In our relativistic age, happiness is seen as a matter of personal taste. If you come across someone whose happiness aesthetic differs from yours, you are expected to shrug and politely say, “Whatever makes you happy.” This makes sense to those who see human beings as more authentic when they act in accordance with their feelings. On the other hand, those who see all people as sharing the same human nature will conclude that some things are universally conducive, and others universally detrimental, to personal fulfillment. These differing perspectives correspond to two different paths to happiness, only one of which can lead to a happy end.

The Path of Deified Desire

It is widely assumed in our time that happiness consists in having positive feelings (or at least not having negative ones). Closely related to this is the notion that subjective preferences should be the determining factor for how objective reality is ordered. As C.S. Lewis once put it, modern man has rejected the approach to life that focuses on how to conform the soul to the natural moral order, replacing it with an approach that seeks to subdue everything to his desires.[1] This outlook is now in full bloom, and it is being implemented politically on the basis of various supposed “existential threats.” In the words of professor Russell Berman, the formidable “nexus of government, media, major corporations, and the education establishment . . . aspires to a permanent state of emergency to impose a new mode of governance by intimidation, censorship, and unilateral action.”[2] The powerful in our society claim to have the knowledge and expertise needed to fashion a new world that corresponds to their imaginations, all the while ignoring the constraints of the actual world. Psychologist Mattias Desmet explains this rise in coercive control as “the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality.”[3] Theologically, it is a manifestation of what Martin Luther was talking about when he said that “man cannot of his nature desire that God should be God; on the contrary, he desires that he himself might be God and that God might not be God.”[4]

The same dynamic is evident at a personal level in the embrace of expressive individualism, which Carl Trueman defines as “a prioritization of the individual’s inner psychology—we might even say ‘feelings’ or ‘intuitions’—for our sense of who we are and what the purpose of our lives is.”[5] Note how expressive individualism undergirds the response of William “Lia” Thomas (winner of the 500 meter freestyle at the 2022 NCAA Women’s Swimming Championships) when he was asked about his biological advantage when competing against women:

There’s a lot of factors that go into a race and how well you do, and the biggest change for me is that I’m happy, and sophomore year, when I had my best times competing with the men, I was miserable. . . . Trans people don’t transition for athletics. We transition to be happy and authentic and our true selves.[6]

As anyone who followed Thomas’s story knows, the thing that made him happy brought unhappiness to female swimmers who were forced to share a locker room with and compete against a biological male. When one person’s pursuit of happiness gets in the way of someone else’s pursuit of happiness, the conflict has to be adjudicated by something beyond individual feelings. But in a relativistic and therapeutic society that makes feelings ultimate, it simply boils down to which side has more power. This is exactly what happened in Thomas’s case, as the cultural ascendancy of transgender ideology resulted in his teammates and competitors being bullied into silence.

Such things are to be expected when a society unmoors itself from any sense of objective moral order. Trueman shows how the modern West has done this by employing Philip Rieff’s taxonomy of “worlds” to describe the various types of culture that societies embody. In this taxonomy, first worlds are pagan, second worlds are epitomized by the Christian West, and third worlds describe modernity. Trueman explains,

First and second worlds thus have a moral, and therefore cultural, stability because their foundations lie in something beyond themselves. To put it another way, they do not have to justify themselves on the basis of themselves. Third worlds, by way of stark contrast to the first and second worlds, do not root their cultures, their social orders, their moral imperatives in anything sacred. They do have to justify themselves, but they cannot do so on the basis of something sacred or transcendent. Instead, they have to do so on the basis of themselves. The inherent instability of this approach should be obvious. . . . Morality will thus tend toward a matter of simple consequentialist pragmatism, with the notion of what are and are not desirable outcomes being shaped by the distinct cultural pathologies of the day.[7]

Lewis foresaw this when he wrote, “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”[8] And as Desmet notes, this produces a level of destabilization and anxiety that causes people to long “for an authoritarian institution that provides direction to take the burden of freedom and the associated insecurity off their shoulders.”[9] This is why today’s West is simultaneously marked by libertinism and legalism. The rise of authoritarianism (or what Rod Dreher describes as “soft totalitarianism”)[10] is yet another manifestation of how fallen man slavishly looks to law for his deliverance. This is what the apostle Paul is talking about in Galatians 4 when he speaks of being enslaved to the “elementary principles of the world,” a phrase that describes the legalistic religious principle that was active for Jews under the law of Moses and for Gentiles under the law of nature. In the words of John Fesko, the phrase “elementary principles of the world” in Galatians 4 refers to “the creation law that appears in both the Adamic and Mosaic covenants.”[11] Because of fallen man’s enslavement under the law, when a society makes feelings and desires preeminent, the inevitable result is not happiness, but tyranny. This further demonstrates that the good order for which human nature was designed cannot be restored by human effort but only by receiving salvation as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ, in whom we are accepted as righteous in God’s sight and renewed in the whole man after the image of God.[12]

The Path of Rightly Ordered Desire

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) expounds on the other path to happiness in his dialogue On the Happy Life, written soon after his conversion to Christianity.[13] In this dialogue, Augustine discusses the connection between desire and happiness by saying, “If [a man] wants good things and has them, he is happy; but if he wants bad things, he is unhappy, even if he has them.”[14] In other words, happiness cannot be separated from goodness, which is defined not by individual desires but by the objective moral order that God has inscribed in his world. What matters is not desire itself, but whether what we desire is good or bad. A similar point is made in one of Plato’s dialogues when an interlocutor contends that happiness consists in having the strongest possible appetites and being able to satisfy them. Socrates exposes the silliness of this notion by asking its proponent if it would be good to have a desire to itch as much as possible and to be able to follow through on that desire.[15] A contemporary postliberal feminist makes the same point, saying,

Liberal ideology flatters us by telling us that our desires are good and that we can find meaning in satisfying them, whatever the cost. But the lie of this flattery should be obvious to anyone who has ever realized after the fact that they were wrong to desire something, and hurt themselves, or hurt other people, in pursuing it.[16]

For the above writers, desire itself cannot be the measure of happiness, because some desires are good, and some are bad. If we want to find true happiness, we need to cultivate good desires and suppress bad ones. True happiness, like true freedom, must be ordered towards the good.

Augustine also points out that approaches to happiness that are focused only on the things of this life will inevitably fail, because they are based upon that which is ephemeral and thus bound to disappoint us. As Michael Foley summarizes in his commentary on Augustine’s dialogue,

Wealth, bodily health, honor, or success, the affairs of the heart—all these are to some extent products of good fortune and therefore vulnerable to misfortune. Therefore, building one’s happiness on these vulnerable goods is building one’s house on sand.[17]

When Augustine speaks of “fortune” and “misfortune,” he means that, try as we might, there are always going to be things in this life that are beyond our control. No matter how carefully we try to promote and protect our interests, we will not always succeed. Even when misfortune does not befall us, its possibility makes us anxious, and this keeps us from being perfectly happy. This is why the Scriptures tell us that it is only when our hearts are fixed upon that which cannot be shaken that we can face the prospect of bad news without fear (cf. Ps. 112:7; Heb. 12:26–29). In short, the transitory nature of this life makes it incapable of fulfilling our longing for happiness.

In his dialogue, Augustine’s concern is with supreme happiness, which does not exist on a spectrum but is something we either possess or do not possess, like life itself.[18] Foley explains,

Augustine is not interested in lessening the pain and despair of our frail and mortal existence. . . . Augustine wants to identify and reach supreme happiness and bliss, and as such he is seeking the source of total human fulfillment. The value in Augustine’s approach. . . . is that in forcing us to consider what ultimate happiness would consist of, it forces us to discover our human nature—that which is to be perfected.[19]

Of course, the suggestion that there is such a thing as a human nature that exists outside the individual will is abhorrent to those who are intent on bringing reality into alignment with their desires. This is tragic, but understandable. As professor Joshua Mitchell notes, “A lost civilization, like a lost soul, is seldom drawn to what will heal it; it is repulsed by the medicine it most needs.”[20] While there is significant enthusiasm these days about technologies that promise humans greater control over the world, the counterfeit realities produced by such things will never be able to bring real happiness.[21] In Mitchell’s words, “Our Tech Wizards seek now to give us the ultimate drug to lift us from the stupor of loneliness that they themselves have manufactured: the metaverse, the high that never crashes. This will not end well.”[22]

When people see happiness only as a matter of feeling good, they are actually conceiving of themselves as the highest good. The reason why this does not work is because happiness is the result of the satisfaction of longing, which is by nature directed toward something outside ourselves. Happiness is a by-product, not an end in itself. None of the things of this world can fully satisfy man’s deepest longing, because they all stubbornly point beyond themselves to something greater.[23] Consider philosopher J. Budiziszewski’s thoughts on earthly beauty:

I can spend all day looking at the beautiful earth and sea, until I no longer want to. I can tire myself out feeling the breath of the beautiful air, diffused and spread abroad. I can take in so much of the arrangement of the constellations that I need to go indoors and catch my breath. Yet the longing for that something more will follow me inside.[24]

The only way we can find supreme happiness is by obtaining that which is perfectly good and endures forever. This is why knowing the living and true God is the only thing that can truly satisfy us. As Augustine prays in his Confessions, “The happy life, in fact, is joy in truth: and that means joy in you, who are Truth, O God my light, the health of my countenance, my God.”[25] This leads Budiziszewski to say that

not yet being fulfilled is a sign not of something wrong but of accurate perception, for we are not fulfilled here. . . . St. Paul spoke searchingly of how we “groan” in the longing that what is mortal in us may be “swallowed up by life.” These very tears and groanings are promissory notes of joy, for if we were perfectly adapted to the way of the world, we would not have such tears and groanings; the ordinary satisfactions would satisfy us. . . . Blessed are those who refuse to drug their discontent with futile satisfactions.[26]

Dissatisfaction and sadness are to be expected in this world. Attempts to find fulfillment here will always end in frustration. In the words of Bosnian war survivor Emina Melonic, “Western society demands to free itself from pain but such freedom is always just an illusion. Our lives demand attention, and sometimes painful reflection. This is something no pill or an app can provide.”[27]

Of course, Christians should not be gloomy and see this life merely as something to endure until we can enter into the permanent joys of heaven. Even though supreme happiness cannot be found in any of the things of this world, those of us who have been reconciled to God through faith in Christ already participate in his victory over this sin-cursed world (cf. Jn. 16:33). This is why the Latin term Augustine used for “happy” in On the Happy Life was not felix, which was associated with good fortune, but beatus, which can also be translated as “blessed.” Consider this definition of “blessedness” by Old Testament scholar Willem VanGemeren: “Even when the righteous do not feel happy, they are still considered ‘blessed’ from God’s perspective. He bestows this gift on them. Neither negative feelings nor adverse conditions can take away this blessing.”[28] As recipients of God’s redemptive blessing in Christ, Christians can receive the good things of this life as foretastes of the eternal bliss that lies in store for us in the life to come. We can even maintain a hopeful and positive attitude in the face of the evils, frustrations, uncertainties, and sorrows of this life. This does not mean being a Pollyanna, but cultivating what Melonic describes as “Slavic joy,” or honest optimism.[29] We do this by always keeping in mind the big picture set forth in Scripture, which assures us that the Lord is superintending over all things in order to establish an eternal kingdom in which evil and sorrow will be fully and finally vanquished.

This is not to be confused with being optimistic about the prospects of a particular society. After all, while we are called to seek the well-being of the earthly cities in which we sojourn (see Jer. 29:7), the fate of nations and civilizations ultimately lies in the hands of the Lord. Furthermore, honest optimism does not require that we embrace the postmillennial notion that history will culminate in a golden age in which Christ will rule over the world through his church prior to his return.[30] Christian hope transcends this present age, regardless of one’s eschatology. This is why believers can laugh at the inevitable manifestations of corruption, absurdity, and futility in our fallen world without falling into cynicism or despair.[31] The evils of this world throw the glories of the gospel into sharp relief.

One of the most important ways we can cultivate honest optimism is by paying careful attention to our thought patterns, so that our feelings are kept in their proper place. As pastor David Murray points out, “Feelings have big muscles. They are often the most powerful force in our lives. They can bully our minds, our consciences, and our wills. They can even knock out the facts and bring the truth to its knees.”[32] Instead of letting our feelings dominate our thoughts and color the way we view reality, we should train them under the yoke of truth, remembering that “he that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls” (Prov. 25:28 KJV). It is no surprise that the apostle Paul, while writing from prison, accompanied his famous imperative “Rejoice in the Lord always” with this charge: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:4, 8). This is not a habit that comes naturally to many of us, especially not in our present cultural context. But it can be cultivated through the use of readily available practices and resources, most notably memorizing and meditating on Scripture and reflecting upon great hymnody and poetry.[33] Professor Leland Ryken promotes this function of poetry in the introduction to his recent anthology of devotional poems, contending that such poems can be read as “setting our thoughts and feelings in right tune, and also some of the time correcting them,” adding that “the same is true when we read the Psalms.”[34] Let us endeavor to turn our focus away from our feelings and circumstances and toward the Lord, remembering that his praise is both pleasant to us and fitting for us (cf. Ps. 147:1).

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Ps. 34:8)


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 83.

[2] Russell A. Berman, “State of Emergency,” First Things (June 2022), https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/06/state-of-emergency.

[3] Mattias Desmet, The Psychology of Totalitarianism (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2022), 7.

[4] Cited in Gene E. Veith, Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013), 44.

[5] Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 23.

[6] “Swimmer Lia Thomas Breaks Silence about Backlash, Future Plans,” Good Morning America, May 31, 2022, https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/news/video/swimmer-lia-thomas-breaks-silence-backlash-future-plans-85081325.

[7] Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 76–77.

[8] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 74.

[9] Desmet, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, 84.

[10] Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York: Sentinel, 2020).

[11] J. V. Fesko, Adam and the Covenant of Works (Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2021), 271.

[12] See Westminster Shorter Catechism Question #33.

[13] Augustine, On the Happy Life: St. Augustine's Cassiciacum Dialogues, vol. 2, trans. Michael P. Foley (New Haven: Yale, 2019).

[14] Augustine, On the Happy Life, 27.

[15] Cited in J. Budziszewski, How and How Not to Be Happy (Washington D.C: Regnery, 2022), 17.

[16] Louise Perry, The Case against the Sexual Revolution (Cambridge: Polity, 2022), 20.

[17] Augustine, On the Happy Life, 53.

[18] Augustine, On the Happy Life, 40.

[19] Augustine, On the Happy Life, 77.

[20] Joshua Mitchell, “By the Sweat of Our Brow,” First Things (August/September 2022), https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/08/by-the-sweat-of-our-brow.

[21] See Ronald W. Dworkin, “The Politics of Unhappiness,” First Things (May 2022), https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/05/the-politics-of-unhappiness, and Mary Harrington, “‘Love Drugs’ Are More Dangerous than You Think,” UnHerd (June 10, 2022), https://unherd.com/thepost/love-drugs-are-more-dangerous-than-you-think/.

[22] Mitchell, “By the Sweat of Our Brow.”

[23] This point is beautifully described in George Herbert’s poem “The Pulley.” See Gregory E. Reynolds, “The Pulley: A Theological Reflection,” Ordained Servant 26 (2017): 16–18, Ordained Servant Online, https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=653.

[24] Budiziszewski, How and How Not to Be Happy, 133.

[25] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2019), 10.23.22.

[26] Budiziszewski, How and How Not to Be Happy, 205.

[27] Emina Melonic, “There’s a Pill for That,” American Greatness (July 26, 2022), https://amgreatness.com/2022/07/26/theres-a-pill-for-that/.

[28] Willem A. VanGemeren, Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 5: Psalms, eds., Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 78.

[29] Emina Melonic, “Why America Needs Slavic Joy, or How to Be an Honest Optimist,” American Greatness (September 28, 2021), https://amgreatness.com/2021/09/28/why-america-needs-slavic-joy-or-how-to-be-an-honest-optimist/.

[30] See R. Scott Clark, “Stop Saying that Amillennialism Is ‘Pessimistic’ but Postmillennialism Is ‘Optimistic’,” The Heidelblog (September 5, 2022), https://heidelblog.net/2022/09/stop-saying-that-amillennialism-is-pessimistic-but-postmillennialism-is-optimistic/.

[31] See Carl Trueman’s reflections on Martin Luther’s sense of humor in Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 198–200.

[32] David Murray, The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to Be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World (Nashville: Nelson, 2015), 1.

[33] Two excellent, accessible books on Christian poetry are Jim Scott Orrick, A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Leland Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).

[34] Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase, 15.

Andy Wilson is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Laconia, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, June/July, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2023


Also in this issue

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: God’s Medium: Tongues of Fire, Chapter 5 [1]

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 5

Getting to Know Your Pastor: Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 6

Secular Insight on Happiness: A Review Article

Muddying the Baptismal Waters? A Review Article

The Holy Spirit by Robert Letham


Sonnet LXXII

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