Jason and Kaitlyn would never have said their marriage was unhappy. However, throughout the fourteen years they had been together, they gradually drifted apart. They rarely had arguments and to outsiders they looked like the perfect couple. However, as the years went by, they seemed to have less and less in common.
Without giving it much thought, Jason instinctively assumed that the reason he had grown distant from Kaitlyn was because she had changed. It wasn’t simply that Kaitlyn’s had lost her youthful beauty, although it did bother Jason that he was no longer physically attracted to his wife. It was also that she was no longer as fun to be around. She used to be the type of person you wanted to share everything with, but over the years she seemed to have become different. It was hard to put his finger on it.
Kaitlyn tried not to think too much about the growing distance between Jason and herself. A few years ago she had begun to suspect that Jason was using his computer at work to access pornography, but she quickly dismissed the idea from her head. The sense of distance between them was probably just because they were so busy with their kids that they rarely had time to do things together anymore. Whenever they did have a free evening, it seemed Jason preferred to spend it watching sports with his friends from the software firm where he worked. During football season, Jason didn’t even come to church with her and the kids. Kaitlyn reflected that maybe if she and Jason could go on a vacation together, just the two of them, they might be able to rekindle what they had lost.
When Kaitlyn approached Jason with the idea of a vacation, he responded positively. A couple weeks later he had found a vacation spot on the central California coast and reserved accommodation for them in the early summer.
When the time for the vacation finally arrived, it was clear that they both had different agendas. Kaitlyn envisioned the holiday as a time to talk with Jason, for them to reconnect emotionally, and perhaps even watch some reruns of TV shows they had enjoyed in the early years before having kids. But Jason wanted them to spend most of their time on the beach, and he expected Kaitlyn to dress like she used to back when they were dating.
On the second day of the vacation, a frustrated Jason went down to the beach himself, with Kaitlyn staying behind to watch TV in the room. “It’s like she doesn’t even try to be attractive anymore,” Jason muttered to himself as he leaned back in his deck chair to begin reading Sports Illustrated.
Before long, Jason sensed that he wasn’t alone. About twenty feet away was a girl. She was also reading, but she was apparently not enjoying her book, judging from the frustrated exclamations every few minutes,
“Is everything okay?” Jason finally asked a few minutes later.
“Oh yes,” replied the girl, who could have been anywhere from twenty-one to twenty-five. “Don’t take any notice of me. I’m just struggling with some material for an incredibly difficult college course.” And then laughing, she said, “You don’t happen to be a computer science expert, do you?”
“I actually work with computers for my job.”
“Well, maybe you can help me then,” she said. “I thought that doing my homework on the beach would help, but I’m just as confused as ever.” As Jason ventured to approach, the girl explained that she was a business major struggling with homework for a computer science class. Then, laughing, she held out her hand saying, “Oh, and I’m Amber by the way.”
As Jason took her hand, he was struck by the softness of the girl’s large brown eyes, complimented by auburn hair that descended in waves over her shoulder and trailed off just above her bikini top.
Over the next week, Jason met Amber frequently at the beach, helping her to understand some of the more difficult concepts in her computer science class. Sometimes they would take a break and go on long strolls together along the shoreline, interspersed with swimming in the ocean.
When he was around Amber, Jason felt more fully himself. She was the sort of person a man could feel safe opening up to, even about his frustrated marriage and his addictions. If he had shared with Kaitlyn about his porn addiction, he knew she would have judged him, but Amber just accepted him as he was. She seemed so much more of a modern woman than Kaitlyn, someone who instinctively understood that “boys will be boys.”
After the vacation was over, Jason kept in touch with Amber through FaceTime, ostensibly so he could help her with college work. Four months later Jason met Amber on a “business trip” and stayed at her apartment for three days. After that, he had little doubt that Amber was the girl of his dreams. Unless he had Amber as his own, Jason knew he could never be happy.
The next month, Jason filed for divorce so he could marry Amber. Although part of him felt guilty doing this, he kept telling himself that it was finally time to do something for himself. “Besides,” he thought, “it wouldn’t be fair on Kaitlyn for me to remain with her if I don’t love her anymore.”
Today Jason and Amber have two kids of their own and run a lucrative CRM business. Jason is much happier than before and feels fulfilled as a man. He often describes it by saying that it wasn’t until he met Amber that he started to feel fully himself.
And what about Kaitlyn? She also became happier after the divorce. She quit her job and decided to return to school to indulge her passion for floral design. While at school she fell in love with one of her professors, an older man who simply adored her. Kaitlin and the professor now live together, and she feels like she is flourishing more than she ever did in her relationship with Jason. So everything seems to have turned out for the best. Or did it?
Accounts like the above raise the question of what it actually means to flourish as a human being. What does it mean to become fully ourselves? Many people might assume that because Jason felt more fulfilled after leaving Kaitlyn that the course he pursued was in his best interest, even if his actions were technically wrong. On this way of thinking, what is good for us (that is, what meets our needs and enables us to flourish as human beings) is often inconsistent with the dictates of right and wrong.
But how do we know what are needs truly are? Did the fact that Jason felt more fulfilled after he divorced Kaitlin mean that he actually was?
Virtue as Human Flourishing
The great preacher of the fourth and fifth century, St. John Chrysostom, addressed the question of human flourishing in a sermon written shortly before his death in 407. In the sermon, titled “Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself,” St. John asked us to consider “what is virtue?” Many of us instinctively assume a legalistic answer to this question, where virtue simply means “doing what’s right” or perhaps even “not sinning.” For still others, a life of virtue simply means following a bunch of rules. But Chrysostom urges us to think of human virtue in the same way people of his day thought of virtue in animals or inanimate objects, namely, that which enables a thing to flourish according to the goal of its nature.
What is the goal of human nature? In the ancient world, it was widely assumed that a person’s purpose was defined by their particular station in life. If you were ship-builder, then your virtue would be to build good ships; if you were a wife, then your virtue would be to bear children and help your husband; if you were a slave, then your virtue would be faithfully to serve your master, and so forth. (I discuss this ancient conception of virtue in more detail in my article ‘Was Calvin a Nominalist? Part 1: Historical and Theological Background.‘)
St. John assumed this purpose-oriented understanding virtue, but then added a twist. Instead of human virtue being defined by the things of creation, St. John taught that the primary vocation of human beings is to act as God’s image-bearers. Accordingly, the purpose for which we exist is ultimately to be united with Christ, something we achieve through being receptive to the work of God in our life. St. John taught that only through a lifestyle of serving others, adhering to true doctrine and patiently enduring suffering, can we realize the purpose for which we were created. Ultimately, to flourish as a human being is to develop our spiritual life in preparation for eternity, something we can do regardless of whether we feel happy and fulfilled.
This understanding of virtue enabled St. John to reframe how we think of suffering. A prevailing notion in his day, as in ours, is that a person can be harmed by various misfortunes, whether poverty, assault, ill health, loneliness, slander, depression, humiliating treatment from others, and various other type of discomfort and suffering. But Chrysostom pointed out that we can only assert that such things actually injure a person if these misfortunes prevent us from achieving virtue. Since “only right actions of the soul, constitute the virtue of man”, it follows that no outward conditions—regardless of how severe—can injure a person who does not injure himself. The Saint gave numerous examples from Scripture to prove that, far from actually injuring a person, external affliction can assist in the attainment of virtue as long as we remain receptive to the work of God in our life.
For St. John Chrysostom, God’s rules played an important part in the life of virtue, but they were less like a legalistic code and more like an operating manual on how to flourish in our vocation as God’s image-bearers. Think of it like the operating manual for a car, which is not an arbitrary list of rules, but a guide for helping us fulfil the car’s purpose. If you violate the rules for a car—for example, by putting lubricating oil where you’re suppose to put coolant—then the car will break down. In the same way, the commands God gives us in Scripture are like an operating manual for realizing our purpose to become fully human. The laws of God provide insight into the very nature of what it means to live, love and function as a right-ordered human beings; they show us not simply what is “right,” but how to act in a way that makes life worth living. Once we understand God’s laws in this broader sense, then it is no longer a simply a question of learning how to navigate around the do’s and don’ts of Scripture and somehow still find personal fulfillment in the process; rather, it is about embracing the goal for which those commands were originally given. The goal of Biblical ethics is simply for us to become more fully human—truly human as we were designed to be when God created male and female in His image. This understanding of virtue is prevalent throughout the Psalms, where “the law of God” is presented as medicine for enabling us to flourish in our primary vocation.
“A Rival Good to God’s”
This purpose-oriented view of virtue helps shed light on the problem of sin. The problem of sin is not simply that we do bad things by breaking God’s rules. The real problem of sin is that it involves us becoming oriented towards rival notions of what it means to flourish as a human being. This is illustrated by a moving scene at the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, when Julia tells Charles why she has to break off their unlawful engagement:
“I can’t marry you, Charles… I saw today that there was one thing unforgivable… the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.”
In one sense, sin first entered the world through the setting up of a rival good to God’s. God gave Adam and Eve an entire garden to sustain them, and this garden was more than sufficient for them and their descendants to flourish. When the devil tempted Adam and Eve, his temptation involved the subtle promise that good could be achieved outside of what God had given (Gen. 3:1-6). As the rest of the Bible and human history show, the pursuit of good things independently of God leads not to flourishing, but to self-injury.
As with Adam and Eve, so with us: that which God has not given us often appears pleasant and good. When our hearts are enticed with rival conceptions of The Good Life, then all the things God has given to sustain us and advance our spiritual wellbeing (including trials) come to appear insufficient. We can begin to think we know better than God what our needs actually are, and so we chase after rival visions of the Good Life that end up injure us and those around us.
Most sexual immorality results from distorted visions of the Good Life. The problem with immorality is not simply that it is sinful in the sense of transgressing an arbitrary rule God happened to make. The far more frightening thing about sexual immorality is that it involves turning away from the purpose of our nature to pursue substitute notions of human flourishing.
Think back to the story of Jason. The problem wasn’t merely that Jason’s relationship with Amber was sinful, in the sense of violating an external moral code. When we view sin like that, our battle against sin becomes little more than trying to muster as much willpower as possible to fight one temptation after another. Willpower is certainly important, and in Jason’s case, he had very little willpower left after years of gratifying his addictions. But the real problem was that Jason had began believing a false idea of what it means to flourish. For Jason, the Good Life began to be defined, not by his primary vocation to be God’s image-bearer, but by the world around him. Through the media he consumed, through his culture at work, through the music he listened to and through a general inattentiveness to his spiritual life, Jason had begun to imbibe rival notions of what it meant to flourish as a man. Disordered affections had begun to seep into the nooks and crannies of his heart, without him even realizing it. When these disordered affections finally resulted in his adulterous relationship with Amber, he knew he was sinning, yet he never realized that his sin was simply a symptom of a far more systemic spiritual malady. As soon as Jason believed the lie “Amber will be good for me”, he already lost the battle, even though that was weeks before he actually went to bed with her.
Willpower will always break down when we believe that the sin we would like to do is actually in our best interest. There are many Christians who would like to fornicate, use alcohol irresponsibly, dress immodestly, go to wild parties, or watch TV shows with inappropriate content, and they avoid these behaviors because they know them to be wrong. Avoiding sinful behaviors because they are wrong is an important first step, but it is far better to understand that sinful behaviors should be avoided because they injure us, feeding our hearts with rival conceptions of what it means to flourish. As we pursue substitute notions of the Good Life, we separate ourselves from the Source of life and from everything that gives health to our souls.
Rival notions of flourishing can involve specific things that might be fine in and of themselves but which become sinful when they offer any criteria for the Good Life not rooted in Jesus Christ. Consider the following cases:
- Ethan believes the Good Life lies in financial security, and all his life he has tried various business ventures hoping one day to make it big.
- Olivia believes she could live the Good Life if her husband was a soul-mate: someone she could completely unburden herself to without any fear of embarrassment.
- Grant believes he could achieve the Good Life if his wife would do the things in bed that he’s seen women in movies do.
- Nora is a struggling writer, working in small-town journalism. She believes the Good Life will be realized when she is finally able to break big and work for a national paper or magazine.
Properly qualified, none of the above things are necessarily bad in themselves. Rather, the problem occurs when things of creation (i.e., food, love, sex, financial security, etc.) entice us to believe the Good Life can be found in transitory things. The power transitory goods have for enticing us away from the ultimate Good lies precisely in the fact that they are genuine goods. Because of our fallen state, we do not approach God directly, but through the good things of creation. For example, the sense of completion we feel when we love and are loved by another prepares our hearts for unity with God; the sense of wonder and awe we feel when contemplating objects of beauty, prepares our hearts for the beauty of Christ; when we experience human forgiveness, understanding compassion and encouragement, these qualities become icons of God’s love for us. The temptation, however, is to treat these things of creation (which, though good, are still transient goods) as if they are ultimate ends themselves rather than means towards the One who is Ultimate Good.
Ethan, Olivia, Grant and Nora were all ungrateful for the circumstances of their life, but little would have been accomplished by simply telling them “be thankful!” or “rejoice in hardships!” Each needed to come to understand that the real problem with ingratitude is that it feeds on the belief that the Good Life lies in something other than “press[ing] toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14). At its root, ingratitude entails a disordering of human affection, since it involves looking upon the things of creation to provide what only God can give.
- Your Survival is in God’s Hands – So Relax
- Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life
- Turning Emotional Suffering into Spiritual Profit
- Struggling Towards Holiness