I’ve learned something over and over this year that Blaise Pascal explains quite succinctly: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception…This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”* We’re all looking for happiness in something. We look for satisfaction. We look for joy. We look for fulfillment.
As I was reading the introduction to John Piper’s Desiring God today (where I found that Pascal quote), I came to this one conclusion: The root of all sin is the misdirection of our pursuit of joy. Let me explain what I mean.
Man seeks to find joy in basically three places: himself, others or things.
When man seeks to find joy in himself, he looks for satisfying happiness in who he is and what he does and how that reflects on who he is. The scholar might say, “Well, look at my grades and my academic prowess, I feel quite happy.” The athlete might say, “Well, look at my trophies and my medals and my stats, I feel quite happy.” The businessman might say, “Look at my office and my salary and my title, I feel quite happy.” The person who seeks for joy in himself will be consumed with himself and his thoughts and feelings and moods.
When man seeks to find joy in others, he look for satisfying happiness in how he relates to others and how others relate to him. The high school sophomore will look at his girlfriend and might say, “She makes me happy because she likes me, I feel quite happy.” The college freshman will look at his friends he goes out with on the weekends and might say, “They make me happy because they make me feel important and liked, I feel quite happy.” The over-worked and under-appreciated wife will look at her girl friends (or maybe even another man) and might say, “They make me happy because they actually care about me, I feel quite happy.”
When man seeks to find joy in things, he looks for satisfying happiness in his possessions or in certain activities. The CrossFit junkie will look at the gym he works out at and the work out he’s just completed and might say, “Man, I just killed that workout without a problem, I feel quite happy.” The shoe-loving college girl will look at her footwear collection and might say, “I love how many shoes I have and that I can wear them, I feel quite happy.” The music lover will scan through his iTunes collection and might say, “I have so much good music that I can listen to at any time, I feel quite happy.”
Because I’m there, I can tell you that the music collection, the girlfriend and the grades DON’T bring full satisfaction. They can bring happiness, but only temporary. How many people that love music are ever fully satisfied with the music they currently have? How many guys are ever fully satisfied with either one girlfriend or where they are with their girlfriend? How many students are fully satisfied with one A?
Before I make my point, I’m going to say one thing: there’s nothing inherently wrong with strong academic performance, strong athletic performance, strong business performance, having a girlfriend, having friends to hang out with, doing CrossFit, buying shoes or listening to/having lots of music.
But when we seek after joy in these things, we’re missing something so much greater. Also quoted in Piper’s Desiring God, C.S. Lewis wrote:
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 make 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.^
And because we are far too easily pleased in the short-term with things that seem so easily obtained, we don’t seek for what will satisfy us long-term.
I’ve been thinking on this a lot this school year because I’ve so often sought after the short-term pleasures of attention, affection or pleasure found in temporary, silly things, and seek after them daily. But alas, I’ve found a better way.
Second part coming soon…
* Blaise Pascal, Pascal’s Pensees, trans. W.F. Trotter (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958), 113, thought #425. Cited in John Piper, Desiring God (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah, 2011), 19.
^ C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965), 1-2. Cited in Piper, Desiring God, 20.