We are often told to look into our hearts and to follow our dreams in order to find happiness and peace, meaning and fulfillment. And yet, the truth could not be further from this idea. It is not that Christianity is against happiness but that true happiness and fulfillment are found in denying ourselves and finding it in others: in God and in our neighbors.
But how exactly is the Christian life different from other religions that claim to offer peace and happiness? Many people seek therapeutic consolation by performing various rites and practices. What do we make of the principles we find in other faiths?
Whether it’s Buddhism, Islam, or materialism, the focus of each of these religions pushes us to look within. The focus is on the self and our performance, trying to coerce fate or some god to see the good within us. Adherents of Eastern religions attempt to ascend above the plane of existence, to rise above all the illusions of this material world. They believe that by looking within, the veil of this world and its pains will pass away into nothing.
And yet, all of these actions are a denial of the reality that we live in physical bodies. They deny the real cause of pain, sickness, and death. They deny human guilt and sin. Pain and guilt are actually caused by selfishness, from looking within. It was in Adam and Eve’s selfish presumption in attempting to grasp the rights of God that the world was plunged into deadly peril. The only way for us to find true peace and eternal happiness is for God to come down to us and save us from ourselves.
In Christ’s death, we have been freed from the real guilt that weighs us down and the condemnation we deserve. Yet, he has also begun to free us from the power of sin in our lives, from putting ourselves first. We find our deepest encouragement in Christ, participating in the same Spirit that was given to him without measure. This was done so we might have the same love in unity with the body of Christ, doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. We die to ourselves only to find it again in others and in God.
The Christian life is one of constant death to self. We are called to take the shape of Christ’s self-sacrifice, pouring out our lives in the service of others (Phil. 2:1–11). Having been rescued by God from sin, death, and hell, we have been chosen to take on the family characteristics of our heavenly Father and our elder Brother by the power of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
We do not find happiness or serenity by looking within and attending to our feelings. As Eugene Peterson reminds us, “The denials that are so much apart of the life of faith in no way deny pleasure. They prepare us for it.” Being in Christ Jesus, we can empty ourselves and can become obedient even to death:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 2:1–5)
Let us, therefore, stop looking within and begin to look without to those in need, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16). In doing so we actually find true and lasting happiness in an eternal God.