Expect Joy!

A DOUR, KILLJOY PURITAN. This is the image many have of Jonathan Edwards. After all, he’s that fellow who preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” hanging his listeners over hell by a slender thread, right?

His portrait seems to bear out the judgment. The Joseph Badger painting of Edwards (see p. 11) depicts a man deeply somber, even severe-as if he has never enjoyed a summer day or a chocolate bar.

Edwards, however, enjoyed not only summer days (see p. 40) and chocolate (see p. 2), but also, above all, the Christian life itself. He insisted that believers should expect joy from their religion.

"It would be worth the while to be religious,” he preached in one of his favorite sermons, on Proverbs 24:13–14, “if it were only for the pleasantness of it.”

Christianity, he argued, brings a new and delightful harmony to social relationships. It “begets love and peace, good will one towards another, brotherly kindness, mutual benevolence, bounty and a feeling of each other’s welfare.” It “sweetens” the fellowship of those who believe, and makes people “delight in each other.”

Amazing Grace, how sweet

Edwards also taught that the Christian gains a new pleasure in the things of religion. He remembered how his own conversion, in the Spring of 1721, had given him an inward, “sweet” sense both of Christ and of the way of salvation.

"My soul,” he reminisced, “was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged, to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ; and the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation, by free grace in him.”

In these contemplations he experienced “a calm, sweet abstraction of soul from all the concerns of this world.” No mere intellectual, abstracted pleasure, this was the delight of intimacy—"a kind of vision . . . of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, . . . sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapt and swallowed up in God.”

Where happiness dwells

Edwards devoted most of his life to helping others experience this intimate joy. He liked to say that “true religion” is first and foremost an affair of the heart, in which God reaches down to us and reorients our souls. In fact, for Edwards, the most important thing God does in regeneration is to turn our hearts around, transforming our affections, and causing us to love His will and take delight in pursuing His ways.

Given that God Himself is the source of all that is good, true and beautiful, Edwards believed that our deepest longings find their fulfillment in things divine.

Edwards found support for this teaching in the ancient tradition of Christian eudaemonism (the Greek term eudaemonia means “well being” or “happiness").

This tradition was founded in the philosophy of Aristotle, Christianized by the Greek Fathers, and bequeathed to the West in the work of St. Augustine. Its thrust was that self-love—that is, the desire for personal happiness and fulfillment—is not at odds with the love of God. A life of virtue is a happy life. Both virtue and happiness emerge out of a fervent pursuit of one’s highest good.

And what is that highest good? Quite simply, a loving union with God. The self-when its affections are rightly ordered by God’s Spirit—finds satisfaction, personal fulfillment, and unprecedented joy in a biblical love of God and neighbor.

Thus, to put it bluntly, the call of salvation is a call to personal happiness. The love of God and human self-love go hand in hand. In the famous words of Augustine’s Confessions, “you arouse [us] to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

self-love, true and false

Many early Protestant leaders (Martin Luther chief among them) were wary of Christian eudaemonism, for it seemed to sanction the selfish pursuit of personal pleasure.

Indeed, Edwards himself was nervous about a related doctrine, beloved by later capitalists and known as “enlightened self-interest,” which underwrote attempts to promote social welfare by the pursuit of private gain. Edwards experienced first-hand this social ideal’s negative effects: The greed of several leading businessmen in Northampton frequently undermined his ministry there. In Stockbridge, the English settlers alienated the Indians with dirty business deals, swindling them of their land and thus thwarting Edwards’s ministry among them.

But while Edwards knew the dangers of unregulated self-love, he distinguished this from his confidence in rightly ordered self-love, which he considered a blessing made possible by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

So he argued, with his usual logical force and precision, in his sermon on “Charity Contrary to a Selfish Spirit.” self-love and the desire for happiness are perfectly natural. A person’s will must always be inclined, by preference, in one direction or another. It leads the person into sin only when it becomes disoriented, fixing its desires on the wrong objects or in the wrong ways (which, in the state of original sin, it always does).

Therefore, regeneration does not eradicate self-love; rather, it reorients it and sets it on the path to its true, ultimate fulfillment. It does not lessen our desire for happiness; rather, it reveals the true, ultimate object of that desire-God Himself.

With Augustine, Edwards wholeheartedly believed that God has created us to have a longing only He can satisfy. The bad news is that we are sinners who try to fill this God-shaped vacuum with lesser gods—things like sex, money, and power. But the good news is that God is love and wants to be our all in all. His regenerating grace can reorient our souls, re-attune our wayward affections, and magnify His glory, while granting to us a joy unspeakable. CH

By Douglas A. Sweeney

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #77 in 2003]

Douglas A. Sweeney is chair of the Department of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL.
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