I wish to pull together strange bedfellows for this post, Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Merton. Both Merton and Edwards reflected upon selfishness and happiness, and so I thought it would be interesting to meditate upon where they overlap.
Edwards, in his typical arcane fashion, states,
In some sense, the most benevolent, generous person in the world seeks his own happiness in doing good to others, because he places his happiness in their good. His mind is so enlarged as to take them, as it were, into himself. Then when they are happy, he feels it; he partakes with them and is happy in their happiness.”
Merton, in his No Man is an Island, writes concerning the role of suffering and selfishness:
If we love ourselves selfishly, suffering is merely hateful. It has to be avoided at all costs. It brings out all the evil that is in us, so that the man who loves only himself will commit any sin and inflict any evil on others merely in order to avoid suffering himself…Sin and useless suffering increase together. They encourage one another’s growth, and the more suffering leads to sin, the more sin robs suffering of its capacity for fruitful consecration.”
The answer for both Edwards and Merton, in one way or another, will be turning and resting in God, true love. But how does man, inherently selfish man, come to, in Edwards’ words, enlarge their mind’s/heart’s around others, loving them as they love themselves? It could very well seem, on Edwards’ view, that he is merely allowing self-love to reign, going “through” self-love to love of others. But for Edwards, there is a positive and a negative sense of self-love. The negative should be obvious, but the positive is probably less so. Self-love, positively, is having a will; it is loving what you love. Seeking one’s own happiness is not wrong, as long as one’s own happiness is aligned with true love, beauty and being, in other words, God himself.
Interestingly, Merton states, and Edwards would affirm, that, “True happiness is not found in any other reward than that of being united with God. If I seek some other reward besides God Himself, I may get my reward but I cannot be happy.” The distinction Merton turns to is a simple intention vs. a right intention. A right intention aims at the fruit of doing – it is right action for its own sake. A simple intention is action for God’s sake, which rests on recollection (a re-collecting of oneself around the truth of who you are within and under the life, death and resurrection of Christ). A simple intention is poverty of spirit; it is action without claim on the effects. “With a right intention, you quietly face the risk of losing the fruit of your work. With a simple intention you renounce the fruit before you even begin…Only at this price can your work also become a prayer.” Merton goes on:
But the man of simple intention works in an atmosphere of prayer: that is to say he is recollected. His spiritual reserves are not all poured out into his work, but stored where they belong, in the depths of his being, with his God. He is detached from his work and from its results. Only a man who works purely for God can at the same time do a very good job and leave the results of the job to God alone.”
Likewise, Edwards, in a slightly different fashion, states,
“[T]he first foundation of it [joy], is not any consideration or conception of their interest in divine things; but it primarily consists in the sweet entertainment their minds have in the view or contemplation of the divine and holy beauty of these things, as they are in themselves. And this is indeed the very main difference between the joy of the hypocrite, and the joy of the true saint. The former rejoices in himself; self is the first foundation of his joy: the latter rejoices in God.”
Recollection then, for Edwards (to apply that anachronistically to him), would be resting in the fundamental beauty of God, and delighting in him because of that beauty. It would be a recognition of your own filth, sin and depravity (this is Edwards of course), but would rest in the very real righteousness you have within Christ. It would be knowing oneself as truly Spiritual, having the Spirit which unites to the life of God. Therefore, for both Merton and Edwards, “True happiness is not found in any other reward than that of being united with God.”
Beyond theological reflection and speculation, the question should be: Is this true of us? As pastors, theologians and laymen do we act, minister, preach, write, reflect, mentor and follow because of who God is, or because of what it could accomplish? It seems to me, particularly in evangelical circles, we have become obsessed with the fruit that God provides rather than with God himself.
What are your thoughts?