In his classic book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis delivers a profound insight into the psychological engine that pulls along the drama of history. “All that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
Yes. Or to say this even more foundationally: the driving motive in history is the desire for happiness. Think of it, everything from slavery to prostitution to racism to terrorism to extortion to abortion to the ignition of world wars — it’s all driven by a desire for happiness apart from God.
Here Lewis jabs a steel dental probe into the raw unmedicated nerve of atheism. The serious problem with atheism is not intellectual atheism, denying God’s existence. The real problem is affectional atheism, finding God to be an obstruction in the path of personal joy. This practical atheism is the fundamental root problem of humanity and it plagues the hearts of atheists, agnostics, and even professing deists alike.
Atheists to the Core
Such a cancer in the heart can only bring massive social consequences. By turning away from God, our pursuit of godless joy must come at the expense of others (Psalm 14:1–4). The problem is not that there are atheists in the world; the problem is that we all universally identify with this atheism at the core of our motives. Every one of us is born with a twisted desire for happiness, and that desire must come at the cost of others.
So what happens when we seek joy and must use someone to get it? You must oppress. You must step on toes. You must wound and offend. And you come face-to-face and eye-to-eye with other such atheists seeking personal happiness at your expense. You get used. Paradoxically, these desires attract us to one another, making the impact even harder, like an inevitable head-on collision between freight trains.
The single man who idolizes sex is motivated to date to that end. The single woman who idolizes the attention of men to fund her sense of self-worth is also motivated to date. When they meet, they will use each other for their own selfish ends. It will cost a man his flattery, it will cost the woman her body, but in the moment both seem to be a small price to feed their own personal idols. So far everything seems peaceful.
But this idol-feeding cannot be sustained. Eventually the man’s eyes are drawn to other bodies of other women and un-drawn to the woman he sits across from the table right now. The flattery will eventually be exposed to be a sham, and the woman’s body will be shown to have been merely an object of a man’s lust. If you look deeper than the surface, you find in this relationship two isolated sinners, atheists whose affections are disconnected from God, and who are using one another to fill in the gap. It will end in war.
Exploiting one another for personal happiness, however subtly it appears, eventually leads to vicious personal conflict in all of our lives. James 4:1–12helps us understand why this happens by asking us point blank: What causes fights and quarrels in our lives? What fuels the flames of anger, bitterness, and wrath you feel in your heart?
The answer is not complicated. We war against one another because our passions claw and cry for God-less joys. We lust for the pleasures we think will bring us happiness, but we cannot have those desires. So we murder. We covet and idolize the pleasure we think will satisfy our soul — sex, power, wealth, fame, you name it — but we don’t get them, they remain elusive from our clutches, and so we kill one another. We use. We get used. We covet. We become enemies of one another. We become enemies of God. We reject the abundant supplies God offers us for personal satisfaction. Welcome to the fight club.
Puritan Richard Sibbes explains the simple reason why all this holds true: “Before the heart be changed, our judgment is depraved in regard of our last end; we seek our happiness where it is not to be found.” In our lives, this is the tragic root problem behind the conflicts. We are blind to what will bring our hearts the satisfaction it longs for. We cannot see God’s beauty or enjoy the pleasures of God, so we seek to substitute it with the pleasures of the flesh. Our hearts are so backwards they are dead. We end up chasing the wrong end of the wrong end.
But we all chase something. That’s Lewis’s point.
So what is a “last end”? What is my “last end”? Puritan Richard Baxter explains. Our last end is our pleasure, our treasure, our chief good, what we use everything else in our lives to obtain. Our “last end” is whatever we perceive to be the best thing in the world for us, what we principally seek in life, what we think would make us happiest to have, what would make us most miserable to miss. It could be sex or attention or power or fame or wealth — each of these ultimate ends exposes the practical atheism of our hearts. Therefore, Baxter explains, “the chief part of man’s corruption in his depraved natural state, consists in a wrong chief good, a wrong treasure, a wrong security.”
No diagnostic question gets down deeper into us: What’s the one thing I cannot live without?
At root, sin is not wrongdoing, it’s wrong adoring. Sin is riveting our hearts on any treasure or security that replaces the treasure and security we can only find in God.
“At root, sin is not wrongdoing, it’s wrong adoring.”Tweet
Because we’re all atheists in the root sense (blind to the abundant pleasures of God), our eyes are easily led from one idol to another in a chase of spiritual adultery. John Calvin explains, “Adulterers by their wandering glances, generate the flames of lust, and so their heart is set on fire” (Ezekiel 6:9). That’s how the heart works. By ignoring invisible God, we set our eyes on a chase for whatever we see in this visible world. What we see around us, we hunt, and what we hunt further inflames the lust in our heart for what we see.
Written by Tony Reinke
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