She was twenty-five. Her live-in boyfriend came home from work, said he did not love her anymore, and left. She was devastated. Her mother believed she might be suicidal and asked if I would speak with her. An hour later, we were in her mother’s living room. I asked her to tell me her story—how she got to this place in her life.
She left church and home when her father died. She moved in with the man of her dreams and envisioned marrying, having children, and living happily ever after. Her new life involved drinking and drugs—horse tranquilizers to be precise. Her world came crashing in when the man of her dreams told her that he did not love her anymore. She quit showing up for work and returned to her mother’s home.
When she finished, I asked, “Would you say that everything you have done to this point you did because you thought it would make you happy?” She looked perplexed and wept, but said, “yes.”
How would you define “happiness”? I have asked this question to a number of people. One young lady defined happiness as getting to do what you want. Her definition comes close to expressing what most of us think when happiness comes to mind. This would mean that happiness is dependent upon circumstances. If you want to go shopping or golfing, but it rains that day you might say you are unhappy. This is, perhaps, a more modern take on the subject.
But think for a moment about what the founding fathers of America might have meant when they wrote of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Do you suppose they had in mind doing whatever a person wants to do?
There are two senses in which the word “happiness” is used. We can call one sense psychological, and the other ethical. Getting to do what we want to do is the psychological sense, but the ethical sense of happiness points to “a life well-lived, a whole life that is morally good because it is the product of virtue (or the habit of right desire)” (Adler, 1995, p. 104). Which of these two definitions do you think our founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the opening lines of “The Declaration of Independence”?
The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, believed happiness was the chief end toward which all men live their lives. While it may be true that we all order our lives to that end, I do not think happiness is the chief goal. It is better viewed as a by-product, and not the goal itself.
Man’s Chief End
When we ask the question, “What is the ultimate goal toward which I should order my life” and look for our answer in the Bible, glorifying God seems to be the ultimate goal toward which I should order my life. By “ultimate” I mean to say that glorifying God is a goal that does not function as a means to any other end.
There are several passages that have an “ultimate” ring to them, like Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Here is the end of the matter. All hath been heard: fear God and keep His commandments,” or Matthew 6:33, “But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness.” When Jesus was asked which is the great commandment, He said,
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets (Matt. 22:34-40).
There are others but consider for a moment whether these goals become means to any other end. Is not fearing God and keeping His commandments the means by which we glorify Him? Is not seeking first His kingdom and righteousness the means by which we glorify God? Loving God with our entire being is a means by which God is magnified by our lives. But to what other end does glorifying God lead?
If I am correct, then, glorifying God is the end or goal toward which I should order my life. When I have done so, God blesses me with happiness in the ethical sense. Remember, happiness in this sense is defined as a life well lived. It is well lived because it is rooted in virtue, and virtue is the habit of right desire.
Someone once observed that if we put second things first, we get neither first nor second things. If we put happiness first, we neither get happiness, nor is God glorified. Think back to the young sister I told you about in the opening lines of this article. She forsook a life of virtue determining for herself what would make her happy. Did it lead her to happiness? No, she was ready to take her life.
I cannot tell you how many times I have asked people in their despair if they too ordered their life to be happy. Each one had a puzzled look. It is because they turned a means into an end. The book of Ecclesiastes is a study in turning means into ends. Life ends in vain when we make this mistake, and most of us have made this mistake. This one adjustment on how we view happiness can make a big difference.
A Final Note
What about psychological happiness, or getting what we want when we want it? Imagine wanting only what is good and right. If we discipline ourselves to desire only those things God wants us to desire—which is virtue—we come closer to God granting us only those things that are good and right, and heaven itself looks like the ultimate fulfillment of what we are calling psychological happiness. So, in the end, we get both—psychological and ethical happiness—not by making happiness the goal, but by glorifying God.
If you were asked, “What is man’s chief end?” how you would answer?
Adler, Mortimer J. (1995). Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. New York: Scribner