“It’s like I keep trying to scratch some deep, existential itch with these women.”
I sat across from my good friend on the restaurant patio eating our carrot-topped Asian fusion burgers. He was telling me how he couldn’t stop going back to Tinder in order to meet women to mess around with. “It never goes quite too far,” he informed me, “but after each time I just feel gross, like I’ve just used her and it was meaningless and futile. Sometimes I may edge the boundary in order to try to feel a little more by going further.”
I listened intently to his confession, knowing full well the feelings he was describing. My transgressions may wear a different skin than his, but I was no stranger to the feeling of after-the-moment remorse. Whether it was hours-long binges with pornography or making out with girls I should not have, I know how it feels to search for meaning in these ecstatic sensual highs.
Several years ago when I was in college, I remember a moment in Systematic Theology class which pivoted my worldview. As someone raised in a Christian home with mostly Christian schools and church several times a week, I was raised with a rich soteriological paradigm. I was under the assumption that everyone who was not a Christian was crawling around in some sort of arduous wasteland, just waiting for someone to introduce them to Jesus.
I was accustomed to the stories of Christians whose coworkers asked them, “What’s different about you?” The person then shares the gospel with them and their world is enlightened upon their receipt of salvation (aka, ultimate satisfaction).
My world was also riddled with rockstar salvation stories: “I used to do drugs and sex and alcohol but then I became a Christian and now I just want to read my Bible.”
Nevertheless, my paradigm was gently shattered in Clark’s class when he was talking about the life of the non-believer. Granted, as a category, this is enormous and cannot be summed up simply, but his words did euthanize many of my naive assumptions.
“Some of you may think non-Christians are out there just in agony, waiting for someone to share the gospel with them,” he explained. “You may think that they keep trying thing after thing to try to salve their existential ache and once you introduce them to Jesus, they’ll be overjoyed and all their problems will vanish.
“While this may be true of some non-believers, it certainly does not describe the majority of them. There are plenty of people out there of all religions (or lack of religion) who are perfectly happy going about their lives without Jesus. They do not feel an absence of joy or peace or happiness. They are not just ‘ignoring the void’ so to speak; they are genuinely happy.”
The little box in which I held my missiology was shattered. As I said above, I was under the impression that everyone was storing up their pain and confusion until Jesus could come to them and help make sense of everything.
How could someone legitimately be happy without Jesus??
What is the point of being a Christian then?
What’s more, how will I ever convert anyone to be a Christian if they’re already happy?
I remember being shocked and deflated.
A few days later though, it clicked in my mind and rather than inducing fear, my professor’s words brought me profound comfort. Think about it: Being a Christian doesn’t make you happy. I’ve preached that message for years, often with a tagline about how being a Christian often brings more hardship into your life. If that’s the case, then the opposite must also be true. Non-Christians can be very happy indeed.
A deeper thread seems to undermine a lot of this line of thinking though. There should be some sort of existential discomfort to those who do not know the Maker of existence, no? This is where the second half of my epiphany comes in:
The purpose of you, your body, your senses, and your life is not to make you happy. Your sensual pleasure (brought about by marriage, sex, drugs, masturbation, alcohol, money, the rush of investing and entrepreneurship, or skydiving) is not the point of existence.
That’s why my friend in Chicago and I found ourselves on couches with women, searching for some sort of meaning in our kisses. That’s why Instagram promises us better lives if they were only filled with travel, adventure and more followers—just like the celebrities we follow.
But lo, the meaning of it all is not sensual pleasure. That’s exactly why we cannot count on the empty feelings within non-believers to push them toward salvation. If that were the case, would it not also say something about the nature of God Himself? That He tricks us into salvation the same way you direct a donkey with a carrot on a stick? That He’s nothing more than one more balm to our raging desires—another meal for our hungry tummies?
The message of the Bible is not broken when people achieve happiness outside of God.
Perhaps it is proved all the more right. If you think about it, what is the gospel message? That we are unhappy and Jesus comes to make us happy? Even if this is preached across the stages of many megachurches in America today, it is not the gospel.
The gospel is that we are dead and waiting to be brought to life. The gospel is that we are sinful and our sinful selves need to die in order that Christ can bring to life the New Man, the Spirit-filled man within us.
The gospel is far bigger than mere happiness or satisfaction. This is why my friend and I continually run back to the empty wells of pornography and hook ups. This is why we go further and further with our sensual boundaries, thinking that just a little further will satiate the ache within us.
The answer is not to pursue happiness, but life.
The billions of non-Christians who are happy outside the sphere of salvation may feel content and happy, but they are still sinful. They still continue treading the hamster wheels of systems which oppress millions for the satisfaction of the few. They still twist God-given desires into strange and bent means of gratification.
Put simply, they still sin.
And as the tattoo above my heart serves to remind me, the mission of the Christian is to advance God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven; to join Him as He makes all things new. Sure, non-Christians may be participating in non-profit volunteer work and donating to charities but their penance doesn’t make up for the depth of their sin against a holy Creator. They may be happy, but they still need Jesus. We all do. We will endlessly need Him.
I think I would go so far as to say that any sort of Christianity which promises satisfaction, happiness, or a better life (in this life, of course) is a twisting of the truth of the gospel. The happiness of the pagan masses is not a problem for the believer, as the good news of Jesus Christ is not that you can come to Him and be happy. The promises of Christ are often quite the opposite: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Or, “if you want to follow Me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross daily…”
Of course, the implication is that what we give up and the suffering we endure are mere shadows of what await us in Christ Jesus Himself. You cannot achieve that level of pleasure in nudes exchanged with supermodels or hookups with Bumble dates. No matter how much meaning you try to extract from a drunken night with friends, or the identity you try to extract from the purity of your childhood memories, you can’t heal yourself. You may reach some sort of personal utopia or a myopic nirvana, but have you healed the world or merely made yourself happy? Have you atoned for your sins or just pleased yourself?
May we be people who live in a constant awareness of our sinfulness. May we look to the cross of Christ, not for the sake of being shamed, but forgiven. May we love our neighbors—Christians and non-Christians alike—in order that they too may come to know the source of all life, the man Jesus from Nazareth.