Jul 4, 2014

Life, Liberty, and Happiness in Christ

By Allison Kieselowsky

I embrace a certain giddiness surrounding the celebration of our country’s Independence Day.  Picnic?  Absolutely.  I appreciate my relatively peaceful existence in a beautiful country, and I think our republic warrants an outdoor food spread to beat the band.  Speaking of bands, I also love a good parade to celebrate the inception of a great experiment, the result of which has allowed my family food, health, shelter, and education. Most of all, I am extremely grateful that the church in our country gathers regularly to receive God's gifts without much thought of persecution.  I think this merits a resounding display of fireworks and a few whoops of delight.

Within the irrepressible American spirit, however, lies a kernel of irony:  our collective patriotism rests squarely on an undeterred sense of individualism. In the 238 years since Colonial leaders sent notice to King George III, citizens of this nation have passionately embraced the words, "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."  Modern Americans, though, silently modify the last part to "[my] life, [my] liberty, and [my personal] happiness."

American independence has become entwined with self-reliance and the individual’s sense of fulfillment.  I've led American literature classes through the works of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Fitzgerald, so I'm well aware of the theme. It finally slapped me across the face, this absolute acceptance of personal rights, when after a series of genetic screening, a perinatologist declared a 1 in 500 chance our unborn daughter had Downs Syndrome.  Since I was nearly 22 weeks along, he said, I needed to decide if I wished to terminate my pregnancy. He said it to me, not to my husband sitting next to me.

What a relief it was in that moment to know that the decision before us wasn’t actually my choice at all. It wasn't my life or my liberty or even my happiness that was on the line, but the life and liberty of the child to whom God had granted existence.  We simply left the office.

Society has embraced the individual’s right to terminate life, whether at life’s beginning, or later, when life meets infirmity.  I read an article this week entitled, “How a Woman’s Plan to Kill Herself Helped Her Family Grieve,” in which a psychologist diagnosed with Alzheimer’s plans and executes her own demise. The report begins with a disclaimer that it does not condone suicide, but the article does present this supposedly well-informed, self-induced death in a positive light.  I find it extremely troubling that our great nation is inching toward full acceptance of the idea that a person’s life is her own, to keep to discard as she deems wise.

The American spirit screams, “I want pain-free happiness!”  People passionately demand the right to avoid death and discomfort through medical prescriptions and procedures; the right to create or terminate relationships that fit their own personal expression of happiness; and the freedom to do in general whatever makes them happy. Within this philosophy, uttering the sentence, “I just want her to be happy,” glosses over a multitude of sins by justifying any means to achieve pleasure and satisfaction.

We’ve gone so far as to quantify happiness on a national level, akin to gross domestic product, in the Legatum Prosperity Index, which scores the countries of the world on “entrepreneurship, personal freedom, health, economy, social capital, education, safety & security, and governance.” Some people have dubbed the score the “Happiness Index” (the United States ranked 11th in 2013, in case you wondered). Christopher Helman of Forbes commented on last year’s ranking:

“According to the inputs that make up Legatum’s data sets, here’s [sic] a few [things to make the world more prosperous]: Pay attention to your kids’ education. Exercise your rights to vote and to express political opinions. Be tolerant of different viewpoints and different kinds of people. Get yourself out of debt and save some money. Be mindful of the environment. Eat right and get enough sleep. Help others. Get married. Go to church. Know your neighbors. Volunteer. Donate to charities. Quit worrying. Try to be happy.”

On the face of it, this is a commendable list of patriotic and moral activities, but I wonder if American society has embraced the last one, happiness, to such an extreme that our devotion to it prevents us from truly doing any of the others. In other words, if politics, money, marriage, church, and neighbors infringe upon my own happiness, am I allowed to sever the relationship?  The answer, more and more, is yes. Marriage vows and confirmation vows, civility and generosity, all are subjugated to an individual’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of personal happiness.

In the end, even when I join the parade, my love for the United States of America and the freedom I enjoy is countercultural and at odds with the overly individualistic ethos of the citizens around me.  I have to ask, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36, cf. Luke 9:25).

Life, Liberty, and the By-Product of Happiness

My life is not my own. I’ve been bought with a price (I Cor. 6), as Luther’s Small Catechism reminds me, for Christ has redeemed us with His precious body and blood and in His bitter suffering and death. I am bound by God’s gracious will in how I treat my neighbors and in leading a pure and decent life. Christ emphasized our life’s framework in His answer to the Pharisee about the greatest commandment in the Law:

"And [Jesus] said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 22:37-40).  

I’m not a free agent, striving for personal happiness at the expense of my soul or the souls of others, but an heir with Christ Jesus.  I have been freed from the bondage of sin, death and the devil to serve God and neighbor. Sometimes Christian liberty frees me from choices, such as terminating a pregnancy based upon a small chance of a chromosomal disorder.  Often, however, my identity in Christ demands I wrestle and agonize over unpleasant decisions, especially in discordant family and church relationships, without the option of walking away.

I wave an American flag proudly on the fourth of July and enjoy all the fun of the state holiday, to be sure, because I would rather live in this country than in other place in the world.  The by-product of living in this country for me has been great happiness and a good life. But the question of faith is not “Do I happily reside in a prosperous nation?” but “Would I recognize God’s gracious goodness if the by-product of living as a Christian in this country meant unhappiness, political limitation, or even the loss of my life?”

Happiness is not the goal of this life.  We don’t pray that God will make us happy.  We pray for faith to believe in Christ’s goodness even in the face of death and sadness, for His grace to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, and for His life-sustaining Word and Sacrament to keep us to life everlasting.  This is our great heritage worthy of celebration.  


Allison Kieselowsky lives in Springfield, PA, with her husband Rob and their four daughters. She has been a daughter and sister for nearly forty years, a wife for nearly fourteen years, an English teacher and reading specialist for nearly ten years, and a mother for nearly seven years. She currently works at home as the general manager of household affairs, short-order cook, laundress, and teacher.

Title Image: Vintage Postcard


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