Life is short and I’m not fully sure people, at least in the West (if I may generalize), ever stop to think about this. Maybe I’m wrong. On one hand, the news is so saturated with the realities of war and poverty worldwide that we really haven’t an excuse for ignorance with regards to life’s fragility. On the other hand, our modernized world is equally flooded with distractions and mental hindrances. Technology seems to have lulled us into hallucinations of immunity, constant fun, and convenience, to the point where we’re too busy, or hazed, to think about death.
But when we think of death, as we should do often, we are urged to think bigger. Think broader. Contemplate the significance of our lives. Of our actions. Men and women–thinkers, creators, workers, leaders–in history past have much insight to give on this issue. Many have examined life, in its brevity, and posed the question: How ought I live? Stated in more familiar terms: What is the good life? Not just, what is the happy way to live, but what is the right way to live? On this, I present four people–four views–who each provide different answers and I would like to very briefly engage with their thoughts and ideas (admittedly simplified) from a personal, Christian perspective.
It is well known that much of western thought, and western Christian theology for that matter, has deep roots in ancient Greek philosophy, namely Plato and Aristotle. The last, Aristotle, is well known, among other things, for his Nicomachean Ethics, in which he earnestly attempts to answer the very question I presented in opening: What is the good life? How does one live well?
In this work, he seemingly creates what I think is a reasonable distinction, between ‘being well’ and ‘doing well’. Both are necessary to live the good, virtuous life, in his mind. Being well without doing well is sort of useless. But to do well, one has to be well. And being well happens to be the key to attaining the truest, highest happiness, in Aristotle’s mind. It is contemplation, the acquisition of knowledge, the development of the intellect.
Dwelling on this, sprung by that crucial question, he fleshes out virtue ethics as a theory of how we can lead good lives. It begins with an understanding of ends as the object of pursuit and means as the method of acquiring that object.
Aristotle, hence, concludes that the chief end of man’s pursuit is happiness, and this pursuit towards collective improvement and virtuosity is what makes one’s life well lived.
Consider the following quotes from Nicomachean Ethics:
The simply complete thing, then, is that which is always chosen for itself and never on account of something else. Happiness above all seems to be of this character, for we always choose it on account of itself and never on account of something else. Yet honor, pleasure, intellect, and every virtue we choose on their own account…but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, because we suppose that, through them, we will be happy. (Book I, Chapter vii)
If happiness is an activity in accord with virtue, it is reasonable that it would accord with the most excellent virtue, and this would be the virtue belonging to what is best. So whether this is the intellect or something else that naturally seems to rule, to command, and to possess intelligence concerning what is noble and divine, whether it itself is in fact divine or the most divine of the things in us—the activity of this, in accord with the virtue proper to it, would be complete happiness. (Book X, Chapter vii)
Virtue too is defined in accord with this distinction, for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual, others moral: wisdom, comprehension, and prudence being intellectual, liberality and moderation being moral. For in speaking about someone’s character, we do not say that he is wise or comprehending but that he is gentle or moderate. (Book I, Chapter xiii)
Of course, these are narrow windows into Aristotle’s thought, but, these quotations give us a proper idea, at least a hint, of how he thought about the issue of goodness. He obviously highly esteemed the intellect and reason which, in his view, ultimately served to guide the passions and appetitive desires of the heart. Reason, nourished by habit, is the fertile soil from which good decisions spring. And good, moderate decisions aim at happiness, individually and collectively.
This being-doing differentiation reminds me, in a way, of Christ’s words in Matthew 7. Jesus obviously taught something more interested with the eternal reality, the eternal consequence of our actions, rather than a merely earthly, temporal perspective. Consider his words in verses 16 through 20,
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:16-20 ESV)
But, note also a separate passage where Jesus elaborates on this idea of “bearing good fruit”, in the Gospel of John,
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11 ESV)
There’s plenty to be unpacked in these rich verses. The main point that is being conveyed, though, is that those with a solid foundation–being rooted entirely in Christ and his words–will yield good fruit, good actions. So, while Aristotle saw reason and intellectual virtue as foundational for wise, moral actions, which it is in some sense, Christ goes further by saying that “as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me… for apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:4-5). And while Aristotle saw the aim of morally good actions as happiness, for one and for all, Jesus seems to describe moral actions and duties as an ultimate effect of, and ultimately purposed towards, greater intimacy with God himself. “Abide in my love.” (v.9).
There is, moreover, a beautiful, threading logic that carries the reader from the premise “I am the true vine” to the conclusion “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Jesus basically reasons that your primary concern/goal is to “abide in my love”, and by obeying my commands and statutes you are naturally lead to that end. Almost as if he knows something we don’t, Jesus says that fulfilling this instruction is essentially the key to attaining true joy. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be found in you.” (v.11). Living well leads to joy which God wants to share with us.
2. Joel Osteen
Joel Osteen shares a perspective that is fundamentally hedonistic and happens to lead the biggest (so-called) Christian church congregation in the US. He touts a message that is oriented towards self-empowerment, success, and the realization of personal desire, however superficial.
His active Twitter feed gives a fairly accurate sampling of the substance and flavor of his preaching:
Now, to be clear, his preaching is entirely of this nature and variety. Every argument, every applause-generating string of statements, every sermon presupposes and is anchored in the centrality of personal, individual accomplishment, and not the finished, sufficient work of Christ on Calvary’s cross to redeem sinners.
Osteen’s version of the good life is essentially to pursue your dreams and to recruit God’s help along the way. Because you know, and God knows, that we can’t accomplish anything on our own. So, the whole of God’s sovereign plan is directly pointed towards your ultimate dream-realization.
Osteen undeniably has a following. And he is certainly not alone in preaching his message, labeled appropriately as the Prosperity Gospel. Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, and Joyce Meyer may also be found in this incredibly far-reaching, vast territory.
Is this sort of teaching biblical? No. You don’t have to look very far in scripture to find out that (a) God does permit suffering and has destined us, Christians, for earthly suffering, (Isaiah 45:7, Luke 14:27-33) (b) God’s will is that we glorify him, first, and find deepest pleasure in knowing him, (John 15:1-11) (c) we are primarily sinners in need of saving, (Luke 5:27-32, Romans 5:8) and (d) the ultimate reward of enduring suffering is communion with God (now and eternally), not the realization of our earthly dreams and ambitions (Matthew 5:2-11, Romans 5:1-6, Hebrews 10:32-39, Philippians 1:21, 3:8-11, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
3. John Piper
John Piper is an interesting one. A very well-known evangelical pastor and descendent of the Reformation tradition, he has concieved of a way of properly and most satisfactorily living the Christian life called “Christian Hedonism”. It’s a reformulation of secular hedonism, assuming God’s pleasure and glorification as the chief end of Man, and rewriting it as finding joy not in physical things but in God himself, not in our desires but in God’s desires. This sort of view seems to have gained some popularity within modern reformed circles. Consider, for example, the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which both state that “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”
Aristotle viewed man’s chief end as happiness; Osteen interprets our purpose as success; Piper sees our ultimate end as God’s glorification, and so God, himself, becomes our joy. “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” (Piper, Desiring God). And, so this view dramatically changes the angle of our approach to the “good life” question.
Some have criticized this view as being too self-centred, too man-centred. However, I think this is a misinterpretation of Piper’s view. Firstly, Christian Hedonism is concerned with where the truest, most fulfilling joy is to be found. Secular hedonism searches for individual happiness, first and foremost, and that’s it. That’s all there is. Osteen’s approach to good living uses God’s favor and providence as ultimately a means to our own happiness, which is the ultimate goal. But neither of these perspectives accurately describes the Christian Hedonism view as the ultimate end of it is not ourselves or our happiness. We desire God, God being our chief end, the object of desire, and joy naturally follows.
Note especially that joy is different from happiness, and Piper is, again, concerned with joy, not happiness. The difference is that while happiness is produced by subjective experiences, joy comes from fulfilling our purpose. It’s the knowledge, or the kind of emotion you get from the knowledge, that we are living as we were designed to live. Happiness depends entirely on circumstance. Joy depends on purpose, and hope I think. Living a good life, then, ultimately is marked by joy. If living well, according to Piper, means living to fulfill our divinely appointed purpose, to please and glorify God, then this will automatically produce joy, regardless of our circumstances.
And I think that while this may construed as sort of “missing the point”, I think it’s at least an interesting way to summarize some of Paul’s teachings, or some of even Christ’s words found in places like John 6 or John 15 (already discussed in the Aristotle section). The point is, in life, want and strive after that thing which fills us most, that thing that’s good in itself, that thing that’s better than all other things.
Now, the authoritative source for Christian doctrine is and must be sola scriptura, scripture alone, and not Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle), Your Best Life Now (Osteen), or Desiring God (Piper). One of the Bible’s authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the apostle Paul, who had much to say about living well in the light of Christ’s accomplishment and revelation.
Firstly, he indicates to us that life is never rid of suffering and so we are called to live joyfully, obediently, submissively, trustingly and hopefully even in the midst of painful circumstances. Consider, for example, where Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthian church,
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:6-10 ESV)
Paul encourages the congregation to faithfully live out the divinely appointed calling to spread the word of the gospel to all nations and all people. He is honest about the fact that life absolutely sucks. Recall, in the previous chapter, in the context of doing the hard task of missional work, Paul writes,
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you… So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:5-12, 16-18 ESV)
So, essentially, part of how Paul expects Christians to endure suffering in life, is not to sort of just throw up one’s hands and accept it, but rather to suffer in anticipation that God will gather his elect, that God will gather more saints to Himself, that the kingdom will be expected. In other words, we can have joy and courage in suffering because of the great hope we have in Christ Jesus who has purchased our salvation and is continuing work in this world.
Secondly, Paul presses his readers to live compassionately and in brotherly love. As an example,
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. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15 ESV)
Much of Paul’s polemic writing deals with the central doctrine of justification, and he goes to great lengths to explain it in his letters to the Galatians, the Romans, and elsewhere. Of course, one of the concerns people have had with Paul’s theology, especially in his day, is that it seemed to allow for antinomianism within the Church–lawlessness. Paul, in Galatians 5, anticipating this response, asserts that while we are justified by the propitiatory work of Jesus on the cross, this freedom must lead us to live as Christ commands us to, in love, in generosity and in humility.
1. Jesus is the better Aristotle.
I remember sitting in my introductory ethics class in university thinking through the Virtue Ethics theory of Aristotle, how much it was a fractured, incomplete version of what Jesus taught. He had thought through the whole foundation versus application of works, the necessity of habit, how to reorient one’s mind, but because he lived in a pagan, greco-roman world, his theory necessarily takes into account faulty assumptions about reality.
2. Hedonism, materialism, and self-oriented dream-chasing has no place within the Church.
It’s an embarrassment that churches have bought into word of faith, miracle lifestyle, prosperity teachings that distract from the one true gospel.
Stay diligent. Be discerning. Search your heart and search the scriptures.
3. Even the teachers we look up to are imperfect.
Here I’m making reference to John Piper, but this really applies to all teachers. Whether you look up to Pope Francis, Al Mohler, Mother Teresa or John Piper, you always have to think critically through what they’re saying and not take there words necessarily for truth. And if one has a foundation in Christ, we must weigh their teachings against scripture. This guards against bias, against elevating tradition over scripture, and that we’re maintaining right focus.
(I actually happen to like the idea of Christian Hedonism, but I think for many, the issue is making pleasure and end in itself, and I can sympathize with that complaint.)
4. The Gospel is life.
You do not have life if you do not have the gospel. If you haven’t the gospel, you do not have purpose, hope or peace. And you cannot possibly have joy in that circumstance, at least, not the kind of joy that God offers.
Preaching the gospel is the reason we Christians are here. It is our mission. It is our path to true joy, deep fulfillment, and long-lasting peace.
- Aristotle. The Nicomachean ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross, retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html.
- Piper, John. Desiring God: meditations of a Christian hedonist. Multnomah Books, 1986.
Aristotle quotes retrieved from https://www.shmoop.com/nicomachean-ethics/quotes.html