We don’t know how to be happy

Last week I posted a quote from C.S. Lewis about not looking to Christianity to make us happy; that, Lewis argued, was the wrong reason for becoming a Christian.

However, it has since occurred to me that there is a sense in which it may be exactly the right reason.

Goodness, or holiness, or virtue, is often misunderstood. When Lent rolls around each year, Christians take on little disciplines of self-denial – giving up coffee, or chocolate, or Facebook, or things like that. But we’re often a little confused as to why we’re doing it, other than ‘well, that’s what we do during Lent – it’s part of our tradition’.

Christian moral theology, it seems to me, starts with the assumption that we need to be instructed in the art of happiness. We don’t start off knowing how; we have to learn.

A child might think, for instance, that being allowed to eat only ice cream at meals, three times a day, would make her very happy, but eventually she will discover, by painful experience, that this is not the case. Likewise, most adults enjoy alcoholic beverages from time to time, but the entirely logical conclusion that if two or three drinks a week makes us happy, two or three drinks an hour will make us even happier, turns out to be problematic, to say the least.

We all seem to have inside us a spoiled, self-indulgent child who persists in thinking that selfish pleasure is the infallible key to happiness. Taking whatever we want, doing whatever we can get away with, having sex with whoever we want whenever we like, doing business to get as much wealth for ourselves as we can without thought for others – these all seem like splendid ideas to this inner child. And he isn’t very good at listening to reason, or he would have abandoned this idea a long time ago, on account of its failure to produce the happiness it promises..

Training in virtue consists in learning what it is that makes human beings happy in the ultimate, most lasting sense, and then training ourselves to do it. And this isn’t just about ‘me, me, me’; this is one of the things we need to unlearn. It involves learning what makes everyone happy, and then doing our part to bring that about. This is why true holiness involves questions of justice, compassion for others, caring for the poor, learning to deal with conflict and work for reconciliation and so on.

It is to be expected that this training will not be easy. The older we get, the deeper the behavioural ruts we have worn for ourselves. We have made a habit of selfishness, and habits are notoriously difficult to break. Added to this, the Christian doctrine of original sin teaches us that the nature we were born with was not human nature as God originally designed it, either; it has been infected by evil, so that our desires are not always an accurate reflection of God’s good will for us.

Which means that ultimate happiness will sometimes, perhaps even often, involve accepting a certain short-term unhappiness while we learn a new and better way to be happy.

Well, fair enough, but let’s not make that unhappiness an end in itself. Let’s remember that it’s only a means to the ultimate end, that of enjoying the happiness that God designed us for.

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore’ (Psalm 16:11, NRSV).

Pleasures for ever more. Do we believe that?

Actually, C.S. Lewis would have agreed. Here’s a famous quote from his sermon The Weight of Glory:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Mud pies in a slum. A holiday by the sea. Which is better? The answer seems obvious when you put it that way, but it would seem that when it comes to our own happiness we don’t always find it obvious. We have to be trained. And, because God loves us so much that he wants us to be happy, he is willing and ready to train us, if we will trust him enough to let him do it.

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