Christian Counseling Certification Program: False Idols of Christian Happiness to Avoid when Christian Counseling
Like an illusion in the desert, false notions of happiness pose as an oasis, but in reality are handfuls of dry coarse sand. It is important then to identify a few notions of false happiness and classify them in your Christian Spiritual counseling sessions. To many times, people are directed towards these ends and never find genuine happiness.
The first notion is materialism. Materialism values happiness in finite objects that appeal to the senses. It is limited only to the body and hence fails to satisfy man’s spiritual and emotional needs. In many ways, it is an in-proportionate balance of bodily pleasure over spiritual. Dr Mara, in his classic work, “Christian Happiness”, relates that the primary error in regards to the study of happiness is that the materialist reveres a low “good” as a high “good” and treats that good as an absolute. Slightly related is the worship of knowledge as the highest good. This was seen in many of the Greek philosophers. The reality is knowledge itself is not the good, but the gateway that opens one to discovering the truth that can give happiness. This, while superior to object based materialism, still finds happiness in an intangible object that can give no reciprocity.
Another false notion is relativism. This “ism” denies an objective absolute truth in regards to anything. In regards to happiness, the relativist nonchalantly remarks, “Whatever makes you happy is then best for you”. While low goods and preferences can be applied to this, the relativist applies all moral actions as equal in regards to happiness. There is no one true objective nature of what true happiness is to the relativist. If N likes this, and R likes this, then who is to say one good is superior to the other. Dr. Mara relates that the error of the relativist is that he elevates everyone’s personal standards to the status of an objective absolute.
Escapism is another false notion. How can one find happiness in a world of pain and suffering? Some escapists find an outlet from the burrs of the world via drugs and alcohol. Some pursue an addiction to distractive behaviors, whether it is excessive forms of entertainment or seclusion. Some try to forget the worries of the world and divulge themselves into video games or put themselves in a constant state of movement. Others hope to escape by downplaying the evils of the world. They hope to escape the fear or reality of death by downplaying evil or death as a joke. Dr. Mara refers to this as the “Pollyanna” Syndrome; looking at the bright side so much that they become alienated from reality and fail to face their fears. Another form of escapism accepts the evils of the world and finds happiness in negation or neutral consciousness. The reality of evil is so overbearing that everything that soothes the mind from it is an illusion. One can only hope to escape evil and find happiness via nothingness. Cynics find no joy in the world, but only see this overbearing evil. There is no happiness because everything is tainted by death, misery or evil. A stoic accepts this ideal as well but is willing to take the good with the bad but only if the good is taken with a detached prerequisite. In other words, you can touch, you can taste, but do not enjoy or become dependent upon it. This is a strong characteristic of Eastern philosophy where any form of lower “goods” are seen as inconsequential and are illusions to the reality of suffering. Detachment and eventual Nirvana are the true goals of happiness. Schopenhauer, a Western philosopher, completely absorbed these teachings and expressed how happiness is relief from misery and that life is a mistake. The only joy is absence of suffering, hence a neutral consciousness is preferred over any positive stimuli.
While escapism attempts to retreat from the pains of the world and find happiness in negative states, earthly optimism becomes intoxicated with the other extreme. This erroneous approach to happiness over emphasizes earthly life and while accepting death, devalues its true impact as merely an event in life no different than birth or marriage. An earthly optimist will almost joke about death as the big event or make pithy remarks about the grim ripper. While materialistic to some extent, an earthly optimist wants to experience life to the fullest and accepts all the bumps in the road as what they are. They lack a deeper analysis of spiritual aspect of evil and death. The over optimism distorts the true relevance of suffering and evil. True death and suffering are part of life, but they play a much deeper role that cannot be laughed off or accepted as an event equal to any other event. This philosophy, held by many positivists such as Hume, Dewey, or Russell, leads to a very secular life style of maximizing happiness on this planet and not the next life. The theory of ethics thus becomes confused with the theory of happiness. It no longer becomes what “I ought to do” but what “makes me happy”. I think it is quite obvious that this is not the Christian notion of happiness.
With these erroneous paths laid, what is the path a Christian Counselor should lay out before a fellow soul that is downtrodden and filled with grief? The Christian path is a realistic path but an optimistic one. It acknowledges the fallen state of the world but finds harmony with it while preparing for the next state of paradise. The Christian as a realist will not seek to escape suffering, nor will he denounce all earthly pleasures, but on the contrary will enjoy the gifts of this world and carry the crosses of this world that are given to him by the Lord. The Christian as an optimist, however, will not live for the goods of this world but see a greater reality that is void of suffering and death but only filled with love and joy. In this optimism, the Christian will seek to put his energy into goods that transcend and escape the decay of this world. The Christian will cultivate goods of virtue, family, friendship, faith and love; Goods that lead to God and bind us with him and our family forever in paradise. This is the ultimate spiritual banquet, love of neighbor and family, bound with the perfect and reciprocal love of God that is eternal and forever. This is the ultimate happiness—for it is perfect and forever.
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By Mark Moran, MA, GC-C, SCC-C