You Can’t Buy Happiness

You Can’t Buy Happiness

Restlessness isn’t the real problem.

Cultures that crack the whip for more bricks, like the ancient Egypt who held Israel captive, are in it for more than the work. The ceaseless labor — the lack of rest — is only the picture of something deeper, something that has characterized every civilization from then until now: the quest for pleasure.

Pleasure is the goal behind the toiling. All those hours and sweat weren’t for the bricks, but for what the bricks could build. And that building wasn’t for the structure itself, but for how that structure might make its owner feel. And that feeling, the illusive craving that never has enough, is the hope of eternal happiness in temporal things.

It’s no secret that Egypt was in it for the pleasure, as the writer of Hebrews shows us. Twice in Hebrews 11, Moses is commended for his faith that resisted their vain pursuit. Moses chose “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). And again, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:26). In other words, Moses saw Egypt’s striving and the good times it bought. He saw them have their fun. He saw their treasure. And he said no. According to Hebrews, he knew that earthly opulence wasn’t the way to lasting joy. He had something more.

Our Commodity Commerce

We are not that different from Moses, or at least our societies share a lot in common. Our world is as busy as his, and the busyness is merely a symptom. Like old Egypt, our restlessness is the result of endless searching but no finding. This restless search is seen most acutely in our commodity commerce — which is to say, in how we love to buy stuff, in our bankrupt pursuits and the dangling hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll find what we’re looking for in that next purchase.

Buying stuff is obviously okay. We have to be delicate here. The problem is not in the stuff itself, or in our acquisition of it. The problem comes in the reasons shoved in our faces for why we should buy this or that. Because it will make our lives simpler, our health increase, our looks improve, our friends impressed — and that each of those things is the key to our joy. There’s no time for rest. Someone is always trying to sell us something, and whatever that is, it promises to give us the pleasure we’ve been longing for.

Yes, we know all of this. It’s nothing new. But we can’t be naïve. Pleasure bait is as pervasive now as it’s ever been. We lay our heads down in Vanity Fair, and though its merchandise isn’t opposed to our faith, its message is.

And it’s that message we should resist.

Finding a Framework

The message, again, says that if we acquire a certain commodity, then we will be happy. That sentence, said just like it is in the previous line, is the construction that’s bunk — not that we shouldn’t have things or that we shouldn’t want to be happy. It is good to enjoy things (1 Timothy 4:4–5), and absolutely, we should pursue lasting joy (Psalm 37:4). But it’s when we pursue lasting joy in the things that it all goes amiss. It’s when we’re hoodwinked into believing, ever so subtly, that this product really will be my ticket to a better life, that God is not enough to make me happy. That is the enchanting subtext we’re tempted to fall for in every transaction, wooing us from Moses-like faith.

So how do we resist that message? How do we say no to the why of commodity without saying no to all things in themselves? We know that we’d be too gullible not to ask these questions, and too silly if we just stopped shopping. So what do we do?

Well, we need more of a framework for commerce than a case-by-case buyer’s guide. We need discernment — a peculiar posture toward commodity and all the advertising that comes with it. And that posture should say (at least to our hearts) less about what the commodity can give us, and more about what it can’t. We don’t pause our pursuit of pleasure in God when we buy chocolate-covered strawberries at the mall; we acknowledge their goodness as a gift from God, and reject the retail copy that says our lives are incomplete without them. We’re free to buy them and sometimes we do.

And then sometimes, perhaps, we just don’t go to the mall.

Rest in a World Like This

If restlessness is a symptom of endlessly pursuing pleasure in things, and it’s represented most vividly by commodity commerce, what would rest look like in this context?

Maybe it means we take a break from the buying.

Maybe it means, like our break from work, we take a day and apply the Sabbath principle to our shopping. The issue is not the things themselves, remember — just like rest is not mainly about the work (which is inherently good and supercharged with God-given significance). The issue is about what the rest says about God. We can rest from work because God doesn’t need our endless labor to be God. We can rest from always buying stuff because we don’t need anything other than God to be happy.

Similar to a fast, might an intentional pause on acquiring commodities be a means of greater joy in God and his sufficiency? It is one thing to whisper to our hearts, just before a purchase, “This is not what really satisfies my soul.” It is another thing to say, when we wake up on a day we’ve set apart, “There are wonderful products out there, but I don’t need them to have lasting joy. I don’t need to browse Amazon, and I won’t. Not today.” In other words, once again, we can rest because we can.

Could this kind of intentional rest be a means to a deeper experience of God? As one author says, “It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world.” So what if we stopped nibbling, just for a day? What if we decided, on a specific day, in a regular pattern, to stop spending money on that which is not bread, and stop laboring for that which does not satisfy (Isaiah 55:1–2)? We don’t need to buy anything today because we have that “wine and milk” and “rich food” without price.

This is one application of rest you might consider. Either way, though most people are trying, though it’s the true problem behind restlessness, you still can’t buy happiness.


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Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Melissa, and their four children, and is the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.