Today we field a fairly technical question about whether or not our happiness is moral. It’s a question from a listener named Eric. “Hello, Pastor John! This podcast is a tremendous gift. I’ve listened from my conversion until now, in seminary.” That’s incredible, Pastor John, that we have been doing this for the duration of someone getting saved and entering seminary. Wow. Eric continues, “I have a question regarding happiness. What would you say to this line from theologian John Frame? ‘Only persons and their actions and attitudes can be good in a moral sense. But happiness is a condition or state of affairs, so it can be considered good only in a nonmoral sense’ (The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 91). He goes on to say, ‘There are many things that human beings value more than pleasure. One example is sacrificing one’s life to save the life of another. . . . If we define pleasure so broadly as to include all other values, including self-sacrifice, then it loses its meaning. It doesn’t distinguish pleasurable from non-pleasurable activities’ (93).
“My immediate reaction to this was: That’s not right. Piper and Edwards and Augustine all say that pleasure is what we all desire most, and it is a moral good that God commands our joy in Philippians 3:1 (‘Rejoice in the Lord’). But then Frame surprised me in the next chapter by saying this: ‘For Scripture, duty and happiness are not opposed, but in the long run reinforce one another’ (101). That seems more in line with Christian Hedonism — namely, that our happiness and God’s glory are not two separate things, but we must seek them both together. So my question for you, Pastor John, is this: Am I misunderstanding Christian Hedonism? Is happiness a nonmoral good? Or is it a moral good?”
It is very risky and unwise to criticize a great Christian thinker on the basis of a sentence or two that I don’t see in context. John Frame is a great and sound and helpful theological guide. And my guess is that if he and I had time, he and I would discuss this, and we probably would be pretty close in the end. So, what I’m going to do, then, since this is such an important question, is take these statements and Eric’s question and use them to illustrate two very important principles in answering such questions, as well as give my answer along the way.
Define Your Terms
The first principle is this: before you disagree or agree with anyone, be sure you have a clear sense of the definitions of the terms they are using, as they’re using them — a definition that they would agree with. Otherwise, you’ll talk right past each other in your argument. It happens over and over again. You can watch it on the Internet. You can watch it in conversations.
So, let’s take Frame’s main statement. Here it is: “Only persons and their actions and attitudes can be good in a moral sense. But happiness is a condition or state of affairs, so it can be considered good only in a nonmoral sense.” The term persons — I think that’s clear enough; I think we know what persons are, so I’ll skip that one. What about the term actions? “Actions . . . can be good in a moral sense,” he said. Does he mean, I would ask, bodily actions — namely, the mere movement of muscles and the electronic and chemical processes that trigger the muscle contraction that moves when you hug somebody or give them a finger? Or does he mean actions of the soul: volitions, decisions, choices? Surely soul actions, choices, can be morally good. But mere muscle movements?
“Before you disagree or agree with anyone, be sure you have a clear sense of the definitions of the terms.”
Well, he would probably say (this is why we need to talk), “Not mere. No, not mere.” He would say, “Muscular actions, insofar as they are triggered by volitions, can be morally good or bad.” I would say, “Yes. Yes. Okay, good. Got that. Got that clarified now.” And the combination of choice and movement of muscle makes the movement good or bad. The movement of muscles or actions of legs or shoulders or arms or hands, or facial expressions (smile, frown) — those movements are not in themselves evil or good. They are evil or good insofar as they are triggered by, carried by, expressing volitions that are good or bad.
What about the word attitudes? He says, “Attitudes can be good in a moral sense.” Well, what is an attitude? He must consider it different from happiness. Okay, that helps a little bit. Now, what’s an attitude? I assume he means, perhaps, the fruit of the Spirit, like patience. Would that be an attitude? Or kindness? In other words, perhaps these are dispositions of the soul, not yet turned into action, that incline a certain way to good or bad.
And then he calls happiness a state of affairs that can’t be good morally, but only nonmorally — like, having a sore throat, I suppose, is nonmorally bad, but being in good health is nonmorally good. He’s free to define happiness that way. I assume it’s something like that. We just need to be aware that’s what he’s doing, if happiness is in that category in this sentence — namely, it’s like getting rid of a headache. Of course, then we need to decide how the Bible uses the term if we’re going to talk about the biblical meaning for happiness.
So, that’s the first principle. I’m just illustrating what I have to go through when I deal with what I read or what people say. I want to be sure to define your terms in your way, so that I can either agree or disagree. And it’s not easy to do that, often.
Get to the Bible
Second principle: instead of getting entangled in complicated philosophical conceptions, go to the Bible as quickly as you can to find some clear statements about the very meaning, the very thing, the very reality you are arguing about. It’s wonderful, amazing, how the Bible enables us to cut through so much fog in our arguments with people, if we have a few clear biblical statements that shed light on what we are arguing about.
Now, Frame is right; surely, he’s right to say that if we treat the word pleasure so broadly that there’s no difference between pleasurable and non-pleasurable activities, language loses its meaning. That’s right. That just is self-evident. Now the question is, Does that settle the issue over whether happiness or pleasure can be a moral good?
So, we turn quickly to the Bible. That’s what I’d do, anyway. First, we find a verse that helps us appreciate the distinction. I want to give Frame the absolute benefit of the doubt here with a text like this: 2 Timothy 3:4. Paul says there will be evil people who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” Now, for a Christian Hedonist like me, that’s a jarring statement because it makes love for God look like an alternative to the desire to experience pleasure. So, we step back and we say, “Okay, I’m not God. I am not the Bible. I’m not the final authority. The Bible is the authority, and I will adjust my thinking to the Bible.” That’s what we should do.
What does the Bible mean? It means here pretty much what Frame means: pleasure is very often used in the narrow sense of physical gratification, sensations of bodily satisfaction, like a back rub, or sexual arousal, or getting high with drugs and alcohol, or caffeine, or scratching an itch. It is indeed possible to want these physical sensations more than we want God. It is possible to make a god out of physical satisfaction.
“It is sin to find your greatest happiness, delight, gladness, joy in created things.”
And I suppose that’s what Frame is getting at here. He is saying that if you try to take that meaning for pleasure, and spread it over everything in life, then you have to drop the word pain out of your vocabulary because pleasure, understood in this narrow way, is the opposite of pain. And you can’t say everything ought to be pleasurable because that would rule out the existence of anything like pain, if you define pleasure the way Paul does in 2 Timothy 3:4 (and the way Frame is).
Highest Happiness, Greatest Good
However, what Eric is very aware of in his question is that the Bible does not treat happiness and pleasure and joy (which are often used interchangeably in the Bible) as mere states of affairs that have no moral significance. Now we’re getting close to the problem. And the easiest way to see this is to notice that happiness or delight or gladness or pleasure are regularly commanded in the Bible as a Christian duty.
- Psalm 100:2: “Serve the Lord with gladness!”
- 2 Corinthians 9:7: “God loves a cheerful giver.”
- Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
- Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord.”
- Hebrews 13:17: Pastors, do your ministry “with joy,” because if you groan in it, it will be of no advantage to your people.
- And on and on and on.
And then we notice that just like patience is a fruit of the Spirit when we were defining the word attitude, so is joy a fruit of the Spirit. So, if one is a gift and can be a moral good, why not the others? And I think they are. I think joy is a moral good as Paul is using it in these contexts where he commands it or calls it a fruit of the Spirit.
So, my conclusion is that if you define joy or happiness or delight or gladness biblically, all of them are moral; that is, they are evil or good depending on whether they are grounded in and reflecting the greatness and beauty and worth of God. It’s possible to have gladness in evil. And that’s not good. But gladness in God is a moral good. It is sin to find your greatest happiness, delight, gladness, joy in created things. And it is virtuous, or morally good, to find your greatest happiness, delight, gladness, or joy in God.
I don’t think John Frame would disagree with that. I hope not. I think when he rejected happiness as a moral good, he meant something more akin to physical pleasure than to spiritual attraction to God’s glory. So, is happiness a nonmoral good, or is it a moral good? Defined biblically as the positive experience of treasuring God above all, it is a moral good.