Finding True Happiness in Gospel Freedom

By Charity Kim, Veritas Classical Academy

Peter Randolph was a former African-American slave who wrote about his experiences. He said that his “poor broken-hearted mother was always weeping”; that his father was daily forced to whip his fellow slaves until their “blood ran down to the ground”; that his brother Benjamin was so savagely beaten that a child could lay her fist in the holes of flesh on his back. But Peter Randolph wrote, “I was happy.”

Fast forward to today, scholars are perplexed as to why modern Americans are not happy–a problem they call the American Paradox. How can a nation whose material prosperity continues to surge have the happiness of her people continue to diminish? Indeed, although standards of living have certainly increased, so have emotional issues such as depression and anxiety. In America, rates of depression have increased for almost all demographic groups; suicide rates have escalated over 25% from 1999 to 2016; and drug addiction and alcoholism are on the rise, perhaps even on historic levels.

The question remains: how is a prosperous nation so centered on the pursuit of happiness now facing a crisis of despair?

Happiness is a central value of American civilization, but has recently become a cultural infatuation.  Some believe, however, that the recent rise of happiness as a societal obsession is actually an indication of America’s unhappiness.

Happiness here may be defined in terms of eudaemonia, or human flourishing.  What Americans are so consumed with then is not a temporary emotion of excitement, but rather a long-term state of well being and contentment.  This concept of eudaemonia, or the good life, originated from Ancient Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  They believed that the end of man is to live well and therefore happily.  Thus, happiness is not just a life that fulfilled any purpose but one that fulfilled specifically man’s purpose.

Why would this age-old understanding of happiness matter today? In light of the Ancient Greek concept of eudaemonia, the problem is not that Americans are simply unsatisfied or discontent, but that they are misunderstanding their very nature as human beings.

The happiness that Americans want is antithetical to their human nature.  To prove this, we will first understand that man’s true happiness is the fulfilling of his end to love others, second, we will see how America’s expressive individualism is counter to this happiness, and third, we will come to the understanding that the solution is Gospel Freedom.

Man’s True Happiness

Happiness for both Plato and Aristotle is the fulfillment of man’s end.  Plato argues throughout The Republic that the happiest life is a just one, which he defined to be when man’s soul was harmonized, having each of its parts performing its proper function.  Similarly, Aristotle argued that the good of man is his end towards which he aims all his actions.  He believed that happiness must be the highest good since it is the only thing man seeks for its own sake.  The conclusion of both historic philosophers was that man’s happiness is inseparable from his proper function, or in other words, his end.

Given that happiness is the fulfillment of man’s end, the question is now “What is the right end?”  Plato and Aristotle held that the nature of something determines its end; therefore, an understanding of man’s nature is vital to understanding his end and perforce his happiness.

Scripture asserts that the defining aspect of human nature is the imago Dei, the “image of God.”   Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him.”

If man was made in the image of God, could that mean that man’s end is God?  Thomas Aquinas believed that given the fact that the end of man is his good, the ultimate end and chief good can only be found in God.  “Therefore, God alone constitutes man’s happiness.”  Here, Aquinas expresses the idea that man was made by God for God.

To further understand what this means for man’s happiness, we must delve into the fact that man was made in the image of a triune God.  For C.S. Lewis, the heart of the Trinity is love.  He marked how when people say that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16), they “seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two persons…. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”  Created in the likeness of a triune Being of love, humans then were made to also love and will be happy when they do so.

The essence of this trinitarian love is self-giving.  In The Problem of Pain, Lewis wrote, “In self-giving…we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being…. From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes more truly self.”  What this means for mankind is one of the greatest paradoxes of Christianity: in selflessly loving others as we were created to do, we find the greatest self-fulfillment.  As philosopher Charles Taylor put it, “the fullness of human life [is] something that happens between people rather than within each one.”  Happiness, then, is found not within the self, but in community with God and with fellow human beings.

Given that happiness is the fulfillment of man’s end to love God and others, the matter now comes to freedom.  True happiness and true freedom are inseparable, because freedom allows happiness to be genuine.   Lewis wrote that “free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”  In other words, love that is forced loses its value and therefore cannot bring true happiness.  Likewise, John Piper wrote, “Love is deep in proportion to its liberty.”  In this way, freedom, or voluntary choice, is necessary for genuine happiness because it gives meaningful depth to the love for which we were made.  Freedom then is the ability to be genuinely happy–to willingly choose to love God and others and thereby fulfill our end.

If we seek to live a life of true flourishing, then a right understanding of freedom, happiness, and mankind’s nature is indispensable.  Hence, we now turn to an analysis of the current crisis of American society.

America’s False Happiness

If true happiness is found in the abdication of the self, Americans have instead made it the exaltation of the self.  Sociologist Robert Bellah identified the American conception of fulfillment as “expressive individualism,” which Timothy Keller explains as the belief that “identity comes through self-expression, through discovering one’s most authentic desires and being free to be one’s authentic self.” The American culture today is far from any notion that self-fulfillment is found in anything other than the self.

Americans have rejected not only the proper perspective of nature but the very concept of nature in favor of self-determination; they have denied a common human end, preferring individual choice.  Expressive individualism and its resultant passion for self-determination is seen everywhere in the American culture: from Oprah Winfrey’s statement “Self-esteem comes from being able to define the world in your own terms” to actor and gay-rights activist Harvey Fierstein saying “Define yourself” to Pharrell Williams singing “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.”  The American man seeks now to exalt himself over his nature by choosing his own happiness.

The American concept of happiness through self-glorification ironically leads to self-annihilation.  This outcome stems from the fact that the happiness that Americans want is antithetical to what it means to be human.  In despising and shunning the nature of humanity, Americans have caused two devastating effects: the self-destructive suppression of human community and the enslaving abuse of human freedom.

First, America’s expressive individualism has resulted in the self-destructive suppression of mankind’s community.  Robert Bellah wrote, “Just when we are moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing.”  By tearing the very fabric of American society, expressive individualism is disassembling perhaps the most fundamental factor for human flourishing: community.  In addition, the historian Wilfred McClay writes concerning America, “Perhaps nowhere else in history have ‘self’ and ‘society’ been more likely to be conceived in diametrical opposition to one another.”  When a society becomes so focused on the self, the result is a shattered community of individuals who have isolated themselves with their self-made visions of fulfillment.

In such a broken community, it is increasingly difficult for people to be people.  As Os Guinness explains, “a person is a person only in relationship.”  Consequently, American society engenders people’s self-ruin, because in centralizing the individual self, the only way to true self-fulfillment is obstructed—that is, the investment of the self in others.

Second, America’s expressive individualism has led to a perversion of true freedom that places her people in self-inflicted bondage.  This perversion is the wrong view of freedom as the autonomy of the self–the absence of any restraints.  On the contrary, true freedom requires the presence of the right restraints.  Lord Acton wrote that freedom “is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”  True freedom then requires restraints because they enable us to make good choices to do what we ought to do.  Guinness notes, however, that modern Americans have come to “value choice rather than good choice.”

This distortion of values naturally stems from the adverse view of freedom as autonomy–the inevitable result of expressive individualism.

Nevertheless, this wrong notion of self-autonomy leads to the self’s bondage.  As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Nothing brings more pain than too much pleasure; nothing more bondage than too much liberty.”  If true freedom is the ability to fulfill one’s end, then bondage is the inability to do so.  Hence, the American expressive individualist is enslaved to that which prevents him from being able to fulfill his human potential—that is, himself.

The Solution of Gospel Freedom

Having established what true happiness is and why then America faces a predicament, we now come to an analysis of how Gospel Freedom can resolve America’s crisis.  The reason why Gospel Freedom is the solution is that America’s expressive individualism has made her culture the paragon of sin.  Its two devastating effects on humanity—suppression of community and abuse of freedom—each correspond to two, Augustinian principles of sin: isolation and self-deification.

Concerning sin’s aspect of isolation, Augustinian scholar Robert Markus stated, “[Augustine thought] that the root of sin lies in the self’s retreat into privacy—the self, depriving itself of community.”  The very reason why expressive individualism is eating away the cohesion of our culture is that people are receding into their own selves and values.  Although society might claim that the exaltation of the self allows for people to be confident in who they are, the result is actually that society has privatized the self so that individuals may define it however they like.  Thus, expressive individualism is not the grand gesture of self-love our culture claims it to be but instead a deep-seated, isolating narcissism.

As to sin’s aspect of self-deification, another Augustinian scholar, David Meconi, stated that “for Augustine, the root of all sin is the attempt to take God’s place in the order of things….Sin is the desire to become like God, gone awry.”  We see this in expressive individualism’s perversion of freedom into the autonomy of the self.  American culture’s rampant desire to be free from any sort of moral restraint is necessarily the desire to be one’s own authority.  Americans then are usurping the throne of God Himself, the very Being whom they were created to love and serve.

Gospel Freedom speaks directly to the two aspects of expressive individualism as the embodiment of sin.  Freedom goes two ways: first, we must be free from that which we are enslaved to and second, we must have the actual ability to fulfill our end.  The very definition of Gospel Freedom embodies both components: the act of God’s liberation of His people from their sinful selves and to the proper love of themselves, others, and God.

The first part of Gospel Freedom—the liberation from the sinful self—speaks to expressive individualism’s enslaving self-deification.  God’s overall liberation of His people is rooted in the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ—hence the term, “Gospel Freedom.”  In Romans 6:6-7, Paul writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ]…so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”  And so, the Gospel sets us free from our old, sinful selves, by putting those selves to death with Christ.  The implication of this for expressive individualism is to put to death the very self that Americans wish to exalt.

The second part of Gospel Freedom—freedom to love—applies to expressive individualism’s isolation.  By putting to death the old, sinful self, Gospel Freedom does not destroy the self but rather redeems it by enabling it to properly love.  At the heart of the American crisis of happiness is an undue love of the self.  The inevitable end of such disproportionate love is self-destruction, because it severs the self from the necessary means to happiness—community.  After freeing people from their sinful, isolating selves, Gospel Freedom then rebuilds the community that the sinfulness of humans has shattered, because the very expression of Gospel Freedom is self-giving love.  Galatians 5:1 states, “For freedom Christ has set you free.”  In this verse, Christ not only sets His people free, but in liberating them, frees them also for a life of freedom.  This life of freedom is clarified later in verse 13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”  Thus, the lived out expression of Gospel Freedom is self-giving love, the only way to true self-fulfillment.

Some might object that America is great because of her individualism.  They argue that what set America apart from all previous nations was the emphasis on the individual’s rights and freedoms.  The Founding Fathers, however, did not wish to uphold the sacredness of the individual, but rather the divinely ordained rights of human beings.  The Declaration of Independence speaks of men, not individuals, who are “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”  In fact, Alexis De Tocqueville concluded that “radical individualism is unendurable for human beings.”  Likewise, Robert Bellah states that America’s individualism “may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.”  And so, individualism is not only adverse to true, American ideals, but perhaps the very thing that is destroying America’s greatness.

Another common objection is that selflessness is not in line with the American vision.  Writer and philosopher Ayn Rand accordingly wrote, “Altruism [or selflessness] is incompatible with [America’s] freedom, with capitalism and individual rights.”  After all, the investment of oneself in others does seem contradictory to the egoism that Ayn Rand would say is the heart of the American dream.  But this argument assumes that America’s principles of freedom, capitalism, and rights are necessarily egocentric.  The Founding Fathers, however, believed in what George Washington called “principles of disinterestedness.”  Disinterestedness for the Fathers is the sacrifice of the self’s private concerns for the good of the nation.  It is a quality that they judged to be “fundamental to preventing democratic despotism.”  We are therefore able to conclude that selflessness is not only compatible with the American vision, but essential for that vision to be consummated.

We came to the understanding that man will find true happiness when he has the freedom to fulfill his end to love others.  We found that modern Americans’ conception of happiness, expressive individualism, is antithetical to their human nature and has caused two devastating effects—the self-destructive suppression of human community and the enslaving abuse of human freedom.  Finally, we saw that because expressive individualism is in essence sinful, Gospel Freedom in Christ is the only solution.

C.S. Lewis wrote that human history is “the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. [But] God cannot give us a happiness apart from Himself, because it is not there.”  Since the quest for happiness can sum up all of humanity’s endeavors, the question of what we find our happiness in is paramount, as it will determine the sort of lives we live.  All must either choose God and the joyful life of purpose or reject Him and live in selfish misery.

Peter Randolph chose the joyful life of purpose.  He wrote that he was happy only because of the love of Christ that had pushed him to share that love with others.  Despite being himself oppressed by society, he loved the oppressed.  Despite his inhumane conditions, he was more human than his slave-masters.  Despite being externally enslaved, he understood Gospel Freedom–that he was truly free in Christ.   Randolph and his fellow slaves found a happiness–a community of God–that transcended the sin of this world.  How much more then can we Christians in America today live that life of freedom for which we were made?  How much more can we not only be truly happy but further the kingdom of God in the midst of a culture so lost in self-centered notions of happiness?  “For you were called to freedom brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

CHARITY KIM was a senior at Veritas Classical Academy in California. This fall, she plans to attend Patrick Henry College on track to law school.