Welcome to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime author and pastor John Piper. Today we have a question from a listener named Chase. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for taking my question. According to Arthur C. Brooks, the president of a public policy think tank in Washington, DC, 88% of our happiness is determined by two factors: events that occurred in our recent past (40%) and genetics (48%). That leaves around 12% left to our day-by-day control, which can be used to pursue four basic things: faith, family, community, and work — the four surest ways to happiness, he says. I’m curious how the idea of Christian Hedonism either complements or contradicts this research on happiness, the statistical breakdown, and where happiness is found.”
I have two initial comments. First, I want to make a comment about the notion that 88% of our happiness is determined and 12% is left to our day-by-day control. Christians don’t think that way, and I’m leaving aside the whole issue that God controls it all — not just our past but the 100%. I’m not even talking about that.
The reason we don’t think that way concerns the last 12% of freedom that we have control over. If that were true, the Christian says, “With this 12% (or with the tiny fraction of this 12%) I can embrace the gospel of Jesus, which has three stunning effects regarding that 88% of my past that you say is unchangeably determining of my happiness.”
Here are the three effects:
1. Through the gospel of Jesus, all my past sins are forgiven, and suddenly, the whole load of guilt that was crushing me from that 88% past is gone.
2. Through the gospel of Jesus, we are not only forgiven, but made forgiving. The whole load of bitterness and anger that made our whole life toxic and caused us to seethe about our past is taken away. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord (Romans 12:19), so we lay it down and the crushing weight of past wrongs against us is lifted. So that 88% is dramatically changed.
“In Jesus, all my past sins are forgiven, and suddenly, the whole load of guilt that was crushing me is gone.”
3. Through the gospel of Jesus, we are given the Holy Spirit, who begins to transform our hearts and minds — a mind the public policy polls said was determined by the past. In other words, these kinds of statistics and polls and predictions are naturalistic — godless. They don’t reckon with the supernatural. They don’t reckon with God, Jesus, the massive effects of the death and resurrection of Christ, or the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Surest Way to Happiness
The other one is that Brooks’s second claim could be true, if he were speaking and thinking in a Christian way — with Christian categories, not just a naturalistic one. Here’s what he says: “Choosing to pursue four basic things — faith, family, community, and work — is the surest way to happiness.”
Hmm. So here’s the Christian content that would make that statement true.
1. Pursuing faith means, yes, you would get your happiness if faith means being satisfied in all that God is for us in Christ. If that’s what he means by pursuing faith, that would do it.
2. He says pursuing family is the path to happiness. I say yes, if he means with a happy submission to God’s will as to whether we will ever have a family beyond our parents or whether we’ll ever be married or whether we’ll ever have kids. If he means pursuing the family we do have with conviction — that there is a special joy to be found in seeking our joy in the joy of those God has put in our family— then yeah, that’s true. That is the path to happiness. But, if we put our hope for happiness in the family we hope will be, that’s almost a sure path to disillusionment.
“If we put our hope for happiness in the family we hope will be, that’s almost a sure path to disillusionment.”
3. Pursuing community is the path to happiness. Well, yes, if pursuing community means getting outside ourselves, and — for the glory of God, in reliance upon the grace of God — discovering in community it is more blessed to give than to receive.
4. He says pursuing work is the path to happiness. I say yes, if we realize that according to Genesis 1, God made us in his image and sent us out to display his glory by being sub-creators and sub-managers as we work the world (Genesis 1:28). If we realize that, according to Ephesians 2:10, Jesus saved us by grace and created us for good works — that is, to do good in our vocation and in every other way as a fruit and overflow of our newness in Christ — then we will be happy.
So if Brooks were willing to modify his statistical determinism and his fourfold path to happiness in these ways, I would give three cheers.