Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Not Happiness But...

As you know, I’ve been reading a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn lately, and I’m quite impressed with his vision and conviction. He is a man seeking, both intellectually and spiritually, the most profound awareness of what it means to be a human being, on many levels of life—political, cultural, spiritual. He speaks out against what threatens the dignity and nobility and true freedom of our humanity, and he has suffered much for standing against the prevailing winds of a shallow, self-absorbed consumer society.

He said something that he admitted would be considered, in the modern world, “something strange, something almost insane.” Yet it is a bombshell, and it jarred me into a more awakened state. It is extremely simple, perhaps almost a truism for people who seriously follow the Lord, yet it is outrageous to many: “the goal of Man’s existence is not happiness but spiritual growth.” Go back and read that again. Simple. Simple as dynamite.

How dare he tell modern man that his goal is not happiness! Sure, everyone wants to be happy, there’s nothing evil in that, but the kind of “happiness” that most people seek will actually deprive them of spiritual growth, while true spiritual growth will produce the only happiness worth the dignity of man.

He’s telling the world that there is something more important than feeling good, more important than living in luxury, more important than making the fulfillment of one’s needs and desires the goal of life. To discover one’s spiritual nature, one’s capacity for courage, self-discipline, and for embracing truth and inner freedom even at the price of much suffering, and to learn the profound lessons of life which alone make it truly worth living—all this is infinitely more important than the “happiness” hawked by the mass media, for which they demand that we barter our better judgment and all that is most noble in our souls. The illusion of happiness through immediate gratification is coveted and pursued by the mindless masses of a high-tech, low-culture society. But modern-day prophets like Solzhenitsyn stand up and say that man’s moral greatness consists in, among other things, “standing before the things which are temptations to him and showing himself able to overcome them.”

How often do we find (if we are paying attention) that even in our daily lives we are ruled by self-interest? We seek our own advantage, our own happiness, in the choices we make, and we habitually assess persons and situations according to their effect on us, and we judge our day a success if we end up feeling happy or if we gained some advantage. Do we ever ask ourselves if, in the decisions of the day, we chose spiritual growth over happiness, if indeed it came down to that?

One reason we don’t choose spiritual growth (and here I don’t mean in the abstract—“Oh sure, I’d like to grow spiritually”) is because it means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following Jesus. The way of spiritual growth is the way of the narrow gate, but it is the only truly meaningful way to live your life—and not just meaningful (that term can be ambiguous), but manifestly fruitful in blessing others and preparing for the fullness of life to come.

For Solzhenitsyn, the path to spiritual growth was “repentance and self-limitation.” He wrote the following about spiritual growth on the level of society, but it has its applications to personal spirituality as well: “Here is the true Christian definition of freedom. Freedom is self-restriction! Restriction of the self for the sake of others! …this principle diverts us—as individuals, in all forms of human association, societies, and nations—from outward to inward development, thereby giving us greater spiritual depth… If in some places this is destined to be a revolutionary process, these revolutions will not be like the earlier ones—physical, bloody, and never beneficial—but will be moral revolutions, requiring both courage and sacrifice, though not cruelty—a new phenomenon in human history…”

It should be clear that such a development toward spiritual depth through courageous self-sacrifice is far from the agenda of the “if it feels good, do it” crowd. What will our lives mean—both now and in view of the day we stand before God—what will be the judgment of the time granted us on earth to live as images of God, if we only live for ourselves, for passing pleasures and ephemeral “happiness”?

To live a life in preference of spiritual growth and all it requires does not mean the renunciation of all legitimate recreation, simple pleasures, family joys, etc, for these too are blessed by God. But we have to be clear on what is the goal of our lives, and what are the means we employ to attain it. If we seek first the Kingdom of God, Jesus told us, everything else we need will be graciously given. But if we run after the things the unbelievers run after, we will not only ultimately come up empty in human satisfactions, we will be found unworthy of that for which we were created—and we will be eternally frustrated and miserable. Better to practice a little self-denial now, seeking to know the will of God and to do good to others as we grow in the wisdom of the true meaning and goal of life, than to seek happiness at all costs and thus to degrade our own humanity. Self-seeking dulls spiritual awareness, but the wisdom of "repentance and self-limitation" sharpens it, and opens the door to deeper self-knowledge and spiritual growth.

I’m really just scratching the surface here. We have to reflect on these matters carefully and at length, and make the necessary changes in our perspectives and behavior. Our attention to spiritual growth today will ensure a joy that no one can take from us, beginning now but fulfilled only when our humanity is fully revealed in that of the One who became man in order to enable us to live with God.