Americans, Daniel Boorstin once observed, suffer from extravagant expectations. In his much quoted 1962 book The Image, or What Happened to the American Dream, Boorstin observed that Americans “expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. . . . We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to a ‘church of our choice’ and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.”
Boorstin argued that “ever enlarging our extravagant expectations we create the demand for the illusions with which we deceive ourselves. And which we pay others to make to deceive us.”
Having, Consuming, Achieving
The Image was about the way the American entertainment, journalism, and advertising industries create and sustain our illusions (usually with our implicit consent). Everything from the meaning of the universe to the deep well-being and confidence we can expect from eliminating various unpleasant (if natural) odors emerge from the mist. The grand pattern of illusion fostered by the media magi is that ultimate satisfaction is obtainable by having (the right car, the trophy wife), by consuming (the smoothest liquor, the sexiest movie), or by achieving (the perfect body, the corner office).
But in reflecting on the shape and substance of American Who-Says-You-Can’t-Have-It-All-ness, I wonder if Boorstin doesn’t have it wrong. I wonder if we actually have been conditioned to expect too little from life, not too much. In the exhausting pursuit of happiness acquired, we miss the greater possibility of happiness of being. Living in a culture which insists that something we do will finally fulfill us, we are distracted from the truth that what we are (as created and redeemed) matters much more. We may reject belief in works-righteousness while unknowingly we have embraced a sad sort of works-happiness.
We expect too little, not too much. John Piper, in his bracing book Desiring God, reminds us that our problem is not that we are hedonistic, but that we are not hedonistic enough: we are not seeking the greatest of pleasures, the truest of joys.
Worldliness atrophies our pursuit of joy. Clutching our shabby stake in the city of man, we cannot lift our sights high enough to take in the glories of the City of God. We are really pathetic figures, heirs to heavenly wonders, scrabbling about in the bargain basement for some tawdry scrap of faux-joy.
Can a society such as ours possibly have any idea what joy is? James says that joy is known when we encounter suffering. Suffering produces perseverance, and that makes us mature and complete. Joy is the prospect of spiritual maturity before God. Joy is the anticipation of a new mode of being-in-Christ. For our culture, something called joy is more often associated with the immediate, happy-face experience of materialistic immaturity.
The deepest source of Christian joy is neither in what we can obtain or accomplish, nor even in what God obtains and accomplishes on our behalf. Our call is to enjoy God forever, not just His blessings for us. The blessings, like the gifts of any lover, are not ends in themselves.
God Is the Gospel
Surely one of the reasons that deep, abiding Christian joy is such a rarity is because we haven’t progressed from taking delight in what God has done to taking delight in who God is. Our culture stresses doing more than being, and the church follows its lead. Sermons typically stress what God can do for us, instead of preaching about who God is. This is often done with the good intention of making preaching “practical.” Of course, we need to put the Word into practice. But surely we need practice in being still and knowing that God is God. Without this discipline, we will almost certainly be tempted to use God.
Some may suggest that all this talk about reflecting on the being of God is far too esoteric, and may be fine for obscure mystics, but not for modern Christians with full schedules. John Piper, however, insists: “The pursuit of joy in God is not optional. It is not an ‘extra’ that a person might grow into after he comes to faith. Until your heart has hit upon this pursuit your ‘faith’ cannot please God. It is not saving faith. Saving faith is the confidence that if you sell all you have, and forsake all sinful pleasures, the hidden treasure of holy joy will satisfy your deepest desires.”
Of course, we could always insist on being satisfied with less, on being much more easily pleased.
From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.