>I know that I may be subjecting myself to ridicule (or worse) by applauding the words of the pope on a Reformed website, but when a man’s got a point, a man’s got a point. During an address at St. Peter’s square this past Sunday, Benedict XVI articulated something that has been gnawing at me for a while now. The pope “said real happiness cannot be found in cultures ‘that put individual happiness in the place of God, a mentality that has its emblematic effect in the quest for pleasure at all costs, in the spread of the use of drugs as an escape, a shelter in artificial paradises, which turn out to be completely illusory.'” (Pope Decries “Pleasure at all costs”)
Perhaps it’s because I live and minister in what is known throughout the world as Sin City, where the mentality the pope spoke of is not only accepted but encouraged, that Benedict’s words resonate so strongly within me. Every day I’m surrounded by people who have essentially adopted the phrase “pleasure at all costs” as a personal credo. And I’m not just talking about the people who come here to lose their inhibitions, along with all sense of sanity, as they indulge in the excesses of this city. I’m also talking about the folks who live here in the suburbs, the “normal’ people who are not very different from people in the suburbs of Atlanta or Dallas. While I think it is true that Las Vegas thrives on exaggerating and glorifying the “quest for pleasure at all costs,” it is indicative of the general culture of our country rather than being an aberration from it.
It seems to me that our entire culture is driven by this quest for pleasure. We have taken a phrase that was substituted into the Declaration of Independence’s short list of inalienable rights (the right of “the pursuit of happiness”) to be the defining value of America. And if the rights of life or liberty are in conflict with our right to pursue happiness, we consider them trumped by our American uber-right.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t desire to be happy, or even that we shouldn’t have a protected right to pursue that happiness. What I’m suggesting is that Americans need to re-examine what true happiness actually is. Most people seem to operate under the idea that happiness is synonymous with pleasure. Therefore we indulge in materialism and consumerism, hoping that all the neat things we acquire can give us pleasure, and thus happiness. Others indulge in substances, either legal or illegal, hoping it will give them the adequate amount of pleasure to be called “happiness.” And anyone who dares to decry the sexual permissiveness of our society is seen as a puritanical opponent of the pursuit of happiness.
Again, the problem is not necessarily the pursuit of happiness, or even of pleasure. The problem, as the pope so eloquently pointed out, is the pursuit of pleasure without any concern for, or even awareness of, consequences. Thus, the consumerist gives little thought to the effects that his hyper-materialism has upon his own soul or others in the world around him. Thus, multitudes find themselves in the pit of addiction, with all of the adverse effects upon themselves and those around them, discovering all too late that the pleasure threshold could never reach that of happiness. Thus, myriads of broken-hearted men and women endure shallow, physically stimulating but emotionally bankrupt relationships, failing to realize that this brutal cycle is the source of their heartbreak and not the cure for it.
How are we to respond to this? Is it enough to recognize and lament this state of affairs, or is there more than we can do? I certainly believe that we can do more. We must repent of living lives more influenced by our culture than by God’s standards. And we must hold forth a “new” and higher definition of happiness. The Bible clearly teaches us that genuine happiness is not to be found in the pursuit, or even in the attainment, of temporal pleasures but in a right relationship with God. Further, the ancient Greek philosophers taught that the quality of a man’s life should be measured by the virtues he attains, not the pleasures he experiences. Both of these ancient sources of wisdom point to the same thing essentially- holiness. As the Body of Christ, a counter-cultural community of faith, we must stand against the cultural tide of pseudo-happiness. We must not only proclaim, but more importantly embody, the true life of happiness found in a life of holiness. And we must pray that God uses the lives of happy, holy people to be salt in this corrupt culture in which we reside.