Right in the middle of my talk on the exclusivity of Christ, a hand went up in the back of the room. “Yes?” I asked. The young man cleared his throat. “How can you say that Jesus is the only way to heaven? I mean, what about all the other billions of people around the world—are they going to hell simply because they don’t believe what you believe?
I started to answer his question when I realized that he had lots of questions. I asked him if he could stay after the meeting. He agreed. As the other youth were filing out of the back door, I made a beeline for my examiner. Among the many topics we covered during that conversation, one struck me. I asked him, “What’s your ultimate goal in life?” His answer (like most Americans would probably respond): “To be happy.”
As I reflected on his answer, I have come to realize that it’s a half-truth. God does want me to be happy—in him. It sounds like something from John Piper…and the Bible. As Piper quips, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Many students see happiness and church-life as exclusive realities; happiness comes as a result of entertainment, not God, right?
The “I’m-bored” phenomenon plastered all over Facebook and Twitter suggests that teens are often living between one pleasure-high to the next. In between Justin Bieber’s swoosh and the latest iPhone game lays the black hole of boredom. The joy of serving others is lost in the sea of narcissism, which has led to a culture of depressed, self-centered, and unhappy teens.
Ironically, the endless stream of entertainment has not brought happiness or joy to the ever-wandering heart of the American teen. Instead, it’s led to loneliness, disillusionment, and a sense of being let down. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “The loneliest moment in life is when you have just experienced that which you thought would deliver the ultimate, and it has let you down.”
But in God’s presence there is fullness of joy; in his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11). God wants his children to be happy, joy-filled disciples of Jesus. But make no mistake: the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the foundation and fuel for happiness in him. That reality that you are chosen in Christ, born again by the power of the Spirit, justified in the sight of God, and adopted into his covenant family, ushers the unhappy to see the majesty of our gracious God. That God is self-sufficient—complete in himself from all eternity—and therefore without need of you or me or any celebrity, draws the unhappy, self-centered teen, again, to see the majesty of our gracious God. Such majesty cannot but make the redeemed heart long for his fame and glory—bringing with it a sense of satisfaction; indeed, happiness.
As St. Augustine once taught about the dangers of dis-ordered love, the same can be said of dis-ordered happiness. If we seek first the happiness in the creature, we will never know that happiness which we seek. But if we seek first the happiness in the Creator, we will know the fullness of joy.
While the young man I talked with wanted “to be happy,” his quest for happiness was too small. He was, as C. S. Lewis said, “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.” God is supremely happy in Himself and, by grace, offers the teenage soul happiness in Him through Christ our Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. The black hole of boredom explodes with “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). It is there that the self-centered, unhappy heart vanishes. God wants you happy; don’t pursue lesser loves.
Brian H. Cosby is pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church in Signal Mountain, TN and author of Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture (P&R, 2012) and Rebels Rescued: A Student’s Guide to Reformed Theology (Christian Focus, 2012).