God actually does want you to be happy

The only worse teaching than “God just wants you to be happy” is “God doesn’t want you to be happy.” Of course, not that many people teach this specifically, but a number of people come close. Some of them do this by hammering in a more spiritual sounding point, something along the lines of “God is more interested in you being holy than being happy.” And, technically speaking, they’re right. If God had to pick between giving you a holiness boost and a happiness boost, I’m sure He’d pick holiness.

But the problem lies in the question itself, not so much in the answer. Or, to be clearer, asking whether God prefers your happiness or holiness more is already a bad way of putting things. It’s kind of like asking if my I would rather my son be happy or healthy. If I love him, I want both very much and would not wish to choose between them. But at the same time, a large part of the reason I want him healthy is because it will make him happy. A basic problem with unhealthiness is that is leads to unhappiness, or at least makes happiness all the more difficult. While I definitely wouldn’t mind making Nathan temporarily unhappy to make him healthy (I’ll get him his shots and medicine as needed), the point of that temporary unhappiness is so he can play happily later instead of being miserably ill. If the cure were worse than the disease in the long run, I’d probably pass it up.

What we tend to miss, then, is that holiness is a lot like health. In fact, holiness could be considered spiritual health. Health, after all, is when the various parts of our body work together in the right order and harmony. Holiness is when the various parts of our lives—thoughts, feelings, and actions—work together in the right order and harmony as defined by how God has made us to live.

This is why, for all our disagreements, I think John Piper is really getting at something important with his so-called “Christian Hedonism.” Piper is very right to say that there is nothing wrong with wanting or trying to be happy. Instead, what makes trying to be happy right or wrong is the way in which we do it. Sin may make us happy in the short term, but it causes misery in the end. Living by faith in Christ, on the other hand, may make us unhappy today as we take up our crosses, but it will turn out far for the best. And while Piper usually focuses on the eternal payoff, holy living pays off in the “short-long term” as well. Sexual restraint protects us from broken homes, broken hearts, and often broken bodies. Generosity and mercy build meaningful relationships and improve mental health. Getting wasted every weekend may be fun, but all too often leads to regrettable choices and mistakes that can never be undone. And this list can go on. Virtue is hard work and can involve suffering, but it makes a brighter life. Vice can be thrilling, but it quickly drags us into the lonely dark.

All of this comes back around to creation, to the subject of my last post. God made life to be lived and enjoyed. He smiles to see His children playing on the playground of the world. But He won’t—He can’t—tolerate sinful play. However much fun it may seem in the moment, it will ruin everyone’s day. This is the great sin. What God wants is to call His children in as the night falls to feast on bread and wine, with joy and laughter bought at the steep price of His true Son’s blood.

So, why make this point? Am I picking on words and phrases to be a pain or know-it-all? By no means! This is something that I believe causes serious trouble when forgotten. This is because everyone wants to be happy, and they feel that, in some way, it is right for them to look for happiness. And it is God who crafted their hearts with this desire. So when they hear it preached that God’s not concerned with their happiness, or if they only hear rules and “don’t’s” without a clear explanation of how God gives these commands because He truly does want their smile, it is far too easy to conclude that God is simply against joy and fun. They start to view God as a grumpy old man aggravated by seeing young people enjoy themselves. And I’m not talking hypothetically. This is something I have seen and heard myself.

Once this mistake is made, their God-given desire for happiness leads them away from the very unhappy picture of God they have developed. And while sinful pleasures aren’t as good for joy long-term as God is, they’re way better on any time scale than the Curmudgeon God who they have come to believe gave us Christianity. This becomes their excuse for sin. And sin will ruin their happiness, which God will not take lightly. God will not, of course, let them get away with their excuses, but we should be taking those away first with good theology. If we don’t, they won’t be the only ones having to give an account.

What we should be teaching, then, is not the technically correct answer to the misguided question of whether God prefers happiness or holiness. Instead, we ought to say, “Of course God wants you to be happy. But He knows better than you do what makes us happy. After all, He designed up. So let’s crack open the Bible and see what God has to say about what makes a happy life. You ask if partying will be involved? Let’s turn to Revelation 19:6-9…”

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Drowning depravity in God’s love with furry bats

I have just finished Ted Dekker’s Circle series for the second time in my life (the first was many years ago). If you’re not familiar with it, it is a pretty worthy entry in the realm of Christian fantasy. Like a surprising percentage of Christian fantasy, it involves two parallel realities with the main character, Thomas Hunter, visits back and forth (although one is not so much another reality as a radically changed version of earth 2000 years in the future). Most interestingly, Thomas switches realities by dreaming. Every time he goes to sleep in one world, he wakes up in the other.

The basic idea of this second world (which receives no unique name) is that what was spiritual in our reality take physical form there. Angels and demons are large, bat-like creatures called Roush and Shataiki, respectively. Satan is a massive Shataiki named Teeleh capable of both beautiful and awful appearance. Sin manifests itself as a disease which affects the skin, joints, heart, and mind. God, who goes by Elyon in this realm, puts His own power and presence in lakes which can usually be breathed. There are several other thought-provoking connections of this kind, but unfortunately I’d probably give too much away to mention them.

It is in this context that the Circle books, Black, Red, White, and Green, trace a story in each reality. In our world, Thomas Hunter fights to stop the impending apocalypse (of which he learns from the other, future reality) caused by a biological weapon. In the other world, he finds himself mixed up with the whole sweep of redemptive history as it is played out in this new mix of the physical and spiritual.

At this point, I’d simply say “Read it” before explaining anything more about what happens. But there are a few things I’ve been thinking about in its wake that I’d like to mention. Some of these are hinted in the title, but some are not.

First, Dekker’s main emphasis would have to be God’s love. Much of the series is devoted to the experience of Elyon’s love for the people of the other reality, often through their swimming in Elyon’s waters or, also importantly, through human romance. Elyon also appears on several occasions, always expressing his love for his creation and inspiring in Thomas or whoever a powerful sense of reciprocal love. Granted, some of this comes through in ways which I don’t find theologically agreeable (there is, for example, no sense of even a qualified divine impassibility), but as a sign and pointer to the love of the true God it is worth the read. No matter how you feel about the details, it will push you to consider just how much God loves us all. Much of this comes through the other reality’s explanation of their religion as the Great Romance, which patterns all of life after Elyon’s love for his creation and focuses especially on how this can be expressed through marriage. Elyon’s pattern, which the people are encouraged to follow, is to choose, to pursue, to rescue, to woo, to protect, and to lavish. I think this is nutritious food for the Christian imagination.

Second, one of the most powerful images you will find in the series is baptism as a literal drowning into blood-water. I won’t give too much away about the plot connected to this, but I do want to highlight some good stuff here. To follow Elyon, his followers drown in red water and then return alive. This alone is powerful, showcasing the radical commitment baptism is meant to express, its efficacy, and how it binds us to Christ’s death and resurrection in our own lives.

The baptismal imagery is even better, though, because of water happens as they drown. They experience great pain as they see in shock and horror the blackness of their own hearts, and they are forced hear Elyon scream in anguish at their evil. This all happens before they can return, before they come out of the water alive. This combines with a wider theme of the series in exposing evil with all its awfulness. The descriptions of the Shataiki and their doings can be incredibly disturbing at times, along with the violence they inflict on Elyon’s people. If these books were made into movies, they would probably need to be rated R (maybe PG-13 if they had a squeamish director) for terror and frightening images, even if these in fact don’t make up a ton of the story. The lengths to which certain characters are simply consumed and seduced (sometimes more literally) by evil and darkness can also be disturbing in another way. All of this makes for a rather accurate depiction of what sin actually is and how God actually sees it, unlike the more tame and less offensive mental images we tend to harbor to excuse our depravity.

Third, Dekker’s theology is, like a lot of Christian fiction writers, strong in some areas but weird in others. He focuses more than I can understand on free will, and I say that as someone who’s not a Calvinist (in the classical sense). His commitment to a free will theology/theodicy/philosophy leads to a few oddities here and there (such as Elyon telling Thomas, “I have a lot riding on you”), but most weirdly to the suggestion that we need full free will so much that there will remain through all eternity the possibility of yet another Fall, yet another need for redemption. This has various problems, I think, but I’ll grant that it has more logical consistency than what many free will-focused theologians suggest about life after death. That said, he still makes it clear that Elyon is all-knowing and has a comprehensive plan for and through all of the free decisions of his creatures. And of course, like most evangelicals these days, he’s definitely into the bloody, Left Behind-ish, premillenial, apocalyptic literalism that taints so much eschatology, even if this comes out much differently in his other reality’s apocalypse.

That said, for a fantasy writer skeptical of formalizing or institutionalizing Christianity, he’s still remarkably conservative. Readers of the Circle series will not find hope for the salvation of unbelievers, certainly not universalism, nor any shyness about the Old Testament portrayal of God the Warrior, nor any indications of sympathy to the LGBT cause (indeed, his setup for the Great Romance seems to militate against this). This is refreshing in a day of more and more progressivism infiltrating evangelical circles and imaginations.

So, all that said, I don’t see much need for more of a conclusion. Just read the books. You’re up for a pretty fun story (though I liked it better before he added Green), and you will have loads to think about. If you’re anything like me, you will definitely find yourself provoked to thoughts of reverence, awe, and love toward God. That’s worth the 1600 pages, in my opinion.

Find the Circle Series on Amazon here