Two Roads to Happiness—One Broad, the Other Narrow

It may seem that I have strayed from my theme for this year, which is “love not the world” (1 John 2:15-17). So it may appear, but it’s never been far from my mind. Living a Christian life can be summed up as loving God in every word, thought, and deed and refusing to love the world. You cannot live the Christian life unless you keep ever before you the difference between these two loves. This task is not easy, because “the world” is the dominant way human beings order their lives. That’s why it’s called “the world.” It’s the majority, which enters the “wide gate” and travels the “broad road” (Matthew 7:13). It’s the way of the rulers and powers of this world (Ephesians 2:1-3). It’s the easy way, the downhill road.  You just follow your lusts, do what everyone else does, approve of what they approve, dislike what they dislike, and love what they love. But to be a Christian, to love the Father, you must break loose from the world and squeeze through the “small gate” and travel with Jesus and the “few” on the “narrow road” (Matthew 7:14).

We deceive ourselves if we think that Jesus’ warning about the “broad road” and John’s assessment of his society and culture do not apply to our age. To the contrary, we live in “the world,” and despite superficial differences, our society follows the ways of the world just as thoroughly as first-century society did. And we are just as tempted to love the world as our first-century brothers and sisters were.

Perhaps the most deceptive value that orders society today is freedom. Even cries for justice and equality can be reduced to demands for freedom. Equality largely means “equal freedom,” and justice means primarily equality, which again means equal freedom. But freedom itself remains largely undefined, because everyone thinks they know what it means. They assume without thinking that freedom means the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness understood as a subjective feeling. Hidden in this definition is the idea that happiness can never be achieved as long as one endures any condition that is not desired. The worst thing you can do to anyone is deprive them of their freedom, which is the same as making them unhappy. And to make someone unhappy is to deprive them of their reason for living, which is psychological murder.

Why is this understanding of freedom a problem? What makes it worldly? And what makes it deceptive? If we defined freedom simply as “the absence of any power or condition that inhibits an individual’s achievement of happiness,” we could fit the Christian understanding of freedom within it. For the Christian faith, there are powers and conditions that block our way to ultimate happiness, and God is the only power that can free us from those hindrances. And possessing and being possessed by God is the only condition under which human beings can find true joy. But modern society’s view of happiness and how it must be achieved differs dramatically from the Christian understanding. As I pointed out above, contemporary culture thinks happiness can be attained by breaking free from every limit that prevents us from following our desires. Both freedom and happiness are achieved by our own power, freedom by self-assertion and happiness by self-indulgence. As you can see clearly, modern worldly people put the human self in God’s place. In the Christian view, God is the basis of both freedom and happiness. But the way of the world seeks freedom and happiness through its own power. Hence the contemporary world, just like the first-century world, finds its power for freedom and its way to happiness in “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Nothing has changed.

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2 thoughts on “Two Roads to Happiness—One Broad, the Other Narrow

  1. nokareon

    You sketch the underlying roots of the so-called “culture wars” well. But what does it mean to take the narrow path as a Christian in a country in which the majority are reporting Christians?Answer: realizing that the term “the world” applies just as well *within* a reporting Christian demographic as it does in a wider context. Not all those reporting Christian are truly so—within the demographic of reporting Christians, there too is a “wide path” majority and a “narrow path” minority.

    Within wide-path Christianity, there are of course those who do not wish to give God any sovereignty in their life, endorsing instead a feel-good gospel that results in the same hedonism you described above regarding secular culture. However, there is also another, perhaps more insidious style of wide-path Christianity. This approach still elevates autonomy over God’s sovereignty, but through the path of shame rather than self-indulgence. Life becomes all about *my* sins and *my* eternal destiny, whether *I* am “saved” and whether *I* am managing my sin well enough to be a Christian. It is still a lens focused on the self and one’s own desires, albeit shaming both rather than glorifying them as the secular world does. The former style denies that they are new creations in Christ due to loving the old self; the latter does the same by tenaciously *hating* the old self.

    Narrow-path Christianity walks the delicate balance of the Golden Mean, as wise men since Aristotle have done. Though a thousand fall on my left hand and ten thousand on my right, still He will sustain me.

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