Looking for Joy in All the Right Places

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, specializes in making cultural observations that explain the nature of our motivations in business, politics, and ethics. He’s convinced that we pay far too much attention to the “outer mind,” which “hungers for status, money, and applause.” This is how we describe the world around us, admiring the wealthy, powerful, and talented.

But such achievements cannot make us truly happy, Brooks writes in his bestselling new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Unlike the “outer mind,” the “inner mind,” he argues, “hungers for harmony and connection—those moments when self-consciousness fades away and a person is lost in a challenge, a cause, the love of another or the love of God.” When we lose ourselves in service, in giving, in worship, we find true contentment.

We don’t have to read Brooks, though, to learn that fame and fortune cannot deliver on their promises. Indeed, Christians have read in their Bibles for centuries that profits in this world never satisfy when eternal ones are forfeited (Ecc. 5:10-12; Luke 18:18-30; 1 Tim. 6:6-10). Now Brooks presents us with the data to see it with our own eyes.

To be sure, the happy may work hard, make money, and own a home. Poverty does not correspond to happiness; financial security brings some peace. But the truly content among us—whatever their net worth—take real, lasting joy in deep relationships. Brooks cites one study that says marriage has the psychological effect of making $100,000 annually. Are you discontent due a low income? Meet only one time per month with a group, and you’ll receive the same measurable gain in happiness as doubling your salary. Happy people grab dinner with friends after work. They have sex. On the other hand, nothing is more closely associated with unhappiness than commuting. It breeds loneliness. In turn, loneliness leads to judgment, which leads to more loneliness, because no one wants to be around you.

The tradeoffs we make to pursue lives of isolated luxury hardly seem worth the trouble. The good news is that some of us seem to be realizing it. Brooks writes that homebuyers in the 1990s indicated that they wanted to live near golf courses, an indication of high economic status. Now many buyers are looking for coffee shops and community centers. Big houses can inhibit the close connections so vital to happiness.

Alternate Community, Parallel Universe

The sad reality is that while God’s Word teaches that we find true joy in loving God and loving neighbor, Christians fall prey to the same temptations to seek ultimate fulfillment in money, comfort, and power. When we do, the church offers no alternate community, merely a parallel universe consumed with lesser entertainment masquerading as worship. Mirroring the culture, we have nothing to offer it. We see this most brazenly in churches preaching the prosperity gospel. But none of us is safe in a culture that chafes at the cost of discipleship.

Like Brooks, some Christians recognize the severity of our social plight and point the way toward escape. Writing When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community, Joseph Hellerman implicates the church in the American capitulation to unfettered individualism. A pastor and Talbot School of Theology professor, Hellerman reminds us, “Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community.” So does good parenting and wise decision-making, to cite just two other examples Hellerman treats in his valuable book. He takes us back to the early church, which was propelled by the gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the love of God in the hostile Roman world.

Hellerman helpfully examines the historical evidence to help us understand the social world of the Bible, a communal context foreign to modern-day Americans. He argues that we desperately need one another to resist the culture’s tug toward the solitary, selfish pursuit of merely financial gain.

Bible knowledge is not enough. A more thoroughgoing resocialization is necessary. Until we truly begin to understand and embrace the strong-group model of the church as a family, we will have neither the theological foundation nor the social capital necessary to act in a manner diametrically opposed to the dominant culture of radical individualism. We will successfully swim upstream against the raging river of personal sin and selfishness only in the context of community as God intends it.

Hellerman echoes Brooks by pointing out that our neighbors—lonely, jaded, and confused—are learning their need for healthy relationships. But all they’ve known is brokenness in their families and among their friends. The world offers no sure solution, only the fleeting joys found with friends on hiking trails and in workout clubs.

In the church, however, we’ve been given the privilege of representing the King of the universe as ambassadors. God makes his appeal of reconciliation through us (2 Cor. 5:20). But it’s hard for us to testify on behalf of the King if we don’t value what he values. Since Christ has given himself for us, let us give ourselves to one another and our neighbors, and in this giving receive joy eternal.

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