The "Backward" Wisdom of God

The Paradoxical Way to Happiness

Teaching t12603


Review series topic and key points from the first teaching:

Key biblical truths often seem backward, counter-intuitive, contrary to common sense—even crazy. Sometimes this is because they are stated in paradoxical ways (e.g., freedom through slavery; hope through despair)—but even when they are stated in a straightforward way they still strike us this way (EXAMPLE). One sign that you are seriously engaging biblical teaching is that it strikes you this way.

Why is this? According to the Bible, God’s truth seems “backward” to us because our own thinking is so backward! Read Rom.12:2 – we need to have our minds renewed by God’s wisdom because we have been conformed (brainwashed) by the “spell” cast by the world-system. One sign that you are maturing spiritually is when God’s wisdom in a certain area begins to make sense/feel normal, while the world’s wisdom now seems foolish.

One of the most important areas in which this change needs to take place is in the way we seek happiness (well-being; contentment; satisfaction; joy). Human beings universally desire personal happiness, and therefore live in ways that we believe will bring us happiness.

Jesus affirms our desire for happiness as right and good, hard-wired into us by God. That’s why He often couples His instruction with the word “blessed” (e.g., “Blessed are those who...;” “If you..., you will be blessed”). “Blessed” (makarios) means “truly happy.” So Jesus is saying: “Your problem is not that you desire happiness; your problem is what you believe will make you happy.”

What way of life do we intuitively believe will lead to happiness? At the risk of over-simplification, a self-centered lifestyle – getting circumstances and people to conform to our wishes (US AS THE SUN). Both from within (our own self-centered hearts) and from without (our self-centered culture), we hear this prescription so often that it seems obvious to us (e.g., SCHLITZ jingle).

What way of life does Jesus teach will lead to happiness? A self-giving lifestyle – creatively and actively giving love to all the people in our lives (US AS PLANETS).

That’s what He said in Acts20:35 (read) and Jn.13:17 (read and explain).

That’s also the meaning of His most frequently stated paradox (read Matt.16:25). If you try to save your life (i.e., pursue the self-centered happiness project), you will lose it (wind up unhappy). But if you are willing to lose your life for His sake (i.e., pursue His example of a self-giving lifestyle), you will find it (wind up truly happy).

2 different lifestyles

To which of these two belief-systems to do you subscribe? The most reliable way to know is to observe which of these two lifestyles you habitually pursue. One way you can tell is to see which questions you habitually focus on concerning the following areas:

As we think about the KEY PEOPLE in our lives, the SELF-CENTERED lifestyle path focuses on: “Are they treating me the way I want to be treated?” We focus on this question because we believe that this is a necessary ingredient for our happiness.

The SELF-GIVING lifestyle enjoys being treated well (as a bonus), but it is focused on a very different question: “Am I learning to love the people that are in my life—including those who don’t love me well?” (Lk.6:27-38)

As we think about the FREE TIME that we have, the SELF- CENTERED lifestyle focuses on: “Do I have enough time for myself to do what I want to do (‘me time’)? If not, how can I get more of this?”

The SELF-GIVING lifestyle also values free time and uses some of it for rest and enjoyable pastimes—but it focuses another very different question: “How much of this time am I using to creatively serve others?” (Eph.5:1,2,15,16)

As we think about GOODS & SERVICES, the SELF- CENTERED lifestyle focuses on: “Am I getting more of the ones that I desire?” (Advertising links this to happiness.)

The SELF-GIVING lifestyle is able to enjoy goods and services. But it focuses on a very different basic question: “How can I become more generous with what I have—to relieve suffering, help them develop, etc.?” (1Tim.6:17-19; Eph.4:28)

As we think about our LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES (the above plus physical health; job conditions; etc.), the SELF- CENTERED lifestyle focuses on: “Am I getting the breaks? How can I get them going my way?” (Happiness’ root is same as “happenstance.”)

The SELF-GIVING lifestyle is thankful for pleasant circumstances, but it is more focused on a different question: “How is God using my present circumstances (especially the difficult ones) to develop me as a servant?” (Gen.50:20)

The question is not: “Which set of questions do you ask?” As fallen people, we are “curved inward,” so we all naturally ask the first set of questions. The real questions are: “How often do I ask the second set of questions?” and “How often do I make decisions based on my answers to them?” If your answer to these questions is normatively “Rarely” or “Never,” then this tells you that (regardless of your formal beliefs) you believe that God’s wisdom is wrong about this crucial issue. You believe that the SELF- CENTERED lifestyle is the path to true happiness, and that the SELF-GIVING life is the path to unhappiness. But is this the case? Or is it true that “our (fallen) hearts are in love with that which will ultimately destroy us?”

2 different outcomes

If you reflect very much on your own life, then (like me) you will realize that the SELF- CENTERED lifestyle doesn’t deliver what it promises. And if you observe others over a long time, you will realize the same thing (e.g., CELEBRITIES; MY PARENTS). But those who (even imperfectly) embrace the SELF-GIVING lifestyle testify that Jesus is right about where it leads.

The SELF- CENTERED lifestyle leads to increasing dissatisfaction and disappointment. You may experience a temporary sense of happiness when you get some of the above (KID ON CHRISTMAS MORNING)—but it is fleeting, so you need more the next time to get the same lift. This leads to a deepening sense of entitlement and discontent.

The SELF-GIVING lifestyle leads to increasing contentment with what you have in the above areas—because you know that’s not what makes your life full and meaningful anyway. You often experience short-term joy from giving to others—and you experience long-term deepening satisfaction (that you gave and the effect).

The SELF- CENTERED lifestyle leads (sooner or later) to relational failure. Those who seek happiness through material things don’t build close relationships, or they neglect them. Those who do build close relationships have unrealistic expectations that lead to comparison, envy, bitterness, etc. So they cycle through relationships (“SERIAL MONOGAMY”), or they settle for negotiated selfishness (“PARALLEL LIVES”), or they become cynical about close relationships and live increasingly isolated lives.

The SELF-GIVING lifestyle leads to greater relational success. When even one person becomes committed to self-giving, it radically changes the dynamics. And when both people focus on how to give/serve (Rom.12:10b) rather than on expecting/demanding, the relationship ripens into something that, while not trouble-free, becomes more and more stable and enjoyable as the years go by.

The SELF- CENTERED lifestyle leads to a growing sense of slavery. Because your happiness depends on people treating you well and/or circumstances being favorable, you are at the mercy of these external factors that are beyond your control. This leads to a growing sense of powerlessness and victimhood.

The SELF-GIVING lifestyle leads to a growing sense of freedom. Because you can always move toward happiness by choosing to serve others, you feel less and less controlled by your circumstances or how others treat you. This leads to a growing sense of empowerment in the proper sense of the word.

The SELF- CENTERED lifestyle leads to increased emotional problems. Because your happiness depends on things you can’t control, this leads to a lot of anxiety about losing the things you have, and anger and bitterness when people or circumstances disappoint you. This often leads to chronic depression which worsens as people get older.

The SELF-GIVING lifestyle leads to growing emotional health. Because we are fallen, none of us is ever completely free from emotional problems. But we can experience growing peace and hope (vs. the above) as we live increasingly self-giving vs. self-serving lives. Lots of secular research bears this out.

What is the right-hand column? It is description of what Jesus calls being “blessed!” Read Isa.58:9,10 as another beautiful description of the self-giving life and its results.

Access to God’s love

Notice the phrase “the Lord will...” in Isa.58:11. This is not just a psychological or sociological process. God has to be involved in this lifestyle, to give us a basis for being self-giving which leads to happiness to our souls. And not just any “god” – the God of the Bible, the God who is personal and loving, and who is the inexhaustible Source of love for us and through us to give to others. This whole project is madness unless we can have access to God’s love.

This is what Jesus – and Jesus alone – makes available to us. Read Jn.7:37-39a. The thirst Jesus speaks of here is soul-thirst, thirst for love. Jesus claims to be the One through whom we can have access to God’s love, which will not only satisfy our thirst but also give us an abundance of love “rivers of living water”) to give to others. The moment you entrust yourself to Jesus, this access to God’s love is permanently forged, and His Spirit permanently indwells you for this purpose. Have you asked for this access by entrusting yourself to Jesus? Will you make this decision?

2 ongoing priorities

Once this access is in place, you are like a branch that has been grafted onto a living Vine (SLIDE). The graft is secure, the life/love from the Vine is available, the ability to live a self-giving lifestyle is in place, and the fruit of true happiness from this lifestyle is within reach! But unlike branches which automatically receive life from the vine and produce fruit, we must consciously choose to continue to both receive God’s love and to give God’s love to others. If you want ripening happiness, these must become the two ongoing priorities of your life (LEAN BRANCH).

Continue receiving God’s love. A young child is the object of his parents’ love, but he must choose to continually receive their love in order to develop. In the same way, Christians are the object of God’s love, but we must choose to receive His love day by day instead of returning to the self-centered prescription. Here are some ways you can do this:

Learn about the extent of God’s love through the Bible (especially the New Testament), and meditate on this, asking God to open your eyes to this. This serves as an anchor when feelings and circumstances suggest that you are on your own.

Remember and treasure your own personal history of God’s blessings—ways that He has answered prayer, fulfilled His promises, etc.

Practice thankfulness to God for the above. Somehow, this faith-response helps to internalize God’s love in our souls.

Allow God to love you through His people. This takes various forms (forgiveness; encouragement; correction)—but if you get involved with a smaller group of Christians who are serious about this way of life, and if you open up to them, God will work through them to strengthen you in His love.

But along with continuing to receive God’s love, we must continue to giving His love away to others. On the one hand, the more you receive God’s love, the more motivated you will be to give His love to others. On the other hand, the more you are willing to step out in faith to love others, the more you will experience God’s love caring for you and filling you up. Don’t wait until you completely understand and feel totally filled with God’s love for you before you start loving others. Here are some ways you can do this:

Present yourself daily to God to be an instrument of His love to others (Rom.6:13).

Look for and capitalize daily on opportunities to serve other people. As you interact with non-Christians at work, in your neighborhood, etc., look for ways to show and share His love. As you interact with other Christians in your home group, etc., look for ways to give to them. Devote more and more of your thought time and conversation time with other Christians to how others are doing, how you can help them, etc. Maturity means that we habitually give more than we receive to our brothers and sisters.

Equip yourself to be a more effective giver: learning the Word, imitating other mature workers, developing younger Christians, discovering and developing your spiritual gifts, etc.

Grow in financial generosity (LATER IN THIS SERIES).


You need to sell out to this way of life if you want to reap the benefit! If you just dabble in giving short-term and insist on an immediate return, you’ll quit before long. Instead, decide “I am going to bet my life on Jesus’ promise”—and then stick with it. I make no claim to live this way perfectly—but I have sold out to it, and (after four decades) I can add my testimony to that of many others that Jesus’ wisdom on this is true!

Buddhism correctly observes that people’s desire for personal happiness usually leads them to suffering and misery. It incorrectly teaches that the problem is our desire for happiness, so we should eliminate that desire through the discipline of detachment.

Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), p.75.

See the “Positive Psychology” movement, including Peterson & Seligman, Character Strengths & Virtues A Handbook & Classification (New York: Oxford Press, 2004).