Seven Substitutes for True Joy

His wife was gone.

Sure, last night looked like a lot of nights recently. She’d walked out many times before, but this was different. The abandonment, the adultery, and the deception had mounted a massive assault on their marriage and family.

Had it been three men in just six months? He feared there were more. Again and again, she’d wrecked the family’s affairs with her own. She had spent and overspent the family budget to please another guy — another illicit, irrational, imaginary love.

Their marriage, once sweet, had become a nightmare. Those first days, maybe even months, of marital bliss felt so distant and unfamiliar. It was hard for her husband to believe they were ever even real.

Two children — a son and a daughter — were the real victims, loved by dad, but left by mom. They were conceived and raised in despair and misery. Their dad had always hoped things would change. He even promised that things would be different, that the loneliness and betrayal they’d known their whole lives would be turned for good — for hope, belonging, and love.

Not knowing what to say to his confused and wounded children that night, dad knelt down between their beds, and he prayed,

God, please rescue my bride — the mother of my precious children — from this destructive, suicidal path. She’s left us for other lovers, believing that with them she’ll find the protection and affection she craves. For as long as she runs from the promises we made, and the family we’ve built together, graciously cause her to be unsatisfied, empty, and lonely. Maybe then, in her despair and need, she will remember us, return to our family, and be Wife and Mom again. If she would only come home, I would welcome her into my arms and heart as if it were our wedding day. I would love her as if we never lost her. Bring her home, for the sake of your Name. Amen. (Hosea 2:5–7)

Several years later, on a hot afternoon in August, the husband was walking downtown through a local park. His oldest, a teenager now, had left an assignment on the kitchen table, so he was dropping it off at school. He could walk from his office, and usually even enjoyed the break and exercise, but it was uncomfortable today.

Temperatures had soared to record highs, leaving most people hiding inside until evening. He saw a woman, though — the only soul he’d seen since he left work. She was exhausted, disheveled, and desperate. She was squeezing every last drop out of a public drinking fountain, clinging to it like she might drown if she let go.

As he walked closer, he started to make out her face. “Hannah — is that you?” He looked into her eyes and saw the face he knew so well, the woman who had hurt him so deeply — the woman who was still his wife.

She looked around uncomfortably, as if she was waiting for someone else to walk by and discover her shame. She had left so much for so very little. She left the provision, safety, and intimacy of a truly good man for a treadmill of temporary pleasure and terrible, destructive life choices. The other men always seemed so attractive, but they never truly loved her, and the relationships never lasted.

“Why are you out here, Hannah?”

“I have nowhere else to go, and I had to get away from him. . . . I’m tired, and scared, and thirsty.”

“Come home, Hannah. You know I will take care of you — whatever you need. I’ll provide for you and protect you. You’ll never be thirsty again.”

After several hard, awkward, silent moments, she finally looked back up at him, feeling lost, embarrassed, and ashamed. He was smiling. It wasn’t the cute, naïve, playful smile she saw on their first dates together. No, it had been replaced with something deeper, more refined, and durable. “I love you,” he said. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing, what she was hearing.

“But you don’t know what I’ve done . . . where I’ve been. . .”

“No, I do. I know about the men. I know about the one at your apartment right now, and the six that came before him. I know each of their names, Hannah. Come home.”

“No, you don’t understand. I’m not worthy of you anymore.”

“Hannah, I never loved you because you were worthy. I loved you because you were mine. And even though you ran away and gave yourself to other men, ‘I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice.’ Even though you walked away from our love and our family, ‘I will betroth you to me in steadfast love and in mercy.’ Even though you defiled our covenant and failed to fulfill your promises, ‘I will betroth you to me in faithfulness.’”

Cruel and Compelling Mistresses

“You shall know me, the Lord” (Hosea 2:19–20). We are Hannah, each one of us. And the names of our seven affairs are Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust. And the betrayed, but faithful husband is Jesus — our first love, our lost love, our new love.

Undoubtedly there are sins besides these, or other ways for naming them, but the seven deadly sins have been some of the most promiscuous and prevalent in history. They form a brothel of mistresses who are all at once familiar and unfamiliar. They’re familiar because every man or woman has tasted them — either for a one-night stand or in a lifelong affair. They’ve seduced the sinful in every culture on every continent through every generation.

But somehow they’re also unfamiliar. Very few have looked closely enough at them to be able to spot them in a crowd or to study the havoc they wreak. They disguise themselves, creep into seemingly harmless situations and conversations, embed themselves deep in our love and devotion, and then giggle when everything begins to unravel and explode. They are the cruelest and most dangerous Bond girls, each beautiful and breathing her own set of lies — outrageous lies, yet strangely sweet and compelling.

Pride puts herself above God. She foolishly and suicidally contends for supremacy with God, opposing him and inviting his wrath. Envy can’t help being unhappy at the blessing and fortune of others. She seethes as others succeed, and even secretly smiles when they fail. Unrighteous Anger viciously attempts to protect a flawed love. She explodes over selfish, irrelevant things, and carelessly overlooks the things that offend and dishonor God. Sloth desperately attempts to control life in order to preserve her comforts, dreading being interrupted by the needs of others. She is lazy-souled — bored with God and doomed to a slow death. Greed overwhelms her victim with an inordinate desire for wealth and possessions. She covets what she shouldn’t or too desperately and impatiently wants what she should. Gluttony looks to food to satisfy some deeper craving, whether for comfort, purpose, or control. She worships food. Lust is a sexual desire that dishonors its object and disregards God. She irrationally seizes sex for selfish gain, believing its pleasure will fill the emptiness she feels.

For as long as we can remember, our souls have been exposed to and enticed by seductive, scantily-clad images of all seven of these sins. They’ve schemed and lied and pled for our affections, and they’ve too often won the day, or at least the moment.

But those who have believed in Jesus have been redeemed from their flirtation and infidelity with sin. We are no longer characterized by or enslaved to our former, illicit lovers. We’re forever loved, pursued, provided for, and freed by a deeper, stronger, and truer Love — a lover larger than our past, stronger than our weakness, and better than any we’ve ever known before.

A Full and Forever Happiness

Our love affairs with sin are not just a matter of morality, but of joy. This is not just about faithfulness to God, but about finding our deepest, most satisfying fulfillment.

Many people think following Jesus means surrendering their happiness. You can either enjoy a fun, passionate, and exciting life here for a short time or live a bland, boring, but safe life forever with God. That lie is a quiet, but violent concentration camp, fencing men and women in, keeping them away from God, and torturing them with lesser pleasures that only lead to a swift and yet never-ending death. If you want to be truly happy now — even in this life, surrounded by everything beautiful, fun, and exciting in this world — you want to be found with Jesus.

Experiencing the full life with Jesus, we say with David, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7). We can be infinitely and enduringly more happy with Jesus than with anything or even everything in a world without him — even when that world is filled and overflowing with promotions and bonuses at work, on-demand television, all-you-can-eat sushi, grossly accessible pornography, always new and better technology, and countless other goods become gods.

God is not just a more morally or socially acceptable treasure, but he will satisfy you more than anyone or anything else. Christianity is not merely, or even mainly, about correcting your bad habits, but about satisfying and fulfilling you in the deepest way possible, and therefore making God look as great as he is.

Our hearts were designed to enjoy a full and forever happiness, not the pitiful temporary pleasures for which we’re too prone to settle. Pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust are all woefully inadequate substitutes for the wonder, beauty, and affection of God. As first hopes or dreams or loves, they are killjoys by comparison to Christ. They will rob you, not ravish you. They will numb you, not heal you. They will slaughter you, not save you.

Looking to little, temporary gods — these seven mistresses — for true and lasting happiness is a frantic and expensive treasure hunt for fool’s gold. You lose far more than you will ever find.