Happy In a Modern World
Tell me somethin', girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin' else you're searchin' for?
These four lines open the featured song from the 2018 film A Star is Born. It marks the artist’s longest-leading No. 1 spot on the digital song sales chart. (1) Its popularity is clear; its commentary equally palpable. The song presses heavy on the cultural pulse: we’re all searching for happiness amid a modern world.
A THIN, MODERN WORLD
Tim Keller suggests the cultural pendulum has swung from a traditional concept of self to a modern one. (2) This modern view of self starts inside and moves out. We take stock of our internal desires, dreams, and feelings and then look to the outside world. Only if an external value fits with our internal desires do we adopt it as part of our identity. Desires are thick, beliefs and values are thin--only as fixed as our feelings.
Within this Modern self framework, finding happiness for the Christian gets reduced to a self-discovery formula.
If I just knew myself better.
If I could just figure out my passions, my gifts, my talents then I’d know God’s will for my life and be happy.
Alan Noble diagnosis the heart of this modern-self dilemma as “the cognitive movement toward the individual.” (3) The cultural pulse beats to self. We are the centers of our respective universes. Self-discovery is the game. Happiness by self-mastery the end.
But we’re searching in the wrong place.
Our desires, dreams, and feelings are a raging tumult. Today’s passions give way to tomorrow’s; our true “gifts” may not be realized for decades. Big problems for attaining self-mastery in your 20s!
We need a better framework. We need habits that reorient us. Ones that take our eyes off of self and glue them onto big “T” Truth.
A GOD-CENTERED GOSPEL
The gospel offers a reorientation. In his most famous sermon in Matthew 5, Jesus offers his divine take on happiness. He tears away our self-orbiting universe and offers an alternative movement. Noble calls it the double movement:
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Movement 1) Acknowledge beauty, goodness, and blessing in all of life
Movement 2) Turn that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbor
It’s a God-centered, reorienting movement that shifts our focus away from expressing our identity and toward glorifying God. It lifts our gaze to an end beyond ourselves. (4)
The modern self says all things--beauty and goodness--have their end in a person. Me. All things exist for my consumption, for building or supporting my own self-perceived identity. So my happiness is limited to the degree that I master myself. I’ve got to figure out who I am!
The gospel affirms a person as the ultimate end, too. It’s just not me. It’s Jesus, who is Himself the End (and Beginning, for that matter). Happiness is less self-mastery and more being mastered by the grace of Jesus of Nazareth. And when we respond with gratitude for his good gifts, we remind ourselves that all things--most significantly our salvation--are from him, through him, and to him (Romans 11:36).
A THICK, DIVINE HAPPINESS
Gospel-centered habits remind us Jesus is the center of the Story, not us. Jesus obliterates the anxiety-inducing burden of mastering the deceptive and indiscernible self. We’re free to not know ourselves. Free to fumble through the next 20 years.
Happiness isn’t found in knowing everything about yourself. Actually, it begins with knowing just one thing about yourself: you need a Savior. This self-knowledge situates us in the shadow of the cross. And it’s within the intimate relationship of knowing and being known by Jesus, who emptied himself, that we truly discover our fullest selves.
We’re not the center of the Story. Jesus is. But he invites us to proclaim him as center, acknowledging every good thing and giving thanks to him. And in this double movement we experience the divine happiness of decreasing. Because happiness is where Jesus is biggest.
2: Tim Keller, Making Sense of God, 2016, 119.
3: Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness, 2018, 89.
4: Noble, 92-93.