By Michael Wren
Coca Cola launched this advertising campaign several years ago—“Coca Cola Happiness.” Now I like Coke just as much as the next guy. Actually, I probably like Coke more than the next guy. When I was very young, my great aunt would keep 8 oz. Coca Cola bottles in the refrigerator and would let me have one every time I came over. I’ve been a Coca Cola fan ever since, and will confess that drinking one makes me happy. The ad campaign definitely resonates with me. Still, the idea that any experience in this world could equate with happiness raises a larger question. Where do we find satisfaction in life? People’s approach to answering that question has changed many times over the centuries.
Augustine, the great theologian and bishop of the North African city of Hippo in the fifth century said it well: “God is the only source to be found of any good things, but especially of those which make a man good and those which will make him happy.” Because God is good and is the giver of all good things, lasting happiness must be found in Him. And when a person loves God, his love for God satisfies him. As David said, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4). Augustine said it this way, “Whatever he loves will be there, and he will not desire anything that is not there. Everything that is there will be good, and the most high God will be the most high good.” True happiness is found in God because the happiness that He gives is eternal.
But Augustine himself recognized how peculiar this view of happiness is. As he explained, “the philosophers themselves have all constructed their own happy lives as each has thought best,” (The Trinity 13.10). And they are still doing it. During the Enlightenment, philosophers took God out of the equation and measured what is good based on what accomplishes the most good here in this world. Many people who are active in our culture trying to bring change are evaluating happiness by this measure. If we can improve people’s lives here and now, they think, we have produced happiness.
Far more people, though, measure happiness based on an experience—the Coca Cola Happiness idea. Theologian Miroslav Volf of Yale argues that in the late twentieth century people increasingly lost sight of any reference to a higher power in defining what constitutes “the good life,” and they equally ceased to concern themselves with what is good for humanity in general (as had been the case for centuries). In its place was a preoccupation with the experience of happiness. In other words, people around us have changed. In general, people once had some conception that in order to achieve happiness in life one had to have a relationship with the eternal God of the universe. That is, generally, no longer the case. People once thought that in order to achieve happiness in life, one had to seek the well being of others in the community. That, also, is all too often not true anymore. What we have left is a culture that seeks fulfillment through whatever activities are designed to produce it in the short term. This is why every sector of the entertainment industry is booming right now. Entertainment has become our savior.
But Augustine was right all along. Not only was he right, but he was merely echoing the teaching of Jesus. Jesus stated that if a man wanted to gain his life, he must lose it for the sake of the gospel. Happiness is grounded in God, and the good news of Jesus is that it can be ours for eternity if we will lay aside our idols now and follow Him. This is the gospel, and when people come in contact with the church, they need to hear it. My concern is that we as the church are not doing enough to encourage people in our culture to redefine their conception of happiness. In a world in which they want bigger cars, better jobs, and prettier girls, we sometimes draw them into the church by appealing to their desires: “Be a part of our community and you will experience more fulfillment. Our church is bigger, cooler, kinder, and more innovative.” If we appeal to their cravings and their senses, they will join us until something more immediately satisfying comes along. And we have not made a disciple of Christ, because Jesus calls us to take up our cross (not a very satisfying experience in the short term) and follow Him.
What we must do is teach them to hope. Again, hear the great Augustine, “But a man who is happy in hope is not happy yet. He is waiting in patience for the happiness which he does not yet possess.” But that happiness is eternal. Let us remove ourselves out of the trap of trying to appeal to the senses of people whose value system is completely backward. If all they value is a temporary experience of satisfaction, they will not find following Jesus fulfilling. Jesus’ followers were only happy in hope as long as they remained in this world. In fact, all twelve Apostles died a martyr’s death. But they have been in the presence of God ever since. Let us teach people to love God and let happiness come later. As for the Coke, I’m still going to enjoy it, I’m just not going to live for it.