By John Dickson
Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, observed that we are happiness-seeking creatures. His word for this was “Eudaimonia”, a synonym for “blessed”. It literally means “wellbeing”. Aristotle, who wasn’t religious in the conventional sense, said that because we are rational animals – not just walking stomachs or sex organs – we can never find true happiness in mere pleasure. A rational creature can only be happy, he said, when it feels connected to the rationale of the universe.
Now, the fascinating thing is that this is basically the finding of the last 40 years of positive psychology research. But Aristotle found it 2300 years earlier. And the reason I’m telling you this, in case you’re wondering, is that the Bible says something similar, but even earlier than Aristotle. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible teaches that the truly happy person, the blessed one, is the one who knows the rationale of creation and lives by it.
Christians don’t just obey arbitrary, moral commands. They’re following the wisdom built into reality.
This is what the Bible calls “wisdom”. It’s an idea we find in Jesus, of course, but he’s drawing on the much older traditions of the Old Testament. The Old Testament lays out this deep, logical connection between knowing reality in the world and living by that reality … and so being genuinely blessed.
Proverbs 8, which predates Aristotle, offers a kind of ode to wisdom. Wisdom in this poem is personified as a woman. In fact, she’s portrayed, metaphorically speaking, as God’s wife, and she gives this little speech throughout Proverbs 8 in which she describes two things about herself. She is the founding logic of creation, and she’s the basis for ethical living. These two things come together as the path for blessing:
“My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing a rich inheritance on those who love me and making their treasuries full. “he Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth. I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind. Now then, my children, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways.” Proverbs 8:19-32.
On the one hand, wisdom is described here as God’s assistant in creating the world, and there are plenty of other passages that say the same thing. Proverbs 3:19 says, “By wisdom, the Lord laid the Earth’s foundations”. You find statements like that in lots of places. Like the physicist today, the ancient Israelites – and Aristotle – could tell there was some kind of rationality built into the fabric of the physical world. But on the other hand, they also said that wisdom, this genius or rationality in creation, is also about how human beings as creatures live in God’s world. It’s also, in other words, about ethics and so wisdom in this poem says, you must listen to me and keep my ways.
Now, here is one of the Bible’s most overlooked themes. God’s wisdom is his genius built into the fabric of the world and expressed in his commands for life. Obeying God’s wisdom, his commands, is participating in reality. Christians don’t just obey arbitrary, moral commands. They’re following the wisdom built into reality.
Imagine that Ikea product that you may have brought home and built yourself. The wisdom of Ikea is present in the product itself. And it’s also present in the instructions that come along with the Ikea product. Following those instructions isn’t an arbitrary duty. It’s actually participating in the wisdom of Ikea, the wisdom of the marker.
Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount reflects this same idea. It’s about blessing through God’s wisdom. The very final lines of the Sermon on the Mount say that everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house on the rock. The Sermon on the Mount in other words, is like a foundation for the ethical life. Not in the arbitrary sense that God’s going to reward you for obeying him, but in the deepest sense: that this is God’s wisdom, God’s genius. The genius that’s built into the fabric of the world, but now expressed in these instructions for life. Jesus doesn’t promise happiness in the sense of pleasure.
In fact, the Sermon on the Mount warns against chasing pleasure. But Jesus does promise happiness in the highest sense. It’s what positive psychologists call “a sense of meaning”. It’s what Aristotle called “Eudaimonia”. It’s what the Bible calls “blessed”: participating in the rationale of the world in the very mind of the maker.
5 Minute Jesus: The pursuit of happiness