As a sophomore in college in 2009, I wrote a paper with the thesis that Heath Ledger’s Joker in the 2008 film The Dark Knight is the film incarnation of the 20th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Since then it has become a rather common interpretation of the character (though of course not because of my sophomoric essay). Ledger’s iconic and chilling delivery of Christopher Nolan’s script forced the true fragility of our thought-to-be unassailable system of morals and values right under our noses. On what philosophical foundation do we decry the Joker’s acts of terror? If God is dead, if foundationalism is dead, why take ourselves so seriously?
Why so serious?
Interestingly enough, Nietzsche actually posed a somewhat similar challenge to the Bible-thumpers of his day:
“If your belief makes you blessed then appear to be blessed! Your faces have always been more injurious to your belief than our objections have! If these glad tidings of your Bible were written on your faces, you would not need to insist so obstinately on the authority of that book.”
In other words, “If God is not dead, why the long face?”
Ironically, the greatest (at least British) preacher of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones, diagnosed the exact same problem. He wrote in one of my favorite books, Spiritual Depression, that “Nothing is so important, therefore, than that we should be delivered from a condition which gives other people, looking at us, the impression that to be a Christian means to be unhappy, to be sad, to be morbid, and that the Christian is one who ‘scorns delights and lives laborious days.’” Lloyd Jones saw the depressed Christian as a “contradiction in terms” and “a very poor recommendation for the gospel.” He went so far as to say that Christian unhappiness was “the main reason why large numbers of people [had] ceased to be interested in Christianity.” Yet this was not a new phenomenon. The greatest (also British) preacher of the 19th century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, said that “When Christians are revived they live more consistently, they make their homes more holy and more happy, and this leads the ungodly to envy them, and to inquire after their secret.” In other words, consider tossing out the evangelistic crusade and trying a bit of cheerfulness.
So, contrary to the caricatures of a frowning and frustrated deity bent on putting an end to fun whenever He can, God is actually quite interested in our joy. We are all seeking happiness anyways, and we implicitly declare worthy—we glorify—that which makes us happy. And not only does our joy bring glory to God, it imparts life to others. This is perhaps why Jesus Himself laid into the gloomy Bible-thumpers of his day (Matthew 6:16)! If God’s will is then to make us happy, than what are we missing?
For starters, we often forget that happiness is counterintuitive: it cannot be sought directly. William Bennett said it this way: “Happiness is like a cat. If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.” Doesn’t that just put it perfectly? Similarly, Timothy Keller (my pick for the greatest preacher of the 21st century, though it’s still early) points out in commenting on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-11) that the blessedness (happiness) that Nietzsche accuses Christians of lacking will never be found by seeking blessing. Jesus never says blessed are those that seek their own blessedness. In fact He says almost the exact opposite!
The ultimate reason for this, I think, is that the sweetest happiness is the fruit of two intertwining vines: humility and holiness. Sin and pride are like thieves who come in the night to sever the root of these vines and devour their scrumptious fruit. But both humility and holiness are deeply misunderstood, and we must understand them if we are to fight off the joy thieves of sin and pride. Regarding humility, C.S. Lewis said it better (probably due to being British) in Mere Christianity than I ever could:
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
And in the case of holiness, Lewis’ most popular disciple says in his stellar book on marriage that “real happiness is on the far side of holiness, not the near side” (Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage). Read that quote again. It could change your entire life.
Many of us feel the weight of Nietzsche’s rebuke. He is right; too many of us have a joyless faith. Yet few have any clue what to do about it. This is going to sound weird, but I promise the answer is this: look to the cross of Jesus and look after the hungry, sick, tired, and hurting. We rarely associate either activity with happiness but that is precisely the point. Happiness is counterintuitive. The cross reveals how completely unable we are to “save” ourselves through our career, reputation, religious observance, or anything else. It is humbling. Simultaneously, the cross reveals how completely God loves us to go to such elaborate lengths to save us and give us the joy that we all seek! How humbling! And to see the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, crucified as as a beggar and a criminal cannot but change the way we look at the beggar and the criminal in our midst because at the foot of the cross we are all beggars and criminals. As we wash one another’s feet, we are continually humbled ever more. And, oddly, there is a deep and true holiness in such humble, self-sacrificing love, for that is who God revealed Himself to be in Jesus. Why would we want to sin against a God like that? And aren’t we set apart, i.e. holy, by our love for one another (John 13:35)? So look to Jesus and to others, and as those vines of holiness and humility grow in your life, you just might find the plump fruit of joy popping up in unexpected places. You might even have enough to share with others!
I respect Friedrich Nietzsche. He took the implications of his mad philosophy seriously, dying in an insane asylum. Jesus did too, enduring the cross for the joy set before Him, proving Plato’s notion that a truly righteous man would be crucified. Nobody took Jesus’ words, “Lose your life and you will find it” more seriously than Jesus Himself.
What about you? Most of us settle for a comfortable life in the middle, doing anything and everything to avoid the troubled ends of Nietzsche and the Nazarene. But how oddly little joy there is in a comfortable life. I challenge you: if you truly want to be happy, forget about your own happiness. Happy are those who look to Jesus and to the needs of others. Go figure.
To get started, read this very incredible passage from the biblical book of Philippians, often aptly called “the letter of joy.” Fittingly, it was written from a dank Roman dungeon:
“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, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:3-11).”
Join the discussion One Comment
Glad I waited until this morning to read this…made my whole day! Thanks!