“Deutsches schwarzköpfiges Fleischschaf” by 4028mdk09 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
God is concerned about the material conditions for human flourishing.
“Material conditions” means the stuff out of which life is made. That means tangible stuff: money, bodies (health), food, water, and physical touch. This is why so much of the Bible is about poverty and economic inequality, why there’s manna in the wilderness, why Jesus heals peoples’ bodies, and why incarnational theology is so important.
It’s also why Ezekiel’s God is so angry with the way the rich despoil the planet and ruin it for the poor.
God is also concerned with the social conditions for human flourishing.
“Social conditions” means the stuff out of which our life together is made. Relationships, politics, power, justice, and communication. This is why so much of the Bible deals with jealousy, anger, and forgiveness; with shared, decentralized leadership; with moral double-standards and hypocrisy.
I think it’s important to state these things, because there is a toxic Christian meme that regularly makes the rounds that asserts that God cares more about your holiness than your happiness.
I understand what people are trying to say when they assert these things: that our culture is self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But the Bible never contrasts holiness with happiness. True happiness, biblical authors assert, comes from meditating on and understanding Torah—not just the literal words of it, but the deeper truths to which they point. The Hebrew Torah was like the Greek Logos. It was Wisdom, the principles by which God created the world, and when human beings sought them out, they would find “true happiness.”
In this, the biblical authors agreed with Greek philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Aristotle. Happiness is more than pleasure-seeking: it is found in virtue and understanding. You can’t buy it, and excess wealth is dangerous—but it’s hard to be happy in poverty.
Jesus echoes his Jewish tradition and comments on Greek philosophy as well when he says this stuff:
“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5:3-11, CEB)
You would think that these assertions would be uncontroversial: God cares about the material and social conditions for human flourishing. God is concerned with human happiness. But there is a political aspect to these statements as well.
God is not concerned about the poor because God wants them to be holy; God wants them to be happy—which has political implications. God wants oppressed and marginalized people—the “thin sheep” in Ezekiel’s story—to be happy, to have fresh water and good pasture, not dirty water and ruined pasture.
A God who cares about human happiness is a dangerous God. God is dangerous to those who relativize the happiness of other human beings.
This God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who cares about human happiness and not merely holiness, IS controversial. Holiness is the means, not the end. We do not pursue happiness in order to be holy, but holiness in order to be happy. Holiness which does not lead to greater human flourishing is not holy. It is infernal.