Summary: God fills us with love for what is good and glorious so we will choose the best.
A Biblical study of ethics usually considers four topics: the 1) standard, 2) dynamic, 3) motive, and 4) goal of the Christian life. In three short verses, the Apostle Paul touches on each of those as he prays for his friends in Philippi. The forty-three word sentence is simple, but the ideas touch our deepest longings and desires, as we discover that we need abounding love in order to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
[Read Philippians 1.9-11. Pray.]
A few weeks ago I asked: “What do you do when God does not do what you want him to do?” That question touches one critical issue in the life of faith. God does all things for his glory and our good, but those things sometimes “cross all the fair designs we scheme” (John Newton). As John Piper notes, “All experiences of suffering… threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience” (Desiring God, 257).
Today I ask another critical question (and hopefully answer, at least in part): “Why do we do the things we do?” Why do we come to church? Why invest in a child’s life through Whiz Kids? Why work hard for a degree and a career? Why raise wise and compassionate children? What is the motive for the Christian life? Or even bigger, what motivates anyone to do the things they do?
Blaise Pascal lived a short life in the 1600s, but proved himself a prodigy by mastering Euclid’s Elements when he was only twelve. At the age of sixteen he wrote a paper on conic sections, acclaimed by fellow mathematicians as “the most powerful and valuable contribution that had been made to mathematical science since the days of Archimedes.” He invented the first adding machine when he was nineteen, and six years later proved the relationship between atmospheric pressure and the level of mercury in a barometer. His other insights in philosophy and the physical sciences were just as extraordinary. In other words, Blaise Pascal was one smart cookie. He was also a committed Christian.
Pascal’s most influential theological work is a series of meditations on life and faith called, Pensées (roughly translated, “Thoughts”). In those writings he commented on why we do the things we do: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
So Pascal believed that we do what we do because we hope it will make us happy. But that opinion has fallen on some hard times recently. Many Christians feel that seeking our own happiness produces selfish people who care little for God or his glory. And it is certainly true that the pursuit of pleasure leads many people far from God!
So we might suppose that the faithful motive for godly living is not our own joy but our duty. After all, does not the promise of personal reward always produce selfish and self-seeking desires? And does not the Bible teach self-denial as a great goal for the Christian?
C. S. Lewis did not believe so: “The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 1–2).
In other words (according to Lewis), not only do people seek their own happiness, but the Christian ought to seek that very thing. Our great duty is to find the happiness which can only be found in God. And many Scriptures agree: