Jonathan Edwards on The Good Life
By Owen Strachan, Douglas Sweeney, Christopher Reese
Moody Publishers Copyright © 2010 Owen Strachan Douglas Sweeney
All rights reserved.
The Nearness of the Good Life
The gaze is direct. The posture is straight. The face is serious, even stern. In his portraits, Jonathan Edwards stares back at the viewer. To a person unfamiliar with the theologian, he looks like any other stereotypical colonial parson, severe and austere, brooking no foolishness, itching to declaim the evils of everyday life. Wearing a powdered wig of tight white curls, staring alertly back at the observer, Jonathan Edwards as portrayed on canvas seems to substantiate the image of Edwards cultivated for generations in high-school classrooms. Here is the man who unleashed the thunder of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Small wonder that such a gloomy person would bore into us from his portrait.
But appearances are often deceiving. In reality, Jonathan Edwards was not an angry man. He was one of the happiest men around. He loved to play and talk with his children, and he enjoyed much cheer and laughter in his marriage to his wife, Sarah. He cherished his time in his study. Jonathan's happiness, however, transcended the joys of home and work, significant as they are. Unlike many people, Jonathan Edwards knew happiness at the very core of his being. In a way that many of us don't even think about, Edwards possessed a holistic intellectual and spiritual happiness. He strove to know God with his mind, to experience the goodness of God with his heart, and to lead others to do the same. Though his temperament was calm, he lived with zest and vigor, modeling the happy way of life he taught his people.
Many people today do not know such peace and happiness. They live with constant tension, often acting contrary to what their mind and their conscience tell them is right. They rebel against their Creator and His design for their life. Though they may know satisfaction for a brief period, lasting happiness evades them. This results in a broken, frustrating, ultimately pointless life.
Though his era differed from ours, Jonathan identified the same problem in his day. Gifted from his youth with great passion for God and His Word, Jonathan discovered early on in his life that true and lasting happiness in this life was attainable. All that the human heart desired it could have, and far more besides. The riches of God's Word could satisfy the intellectual hunger of the human mind for a balanced, cohesive, meaningful worldview and the spiritual hunger of the human heart for a joyful, hopeful, transformative existence.
In sum, Jonathan discovered a simple but vitalizing truth: God had not made mankind to be miserable. Being a Christian did not mean the absence of pleasure. Much to the contrary, God had made mankind to experience unending delight and joy in Him, to be happier and happier as knowledge of God increased, and to constantly soak up the sweetest pleasure the world affords in the life of faith–all of which flow together to constitute "the good life." In a world filled with people who lived in the gloom of darkness, Jonathan Edwards preached to set his hearers' hearts on fire, to alter forever the way they understood themselves and their lives. He knew that any life created by the majestic, undomesticated, loving God of the Bible could not be mundane or boring. He preached in such a way as to altogether change the way we think about our faith and the way we practice it.
In this chapter, we will explore the initial, pre-fall design of God for human life through interaction with a number of noteworthy Edwardsean texts: The Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, the sermon "Charity Contrary to a Selfish Spirit," and the homily "The Pleasantness of Religion." By careful study of these sources, we will develop an understanding of the original intention of the Creator for mankind and clear our minds of false and unbiblical conceptions of the good, Christian life. God, we shall see in this chapter, has not made people to be grimly obedient. Rather, He desires that we find transcendent, unassailable, undimmed satisfaction in Him.
God the Foundation
The foundation of the good life is God. In Edwards's world, God reigned over all as the emblem of majesty, authority, and goodness. The sum of His perfections rendered God beautiful, or more accurately, Beauty itself. As covered in Jonathan Edwards on Beauty, also in this series, God created the world to display and reflect His glory. All that the eye can see exists to "remanate," or send back, God's original glory to Himself. God alone is worthy of such a system, for He alone is God. All of creation participates in this "cycle of beauty" that begins with God and returns to God.
But while all things in some way display and reflect the beauty of God, only humans may do so with awareness. Only mankind can participate consciously in the cycle of beauty. It was for this very purpose that God created the race. He desired a special sort of being to commune with Him and to joyfully image His goodness in the world. Edwards discussed this in his foundational text The End for Which God Created the World:
IT SEEMS TO BE A THING in itself fit and desirable, that the glorious perfections of God should be known, and the operations and expressions of them seen by other beings besides himself ... As God's perfections are things in themselves excellent, so the expression of them in their proper acts and fruits is excellent, and the knowledge of these excellent perfections, and of these glorious expressions of them, is an excellent thing, the existence of which is in itself valuable and desirable.
Because God was so excellent, it was only right that His excellence be enjoyed by others:
'TIS A THING INFINITELY GOOD in itself that God's glory should be known by a glorious society of created beings. And that there should be in them an increasing knowledge of God to all eternity is an existence, a reality infinitely worthy to be, and worthy to be valued and regarded by him, to whom it belongs in order that it be, which, of all things possible, is fittest and best. If existence is more worthy than defect and nonentity, and if any created existence is in itself worthy to be, then knowledge or understanding is a thing worthy to be; and if any knowledge, then the most excellent sort of knowledge, viz. that of God and his glory. The existence of the created universe consists as much in it as in anything: yea, this knowledge is one of the highest, most real and substantial parts, of all created existence most remote from nonentity and defect. (Works 8, 430—32)
The passage touches on numerous ideas, but the key sentence for our purposes is this: "'Tis a thing infinitely good in itself that God's glory should be known by a glorious society of created beings." Edwards believed that mankind was made for an "increasing knowledge of God," a knowledge of "the most excellent sort" that would satisfy and fill the mind and heart as nothing else can. Adam and Eve, and the race they produced, were not mere chess pawns in the hands of the Grandmaster, but possessed a supremely noble purpose that would make for a life of the most exhilarating kind.
The Good Life Does Not Squash Happiness
In giving his picture of the good life, Edwards had to overcome two specific objections. First, he had to show how a universe that existed to glorify God did not squash or prohibit the happiness of mankind. Central to the following passage is the idea that God "emanates" or sends His beauty (or glory) out, and the creature receives and delights in it. Edwards teaches us here that the happiness of God and the happiness of humanity are not, as some have suggested, at odds. Instead, God and man ideally work in harmony, with God "emanating" glory that is received and reflected by mankind, who grows happy in performing this divine duty:
GOD IN SEEKING HIS GLORY, therein seeks the good of his creatures: because the emanation of his glory (which he seeks and delights in, as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory) implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creature. And that in communicating his fullness for them, he does it for himself: because their good, which he seeks, is so much in union and communion with himself. God is their good. Their excellency and happiness is nothing but the emanation and expression of God's glory: God in seeking their glory and happiness, seeks himself: and in seeking himself, i.e. himself diffused and expressed (which he delights in, as he delights in his own beauty and fullness), he seeks their glory and happiness.
Edwards continued the argument by putting it in grander terms:
IN THIS VIEW IT APPEARS that God's respect to the creature, in the whole, unites with his respect to himself. Both regards are like two lines which seem at the beginning to be separate, but aim finally to meet in one, both being directed to the same center. And as to the good of the creature itself, if viewed in its whole duration, and infinite progression, it must be viewed as infinite; and so not only being some communication of God's glory, but as coming nearer and nearer to the same thing in its infinite fullness. The nearer anything comes to infinite, the nearer it comes to an identity with God. And if any good, as viewed by God, is beheld as infinite, it can't be viewed as a distinct thing from God's own infinite glory. (Works 8, 459)
In this passage, Edwards refutes the charge that God's glory and man's happiness are mutually exclusive. His central point is that "God in seeking his glory, therein seeks the good of his creatures." As some mistakenly believed, if God is going to be happy, then He will create a world that pleases only Himself and that yields little or no happiness to the people placed in the world to do His bidding. Humanity functions as little more than a race of slaves forced to execute the tyrannical will of a cruel king. Edwards, however, shows that this line of thought fails miserably. God, if He is God, is not a tyrant. As God, He is the embodiment of goodness. "[T]he emanation of his glory (which he seeks and delights in, as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory)," then, "implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creature." Life as this kind and awesome God created it to be cannot be slavish or sad; it is filled with "excellency and happiness" that flows from the divine fountain.
All of the God-centered life is calibrated to bless the people of God as they glorify the Lord in all they do (1 Corinthians 10:31). Those who seek the Lord and live to magnify Him will know His "communicated excellency and happiness" even as they participate in the great work of glorifying Him. God's glory and man's happiness are not at odds with one another–far from it. The two ideally work hand in hand.
Thus we see Edwards's brilliant and transformative doctrine of the good life. At its deepest, most profound level, the good life is the life lived for the glory of God. Those who live to display and image the beauty of God will, in whatever circumstance they find themselves, experience happiness that comes directly from God Himself. Happiness, then, is not a state outside of ourselves that we must strive for. It does not ebb and flow with our life situation. Happiness is doing the will of God, for the will of God always yields the glory of God. What is the will of God? It is God's revealed purposes and desires in the Bible. In short, the good life is the existence that takes shape according to the teachings and commands of Scripture. When one obeys God by loving His Son and following His Word, one glorifies the Lord and tastes the sweetest, richest happiness known to man. This and no other substitute is the good life. It is what God has always intended for mankind.
The Good Life Does Not Destroy Self-Love
In unfurling his vision of the good life, Edwards had to overcome a second objection. He had to show how the God-centered life corresponded with the natural human instinct to love and preserve oneself, which he defined as follows: "Self-love, I think, is generally defined: a man's love of his own happiness" (Works 8, 575). Did living for God, in other words, mean that one had to sacrifice concern for oneself and adopt a pattern of living that impeded happiness for the sake of obeying God?
Edwards had a ready answer to this question. He refused, at the start, to separate love for God and love for oneself. One best loved oneself by loving God. Loving oneself without God meant that one strayed from the source of all wisdom and truth, and thus consigned oneself to destruction. On the contrary, loving oneself through loving God meant that one experienced the joys of the virtuous life. Instead of living selfishly, mankind could live for God and experience His boundless goodness. In doing so, they would actually care for themselves far better than if they ignored the Lord and went their own way.
Edwards, we see, also refused to separate happiness from obedience. He argued that exercising virtue in service to God actually enabled a person to love themselves best. "True virtue," he argued in Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue, "most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general. Or perhaps to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, that is immediately exercised in a general good will" (Works 8, 540). The "Being" of which Edwards spoke was God and the system of creaturely being He had created. Living a life of "benevolence" (or loving goodwill) toward God and His creatures meant that one possessed "true virtue." Virtue and happiness actually went hand in hand. When one acted virtuously to others out of a desire to love God and preserve his soul, he found true happiness. Happiness did not come from gratification of one's selfish instincts, but rather from one's desire to bless others and please the Lord.
In the final analysis, Edwards revealed that virtue and self-preservation did not naturally conflict. God designed man to be good. When a person acts on these instincts and lives a life of "benevolence" to God and, accordingly, to his fellow man, he preserves his soul and, as a result, loves himself more than the person who lives without virtue and who operates out of selfishness. Christianity, the life of Spirit-empowered virtue, does not require that one sacrifice happiness. As a believer in Christ lives the good life of obedience to the Lord, he tastes true and lasting happiness, blesses God and mankind, and ultimately preserves his soul. Edwards's doctrine expresses on a theological level the simple truth taught by Christ centuries before in Matthew 16:25: "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
A Deeply Ironic Doctrine
The Edwardsean doctrine of happiness is rich with irony. To save one's soul and experience deepest delight one must abandon the instinct to selfishly pursue one's well-being. True self-interest involves turning one's life over to God and accepting His plan for life over against anything the human mind can conceive. One cannot win salvation and happiness for oneself by selfish cunning or slick plans. If one desires to know happiness in this life and the next, one must hand one's life over to the Lord. A Christian is a person who hands the keys over to Jesus. The believer trusts Him to lead and guide, knowing that whatever way He directs will be best.
It may not always appear this way, of course. One may trust Christ and find that the going soon gets rough. This is no indication that Christ has failed and that happiness is lost. While God often allows His children to feel happy because of favorable circumstances, His fundamental gift to believers is not the promise of a life without challenges, but a state of deep happiness rooted in Himself that transcends all situations, good or ill. This is the kind of happiness that lasts beyond a mood or an emotional high. It is a persevering, bold happiness that is rooted in faith in God and love for God.
Some people who know this Edwardsean kind of happiness, this rich brand of spiritual joy, express it with great emotion. Edwards himself regularly experienced a sort of rapturous communion with God. Others, however, express their joy in quieter form, their deep satisfaction in Him manifesting itself in a quiet, contented way of life. Neither mode is best; both are valid and good. The challenge for most of us is to find the happiness common to both groups of happy believers. Too many Christians fail to taste the profound satisfaction offered them in the gospel. They have a sense of their salvation, but they have little awareness of the greatness of the gospel and its ability to altogether transform their existence. They know that God wants them to be happy, but they have not realized that joy comes not primarily from having one's desires met by God, but by serving God and doing what He desires.
Life in Uncomfortable Tension
Too many of us live in a strenuous push-and-pull relationship with the Lord. We obey Him, to some extent, but we also push for the accomplishment of our plans, the fulfillment of our desires, not realizing that He has a better plan and better desires for us. The happiest Christians are not those who manage to accomplish all of their personal goals. Rather, the happiest Christians are those who embrace what God wants for their lives. Thus the irony of faith reveals itself once again. One does not become happy by liberating oneself from duty; one becomes happy by obeying and following the plans of the Lord, who in turn provides the happiness one naturally desires. In duty, in serving the Lord, we find true happiness. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Jonathan Edwards on The Good Life by Owen Strachan, Douglas Sweeney, Christopher Reese. Copyright © 2010 Owen Strachan Douglas Sweeney. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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