The Happy Trap

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So begins the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776). The Declaration was announcing to the King of Great Britain, George III (1738–1820), that the American colonies were asserting their civil rights, among them (but not limited to) “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” All Americans ought to reflect on this document, on what it intended, and on what it meant in its original context. It is especially important for Christians, however, to distinguish between their civil life and their life in the visible church instituted by Christ. He is indeed Lord over both spheres or realms but he rules each of them distinctly. Caesar, or the three branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) of the American federal government, is God’s minister for civil ends. On this see Romans 13:1–7. The civil magistrate is a minister of justice or law, not gospel. Only the visible church instituted by Christ is authorized to announce both his law and his gospel. See Matthew 16:13–20 and Matthew 28:18–20. The civil magistrate is not a gospel minister. Our secular life is a covenant of works.

The American (civil) creed, as Sen. Ben Sasse likes to say, confesses that citizens in the civil realm have been given by God (not by the state nor by the civil magistrate) certain “unalienable rights.” Something that is “unalienable” is something that the State did not create and cannot remove. It belongs to citizens inherently. Americans have, from time to time, evidently forgotten the this creed and have ceded at least some of their unalienable rights. E.g., the idea that ministers should not preach “political” sermons would have been entirely foreign to the founders of the American Republic. Ministers regularly preached them and were encouraged to do so. I think that was a bad idea and a serious confusion of categories but as a matter of civil liberties many Americans have accepted the notion that a church’s “non-profit” 501 (c) 3 status may be made contingent upon not verging upon certain topics. Few know that the restrictions upon political speech in the church date to the 1954 Johnson Amendment, not to the Constitution and certainly not the Declaration. Indeed, one suspects that most Americans, should they read the Declaration, would be shocked by such a radical document. Our founders were rather more Libertarian than we are, at least relative to the federal government. Most of them would be appalled to see the extent to which ordinary Americans interact with and are dependent upon the federal government.

When the founders said “life,” they meant by it what you and I mean, physical, biological existence. It was never an absolute right. The death penalty was unquestioned by most in the 18th century. Abortion was certainly not legal. The founders distinguished between legally innocent life (a newborn) and legally guilty life (e.g., a convicted murderer). By liberty they meant the relative absence of civil restraints. They did not mean the absence of any restraints but they did mean the relative absence of restraint. The degree to which Americans are governed not only by local, state, and federal laws, would be quite a shock to an 18th-century American. Of course, other things would a surprise to at least some of them: females voting, free African-Americans. However admirable their theory of civil life, their practice of it was far from perfect. In certain, important ways, we have made progress. Still, the theory was right. The state’s primary function is to preserve liberty, the relative absence of restraint. That is the default American position. The founders believed so much in the relative absence of restraint of the practice of religion (which entailed more than weekly meetings and private prayer), of association, and of political speech that they declared War on the Kingdom of Great Britain and 4,435 (out of 217,000) soldiers died to achieve that liberty.

The third of those “unalienable rights” however is what concerns us here: “the pursuit of happiness.” In our ears, in 2017, the word happiness means something rather different from it meant in the last quarter of the 18th century. In the context of the Declaration it meant something more like prosperity. In our eyes and ears, however, in the wake of the therapeutic revolution (see Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic), the very idea of happiness has been revolutionized. It has been subjectivized. What most Americans seem to mean now by happy is euphoria, “a feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness” (Oxford American Dictionary). In the 18th century and prior, judging by the uses cited by the Oxford Dictionary of English, happy and happiness tended to signal an objective state of affairs. It meant more like what the Lord meant when he said, “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). Obviously, those who mourn are not subjectively euphoric. Mourning and euphoria are opposites. Our Lord says that those who mourn are objectively blessed, not subjectively “happy.”

After Freud but not necessarily because of Freud, however, happiness has come to signal euphoria. Certainly in the post-WWII world, Americans have been on a quest for this-worldly contentment, satisfaction, and euphoria. It is no coincidence that as Americans have become relatively less religious (about 10% of Americans attend church weekly), as they have become less interested in heaven they have become more interested in narcotics. I do not know if anyone knows what drugs were abused in the 18th and 19th centuries (besides alcohol) or to what extent but it is obvious that Americans have a drug problem. Narco-trafficking is a huge business. Law enforcement authorities regularly seize shipments imported into the US worth millions of dollars. We are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. The CDC says that 91 people die daily from an opioid overdose. First responders have to very careful lest they come into contact with Fentynl and get sick or die. Americans are literally dying in their quest for momentary euphoria.

American Christians who have never heard of Fentanyl, clean-cut, middle-class, suburban Christians are just as addicted to euphoria as the tragic addict slumped over the steering wheel. The late-modern American desire for euphoria is so strong that ministers and churches are under great pressure to produce it in their congregations through song and sermon. How often has one heard another Christian say, “We really worshiped today!” In context that evidently means, “We achieved the desired level of euphoria.” One of the single greatest challenges pilgrims from one of the revivalist traditions faces on the road to Geneva is overcoming the addiction to religious euphoria. It has been baked into American revivalism since at least the Second Great Awakening. Charles Finney (1792–1875) wrote a manual teaching other revivalists the tricks of the trade. Those chord progressions that make even the stodgiest Presbyterian want to raise his hands over his head are no accident. It is part of a plan to move the emotions of the listener, to prepare him to hear the appeal, and to come to the anxious bench by walking the sawdust trail.

Carl Truman calls it “tragic worship.” The desire for euphoria is why the praise team must be beautiful and the minister must be amusing and the band must be hot. It is part of the package. This is why there can be no silence in public worship now. The traveling music (from Vaudeville) must “cover” the collection of the offering, the exit of the praise team from the “stage” (this is the word now used regularly), and the entrance of the star of the show, Pastor Johnny!

Many evangelical (and far too many Reformed) worship services are not only shades different from Johnny Carson’s entrance and monologue. Ministers and their elders are responding to market pressure. One of the great benefits of being a Christian in America is religious liberty. One of its great costs is that we live in a religious marketplace where the trends are set by the mega-churches and smaller local congregations must adapt to the marketplace or die. Just as American politics reflects the hearts and minds of Americans (after all, no one forced Americans to populate Washington DC with the current crop of lawmakers) so too the American evangelical and Reformed churches reflect the hearts and minds of American Christians. There would be no mega-churches if Americans did not desire them.

Jesus never promised us euphoria, however. He promised us free salvation, graciously given. He promised us suffering and possibly martyrdom but that message does not much resonate with a culture addicted to euphoria and opioids. Like any other addiction, a little is never enough. Soon it takes more and more to reach the same state of euphoria. Look in the eyes of a long-term addict and tell me if you see euphoria.

So Reformed Christians and churches face a stark choice between Christ (death to self) and culture (amusing ourselves to death). One is an idol of the heart, as Tim Keller says, the other is the Christian life. The great good news is that Jesus died for euphoria-addicted sinners. He knew what you and I and would become when he obeyed and died. He was raised for our justification and for our salvation. The Spirit is near us and by faith we are united to the risen Christ. If we believe, he is in us and we in him. If so, repentance is at hand. We may turn away from the quest for euphoria right now. We can ask our pastor to leave his therapeutic bag of tricks behind and to become a preacher of law and gospel again.

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are wonderful civil liberties before the magistrate but they are not the charter of the Kingdom of God. God’s holy law and his holy gospel are our charter. The gospel, the sacraments, and discipline are the keys to his kingdom and they have little to do with euphoria and everything to do with blessedness.

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  1. Dr. Clark,
    Sometimes I sense I am in a happiness trap at my church. My pastor is on this wave on his expositions on Philippians. He has been recommending Randy Alcorn’s books, like “60 Days of Happiness: Discover God’s Promise of Relentless Joy.” Your post truly resonated with me.

    I often think we miss happiness because we are not searching for meaning in our lives. I am not convinced “relentless joy” is promised to us in Scripture this side of the eschaton. Would love to hear more from you on this.

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