms 89:46; Micah 3:4; Isaiah 59:2).

This missed diagnosis from biblical anthropology is critical because if Christianity is true, then humans were intentionally created to live in daily communion and fellowship with God. Any conception of happiness that excludes a reconciled relationship with God, made possible through the sacrificial act of love Jesus personified in his life, death and resurrection, falls short of the true happiness God created humans to enjoy. So, despite the degree of happiness obtained by Phil Connors, there is a far superior degree of happiness he could be experiencing.

Second, Aristotle assumes that humans have the wherewithal to cultivate the virtuous character needed to flourish. But if Christianity is true, then the corrupted human condition lacks the power and resources to cultivate the kind of character needed to consistently flourish at living life well. Even having the wisdom needed to know what one should and shouldn’t do isn’t enough (Romans 7).

Human beings were created to live in dependence upon the Trinity which is how human agency was originally designed to function. From the above example, just because Phil Connors put together a solid day of living, he has the power and resources to live even better. If Christianity is true, humans were designed to be informed and empowered by God in order to fulfill their true function, purpose and capacity for happiness.

Third, if Christianity is true, then Jesus is the standard by which all moral exemplars are to be judged. Since God is necessarily morally perfect and perfectly loving, God alone is the moral standard. So, lacking knowledge of the way Jesus lived the regenerative life leaves critical gaps one needs to fill and blind spots one needs corrected.

Aristotle’s description of the moral and intellectual virtues covers important ground. But without Jesus’ example and the way Jesus modeled his agency’s dependency upon the Father and Holy Spirit, Aristotle’s remedy to the human condition is inadequate.

Appetizers are Good, But the Main Course is Far Better

Aristotle’s view of human agency assumes both too much and too little. He assumes too much because humans — left to their own resources — are powerless to achieve consistency at doing the right thing. He assumes too little because succeeding in different areas of life will never fill the God-shaped hole in human hearts which can only be filled by becoming an adopted child of God, indwelled by the Holy Spirit (Romans 6 & 8; Ephesians 1:13-14; 1 John 1:1-3).

The greatest gift is being forgiven by God of all one’s sins and being reconciled as an adopted child of God thereby becoming a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). A happiness builds as one lives out the regenerative life transforming one’s corrupt character into Christ-like character (Romans 5:5) which informs, enables and empowers one to live life successfully the way God designed humans to flourish — truly happy. Indeed, as the Psalms testify, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalms 34:8).

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.