Words matter. Definitions matter. Christians, of all people, should understand how much words and definitions, especially today, are being used to either affirm or deny reality, even shape our view of reality.
George Orwell, of course, understood the power of words. In fact, he so masterfully captured the notion in his novel “1984,” that today the intentional misuse of words is named after him: “Orwellian.”
Not every new use of words is intentional malpractice, of course. Words often change over time as our culture changes. Sometimes words will change because the culture has changed. Sometimes culture will change because words have changed.
Imagine how much a word or a phrase can change over 250 years.
Here’s one: the word “happiness.” It’s part of the most memorable line in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Now anyone who understands just how much the word “happiness” has changed, can also understand why the American experiment seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Dictionary.com, for example, offers a common definition of happiness: “pleasure; contentment; joy.”
In an age where radical individual autonomy and disordered passions are combined with nearly unlimited technological and financial resources, an unalienable right to pursue whatever make us “happy” in that sense is basically going to be a downward spiral into the moral abyss.
What’s there to stop us from intoxicating ourselves with mindless distractions, or eliminating consequences of our behavior—like unborn babies that interfere with our freedom, or even ending our own lives when we think we can no longer be happy?
What if I told you the founding fathers had a very different definition of happiness? That’s the case Carli Conklin makes in her new book, “The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History.”
In the 18th century, happiness “referred to man’s ability to know the law of nature,” Conklin says, “and … to choose to pursue a life of virtue or, in other words, a life lived in harmony with those natural law principles.”
This is exactly what Chuck Colson said back in 2010:
“So what then does happiness mean? Our founding fathers understood the pursuit of happiness to mean the pursuit of a virtuous life. This concept of happiness comes from the Greek word ‘eudomonia,’ which refers to a life well-lived, a life rooted in truth. That is what happiness means, and that is what every man and woman has an inalienable right to pursue—a virtuous life.”
And over at Public Discourse, Justin Dyer adds an important point on the pursuit of happiness and The Declaration of Independence: that both are incomprehensible outside of the Declaration’s theological framework.
“Yes,” Dyer says, “Jefferson and some of the principal founders … held unorthodox religious beliefs. Nonetheless, all of these men publicly and privately affirmed a shared natural theology: that there is a Creator who has imbued the world with discernible natural laws, both physical and moral, and who governs the affairs of men with his sustaining and intervening providence.”
I know this is intellectual heavy lifting for a day set aside for parades, cookouts, and fireworks. But the concept of true happiness is crucial not only for our nation, but for the body of Christ.
Back in that same 2010 commentary, Colson lamented a Barna survey that revealed “more than half of evangelicals agreed with the statement: ‘The purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment.’”
“Come on!” Colson said. “If the last 50 years has taught us anything, it’s that consumerism and ... the pursuit of unbridled pleasure ... do not lead to happiness, but instead to personal and societal misery … The goal is not pleasure; it is righteous living, decency, honor, doing good—in short, living a virtuous life.”
John Stonestreet is a commentator for BreakPoint, a Christian worldview ministry established by Chuck Colson in 1991.