Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Epicurus to Gilbert

July 16, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

“I know that God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy!”  I have heard these words time and time again over the course of my ministry, usually from people who wanted to make decisions that, according to the Bible, were sinful.  Yet, these people could not fathom a God who would ever want them to choose a difficult or painful path – a path that would make them unhappy – even if it formed in them obedient righteousness.

The search for human happiness was perhaps most famously forged by the fourth century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus.  Epicurus asserted that a truly happy life was characterized primarily by two features:  a sense of peace and the absence of pain.  If a person had these two things, he would be happy.  How did Epicurus accomplish such a peace-filled and pain-free life?  First, he sought self-sufficiency and second, he lived with a large group of friends.  Epicurus, it seems, was the original college student – venturing out from his parents’ place with lots of his buddies by his side.  And though Epicurus himself was actually quite restrained in his morality and actions, his philosophy eventually gave rise to hedonism, a way of life which recklessly trades that which is peace-filled and pain-free for parties and pleasure.

For our purposes, it is important to understand how Epicurus related his search for happiness to his faith in God.  For the relationship Epicurus establishes between happiness and God serves as an almost precise blueprint for those today who cannot fathom a God whose ultimate goal would be anything other than their personal happiness.  Epicurus says of a person’s belief in God:

Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with incorruptibility or with happiness; and think that a deity is invested with everything which is able to preserve this happiness.[1]

For Epicurus, God does not define what it means to be happy.  Instead, happiness defines what it means to have God.  If you are not happy, then, the problem is not with you, it’s with God!  God is merely a means to the end of your personal happiness.  He is not your sovereign ruler and creator, but your divine therapist whose fundamental function is to make you feel better.  He is a “happy pill” of sorts – a pick-me-up to help you avoid the painful realities of life.  Thus, if happiness eludes you, the solution is as simple as shifting your theological sensibilities: “Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with…happiness.”

Epicurus’ philosophy has been replayed over and over again throughout the ages.  It has been most recently and famously espoused by Elizabeth Gilbert in her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia.  Gilbert, by her own admission, was a woman who had it all.  She was married to a devoted husband and lived in a giant house in the New York suburbs.  The plan was, shortly after she turned thirty, the couple would have children – they would start a family.  As her story opens, she is thirty-one.  But on a cold November night, locked in her bathroom, she discovers what she has always intuitively known:  she does not want to have kids.  She doesn’t even want to be married.  Gilbert explains it like this:

My husband and I – who had been together for eight years, married for six – had built our entire life around the common expectation that, after passing the doddering old age of thirty, I would want to settle down and have children.  By then, we mutually anticipated, I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and a cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop…But I didn’t – as I was appalled to be finding out – want any of these things.  Instead, as my twenties had come to a close, that deadline of THIRTY had loomed over me like a death sentence, and I discovered that I did not want to be pregnant.[2]

So how does Gilbert solve her crisis of marriage and motherhood?  Existentially, of course!  She divorces her husband and takes off globetrotting – to Italy, India, and Indonesia.  And it is during her international adventures that she comes to a conclusion about God that, even though it is altogether unsurprising in its substance, is jarring in its frankness:

I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God.  I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted…You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.[3]

Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with…happiness.”  Gilbert falls lock step into a crassly Epicurean vision of God.  She is right at home with a “do-it-yourself” theology.  If one version of God doesn’t work for her – if He doesn’t bring her the happiness, joy, peace, and fulfillment she desires as she defines these things – she is perfectly comfortable redefining her theology as much as necessary to suit her longings.  God exists solely to make her feel good about herself.  God exists to make Elizabeth Gilbert happy.

No matter how attractive Elizabeth Gilbert’s custom made system of doing theology may first appear, it is fundamentally dishonest.  It was the atheist stalwart Friedrich Nietzsche who knew that theological cherry picking was a futile and academically vacuous pursuit: “Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea…one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces.”[4]  You can take it all or leave it all when it comes to theology, Nietzsche says, but you can’t take only certain parts.  Nietzsche left it all.  At least he was intellectually – and spiritually, for that matter – consistent.

There is a bitter irony for the person who believes in a therapeutic God who would never want him to be unhappy.  In a limited and carefully qualified sense, he’s right!  God does not desire the unmitigated misery of His people.  Jesus opens His famed Sermon on Mount with a series of blessings, widely known as the Beatitudes.  He declares:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-4, 10)

The word “blessed” is rendered in many translations as “happy.”  Though I prefer the translation “blessed,” “happy” is not altogether inappropriate, as long as the substance of Jesus’ happiness is properly understood.  But in order to properly understand Jesus’ happiness, we must first notice the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ statements.  Those who are poor in spirit…can be happy!  Those who mourn…can be happy!  Even those who are persecuted…can be happy!  People in seemingly very unhappy situations can nevertheless be happy!  But how?  True happiness, Jesus teaches, has nothing to do with a person’s external circumstances, or even with his desires, dreams, and feelings, but with his eschatological and eternal hope.  Those who brandish about the statement “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy” as a license to do what they want, regardless of whether or not what they want is sinful, don’t really care about God’s happiness for them because they really don’t care about how God’s happiness comes to them – for sometimes, God’s happiness comes only through personal suffering and prodigious sacrifice.

How are you happy?  Are you happy only if you get your own way?  Or, are you happy when Christ works His way through you?  The first happiness is nothing but narcissism.  The second happiness is comfortingly indelible, even in a broken and sinful world that relentlessly seeks to bring us sorrow.  This is why I find my happiness – no, my joy – in Christ.  As the prophet exhorts, “Find your joy in the LORD” (Isaiah 58:14).

[1] Diogenes Laertius, 10.123

[2] Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia (New York: Viking, 2006), Chapter 2.

[3] Gilbert, Chapter 70.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche in R.J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche:  The Man and His Philosophy (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001), 99.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rev. Kevin Jennings  |  July 16, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Hi, Zach! Again, you simply don’t disappoint. My only criticism about your blog is that you publish just once per week. But, that’s my desire to be happy at your expense, because I’m confident your writing takes more than just a few minutes at the computer/phone console.

    For this kind of theology, my OT professor in college called it God-made-in-the-image-of-man theology.

    In truth, probably the greatest prophet for this kind of thing in the last century has been Norman Vincent Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking. Peale taught that God was a way to get what we desire (what makes us happy), thus relegating the Holy Trinity to the role of Divine Supply Officer.

    That torch was picked up by Robert Schuler and the Crystal Cathedral, and is today preached by Ken Copeland and other prosperity preachers (like the guy in Houston). In this kind of happiness, God is obligated to make us happy. The prosperity preachers teach that faith moves God – He’s obligated to give us what makes us happy if we have enough faith.

    One of the great services of your blog – and there are many – is that it brings to light none of this is a new problem. The Epicureans go back centuries, making the contemporary preachers carriers of the ancient heresies, only with different clothes.

    God bless!

  • 2. Sandy Ryan  |  July 16, 2012 at 7:38 am

    Hi Pastor Zach,
    This post is so timely. I have heard over and over again how “God wants me to be happy.” It has not been difficult to respond–He did not create us for our happiness.
    As difficult as it is to say, the closest I have felt to God are the times that were the darkest, hardest, even the most sad moments of my life. But the presence of God was felt–it was so real, almost tangible. Those are places where I learn joy and trust and where change happens–still learning! I do love to laugh–a gift from God.


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