Happiness or Character?


I am genuinely worried about the world my children are growing up in. I’m not referring to the dangers of being kidnapped or killed in a car accident by a distracted driver. I’m concerned about the strong river current of ideas we are swimming against and the polluted atmosphere created by the larger cultural narratives we are breathing in uncritically. 

What is the chief goal of life for many today? Many are chasing after happiness and personal satisfaction, whether it be in our careers, relationships, hobbies or lifestyles. Others just want to be accepted for who they are, and the freedom to express themselves as they desire. If these are our chief aims, then anything —including God’s revealed will and higher purposes — that would get in the way of our personal happiness, our longings for true satisfaction, our “right” to live how we want is deemed unhealthy or even oppressive. 

As an observer of culture and a student of human nature and the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures, I lament what our cultural narratives and values are producing in people. As a society, we are so weighed down by anxiety. We are trying to build on the shifting sand of emotionalism and self-absorbed immaturity. We are producing people driven by their whims, ungrounded, continually tossed back and forth by every new fad, constructing shallow lives on fleeting feelings and temporary joys. 

A civilization built on the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain will not last long. A society built on human aspirations and wisdom but void of the “fear of God” will fail. A life spent chasing after personal happiness while pushing away anything or anyone that might restrict our freedom and question the wisdom of indulging ourselves, is a life of folly according to the wisdom of the ancients. 

The Christian life offers a different path with a different goal. The goal of life for the Christian is “to be conformed to the image of Christ.” That is, we are called to cultivate the character of Christ. Character is best forged in the fires of personal discomfort, suffering, healthy resistance, being stretched and enduring hardships rather than avoiding them. 

In our New Testament lesson this week, Paul invites us into a different narrative. 

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

In this gospel narrative we find our lives not driven by our own desires, no longer clamoring for our own way, and drowning in the sea of our own self-inflicted anxieties. In the story of the gospel, we find ourselves rescued from ourselves and the need to justify our own existence. We find our lives ascribed with value and worth, not by what we can produce or offer the world, but simply by virtue of being the beloved of God. Anxious striving can be replaced by a “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Couldn’t we all use a little more peace in our hearts and in the world?

We no longer stand on the quicksand of our own merits as a parent, spouse, employee or church attender. We now stand in the sea of unending grace—God’s unmerited favor and long-suffering love. We no longer boast in our bank accounts, our position in the company, our children’s accomplishments, the orderliness of our homes, our ability to please others, the impact we’re having on the world, etc. We now boast in our larger role within God’s Big Story where we are learning to do what Adam and Eve failed to do: being faithful image-bearers who reflect god’s glory out into the world. This is all good news, and many Christians will give lip-service to this part of the Christian’s call. 

But then we get to the next verse…

Then we are called to “rejoice in our sufferings” and to not run from hardships. We are told that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” But every word of this sounds like foreign gibberish to those of us immersed in the cultural narrative of personal happiness and unrestrained freedom of self-expression. But what is the ultimate goal of life? Is it to maximize personal comfort and minimize pain? Or is it character formation?

Beloved, we are called to self-restraint for the sake of holiness. We are called to embrace times of trials in order to grow through it. We are called to bring our innate desires under the lordship of God’s refining fire. Whether its our sexual desires, our worship of comfort, our craving for attention or approval, our addiction to work, our love of money and material things—we are called into a bigger Story with a greater Hope “that will not disappoint” (Rom. 5:5). 

How can we step into this bigger story? How can we show our children a better Way? Paul says it begins as we internalize what it means that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Today, each of our hearts are flooded with various kinds of thoughts, convictions, feelings and emotions. Someone or something is perched on the throne of our hearts this very moment, giving orders and driving our moods. Like gasoline poured into our automobiles, what will we pour into our hearts today to keep us going? Will it be fear? Shame? Selfish ambition? Need for approval? Or, God willing, will be let it be God’s loving, saving, accepting and life-transforming Spirit?

Elsewhere Paul urges us to “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col. 3:15). Yes, let us allow God’s love to be “poured into our hearts” once again today “through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). And let us resist and expose the cultural narratives pleading for our children’s souls, and offer them a different Story grounded in the wisdom of Jesus.

“Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). 

“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul” (Mark 8:36)?

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt 7:13-14).

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess 4:3).

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to counsel” (Prov. 14:12).

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