Does the presence or absence of happiness say anything about us morally, or is happiness simply a nonmoral state of affairs?
Today we field a fairly technical question about whether or not our happiness is moral. It’s a question from a listener named Eric. “Hello, Pastor John! This podcast is a tremendous gift. I’ve listened from my conversion until now, in seminary.” That’s incredible, Pastor John, that we have been doing this for the duration of someone getting saved and entering seminary. Wow. Eric continues, “I have a question regarding happiness. What would you say to this line from theologian John Frame? ‘Only persons and their actions and attitudes can be good in a moral sense. But happiness is a condition or state of affairs, so it can be considered good only in a nonmoral sense’ (‘The Doctrine of the Christian Life,’ 91). He goes on to say, ‘There are many things that human beings value more than pleasure. One example is sacrificing one’s life to save the life of another. . . . If we define pleasure so broadly as to include all other values, including self-sacrifice, then it loses its meaning. It doesn’t distinguish pleasurable from non-pleasurable activities’ (93).
“My immediate reaction to this was: That’s not right. Piper and Edwards and Augustine all say that pleasure is what we all desire most, and it is a moral good that God commands our joy in Philippians 3:1 (‘Rejoice in the Lord’). But then Frame surprised me in the next chapter by saying this: ‘For Scripture, duty and happiness are not opposed, but in the long run reinforce one another’ (101). That seems more in line with Christian Hedonism — namely, that our happiness and God’s glory are not two separate things, but we must seek them both together. So my question for you, Pastor John, is this: Am I misunderstanding Christian Hedonism? Is happiness a nonmoral good? Or is it a moral good?”