If It Makes You Happy

A discernible pattern has emerged in the wake of recent events. A particular tragedy is perpetrated by a person of one community upon people of another community. The life of one who bears the image of God is wantonly snuffed out. One group of people is allegedly violated by an outdated or oppressive system. A protest for justice forms. Commentators and pundits try to explain who is really at fault and what needs to change. The solution is consistently summarized in one word...Love. Profile pics are changed. Statuses are updated. Social media activism is fully engaged. And with great intentions, everyone seems to agree that what we really need is love. Love is love! We might rightly respond to this ambiguous appeal for "love" with the ever relevant words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

"Love" is bandied about as the answer to every societal ill. Every problem is met with the call to love. Racism, sexism, classism, terrorism, or whatever "-ism" that gets thrown out, the answer is love. What makes this solution so attractive and also so dangerous is that there is quite a bit of truth to it. If rightly understood, love is the answer to these problems. But that's the rub, isn't it? It is rare for the idea of love to be rightly understood. Often it is reduced to emotional or sentimental tripes that can be easily shared, retweeted, pinned, or liked.

What is popularly understood as love? The popular notion of "love" seems to be something that more readily resembles "happiness." If something makes me happy then it is good, not just preferentially but also morally and ontologically. And whatever that good is, it must be celebrated and embraced by all people. This is how love and the modern notion of tolerance become so intertwined. Today, the idea of tolerance requires that you never question anyone's pursuit of happiness but must only celebrate it. "Love," (in its late-modern form) therefore, is the unhindered pursuit of happiness, and tolerance is the cheering on of those pursuing happiness. And if we just loved like that, then all our problems would be solved--or so we are constantly hearing. 

The imperative to "be happy," though, comes across as trite and hollow. Perhaps the singer Bobby McFerrin ruined it for us all. Happiness is too subjective and fickle. Rhetorically, "love" packs a much greater punch. There is a weightiness to love. Love is objective and unassailable. Love requires resolution, sacrifice, and commitment. Love requires a standard of faithfulness that is missing in the modern pursuit of happiness. The sexual chaos in our society today thrives off this lack of objectivity. The New York Times recently ran a story about "LGBT -Affirming" psycho-therapy in which a psychotherapist questions the assumption of the benefit of "sexual fidelity in marriage." He states it in the following way:

The whole idea of the crisis of infidelity is based on the expectation that it ought to be otherwise. And that somehow if a relationship changes in its dynamic and somebody has sex with somebody else, that somehow it's ruinous to the intimacy and potential for growth and love. That's an enormous assumption. And it's just another example of a hetero-normative assumption, one that causes enormous suffering.1 

Again, an understanding of love that has commitment and sacrifice at its heart is rejected for the pursuit of personal happiness. Ironically, the conflation of "love" and "be happy" is, in itself, a tacit condemnation on subjective relativism. We use love because we intuitively know that "happy" is too flimsy to carry the weight of the moment. While "love" is used, I believe it would be more accurate if we just admitted as a society that we're trying to say, "Everybody ought to just be happy and then all our problems would be over."

But what is the problem with being happy? Isn't happiness a good thing? Doesn't God want me to be happy? Again, it depends on what we mean by our use of the word "happy." Happiness must be rightly ordered. Our happiness must be subject to our holiness. God does not want you to be happy when it is at odds with you being holy. When these become disordered we fall into the same problem as the nation of Israel at the end of Judges. The result of that tailspin was, "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). Happiness unchecked will always lead to doing what is right in your own eyes. And when we understand that the "heart is deceitful above all things" (Jer. 17:9), we can quickly understand the problem with doing what is right in our own eyes.

Instead, Christians should acknowledge that love is the answer but should labor to define that term as the Bible defines it. Happiness falls far short of love. Happiness is an emotion or state of mind. Love is something so much more. In short, the Bible tells us that "God is love" (1 John 4:8), but that warrants a little bit of unpacking. Wilhelmus à Brakel explained it this way, "Love is an essential attribute of God by which the Lord delights Himself in that which is good, it being well-pleasing to Him, and uniting Himself to it consistent with the nature of the object of His love. The love of God by definition is the loving God Himself."2 That which is most perfect and glorifying and beautiful is to be the very definition of love. That object is God Himself.

The way the world sees love and the way the Bible sees love are incompatible. The apostle John saw these competing definitions of love when he contrasted the love of the world with the love of the Father. The love of the world is concerned with "the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of possessions" (1 John 2:16), i.e. brief feelings of happiness. But the love of the Father is concerned with the will of God. This love of God is exhibited by a conformity to holiness. It too will bring pleasure and happiness, but it is beheld by faith and is not fleeting.

Love requires sacrifice. Happiness delights in whatever causes immediate pleasure. Love requires delighting in that which is greatest, most perfect, and pure. "God shows his love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us" (1 John 3:16). "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:9, 10). God's love is demonstrated in his redemption of his people and the restoration of his creation such that they more clearly demonstrate and reflect that which is most glorious, namely God himself.

Love also requires commitment. It requires a commitment to God and His holiness, as well as a commitment to one another. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11). We must be personally and corporately committed to holiness. This means disciplining ourselves and being willing to submit to the discipline of the Body. Love requires discipline. The author of Hebrews tells us that if we don't discipline our children, we don't love them. In fact, a failure to discipline your children is to treat them like "bastards" (Heb 12:8, KJV). Love requires discipline that conforms us to the pattern of holiness (Prov 3:11, 12). This is, perhaps, the most heartbreaking aspect of the mainline church's drift into apostasy. They earnestly want to love one another. But that love has no meaning beyond the personal happiness of individuals. Thus, when members are in open and unrepentant sin, the most loving thing to do would be to call them to repent. Instead, the boundaries of acceptable behavior are simply moved to continue including them. Happiness is called love and the truth is substituted for a lie. This is happening in the evangelical church as well. A failure to execute discipline, both informal and formal, on the members of Christ's Church will lead to a rejection of Christ.

On one level, there is a great deal of truth to society's answer to the world's problems. Love is the answer. We just have to be clear about what love looks like in action. Matthew Henry said, "When iniquity abounds love waxes cold."3 Love is incompatible with sin. But happiness can thrive momentarily in sin. When love is substituted with happiness, sin reigns and our problems only increase. But when we hold firm to true love, sin is killed, holiness is honored, and true happiness is experienced.

1. Casey Schwartz, "The Couch in Rainbow Colors: 'L.G.B.T.-Affirming' Therapy," The New York Times, July 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/fashion/lgbt-therapy-antioch-universit...

2. Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), I.123. 

3. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1588.