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Holy and Happy?

Bruce Hindmarsh

Positive Psychology, Happiness, and the Christian life

James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College
March 9, 2014

Happiness is that thing which all desire for its own sake and not for the sake of something else. Everyone wants to be happy. In recent years positive psychology has directed our attention away from a preoccupation with the pathologies of the human mind—all that which plagues us—to the empirical understanding of human flourishing. This is to join a long conversation of philosophers and theologians. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle closely identified the purpose of all human striving with happiness. This is the end toward which all human action is finally directed. However, for all the vagaries of circumstance, the main determinant of our happiness still lay, for Aristotle, in one’s own nature, and he therefore described the sort of virtuous character that would be most likely to lead to happiness.

This link between goodness and happiness, ethics and human flourishing, is something that has also been of great concern to Christian theologians. When Augustine considered what it meant to teach the Christian faith, he argued that learning doctrine had to do with so much more than receiving the intellectual content of the faith. It had to do above all with our desires being rightly directed toward their proper ends. If we rest content in what is unworthy of our ultimate desires, we remain unhappy in a kind of exile from our true homeland. The Christian faith teaches us a different way, reorienting our loves toward the true source of happiness. The story of Augustine’s introspective autobiography was of his own journey from this restlessness to rest. Human flourishing had to do with the just ordering of our loves by God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

For Augustine, a deep moral transformation by grace was the path to true happiness. This understanding was reflected also in the liturgical tradition of the Western church. Take, for example, the very Augustinian collect still prayed today on the fourth Sunday after Easter in many churches:

“O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This whole prayer aims at happiness (“true joys”) and it is full of human longing, but it recognizes profoundly the need for a deep interior transformation by grace. That is why it prays, “Grant unto thy people . . .” Transformation only comes of God’s grace. The transformation required is serious, though, and it is both moral and psychological, addressing “the unruly wills and affections.”


The chief difference between ancient and modern discussions of happiness, however, is that the ancients recognized the need for a perspective that encompassed the whole of life, and for Christians, life beyond the grave. Even Aristotle recognized that one could not become happy in a day and made clear that his discussion of happiness had to do with an entire, complete life. For Augustine this of course meant a complete human life which began in the mysterious depths of divine love and whose end was the eternal enjoyment of God forever.

In the pre-modern world where life was so precarious, one was disposed to think of happiness in more than this-worldly terms. When Augustine was writing, life expectancy was less than twenty-five years. How different today. Charles Taylor has reminded us of how, as modern people, we tend to view immanent, this-worldly goods as self evident, especially what he calls the goods of “production and reproduction”: we seek to realize our own happiness through material prosperity and achieving intimacy. For Augustine, these goods could only be good when subordinated to the transcendental good of loving God above all else. When we seek our happiness in these lesser goods, they become idols, and idols always enslave and lead to the addictive, disordering of our loves. We are left restless.

On the cusp of the modern period, John Wesley again linked moral goodness and human flourishing, believing that holiness and happiness were two sides of the same coin. Of the original state of the human person in paradise, he wrote, “By the free, unmerited love of God, he was holy and happy: He knew, loved, enjoyed God, which is, in substance, life everlasting.” This was likewise to be the condition of redeemed women and men in the new creation: “an unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in Paradise.” When Wesley was sixty-eight years of age, he preached a sermon in Dublin in which he instructed parents that they should remind their children several times a day, “He made you, and he made you to be happy in him, and nothing else can make you happy.”

And Wesley described the whole process of present salvation in terms of the recovery of this undivided happiness and holiness. As soon as the Holy Spirit reveals God’s Son in the heart, and the Son reveals the Father, “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts; then, and not till then, we are happy.” We are happy in the consciousness of being loved by God, in our constant communion with God, in the new virtues the Spirit works in us, and in the witness of the Spirit that our actions please God. Our happiness increases, says Wesley, quoting the apostle Paul, as we “grow up into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

Notice that for Wesley happiness is the original and final state of human being and, marvelously, it is something we experience even now by the grace of being united to Christ. As 1 Peter says, “Even now you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls,” and for this reason the believer is happy, filled with “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” Perhaps the greatest challenge of a truly Christian psychology today is to recover and sustain this transcendent framework, and with it, a deep sense for the porous human psyche being fundamentally capax Dei—capable of God, made for a divine end, happy finally and only by sharing in God’s holiness. Holiness is happiness. What God has joined together let no man put asunder.