Selfishness, Happiness and Recollection

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,griffin

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,

edwards_bronze“[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?


4 thoughts on “Selfishness, Happiness and Recollection

  1. Great post- very thoughtful combination of two pretty different thinkers. I was struck a bit by Merton’s thought that spiritual wisdom is meant to be detached from one’s work. A common thought in many circles today encourages excellence in whatever work one undergoes, as this testifies to God among others. What Merton might be saying here is to not treat the work or even the seeking of God’s excellence within work in an idolatrous sense, but it also seems to divorce a good chunk of actual life by rendering “works and days” shadows. Then again, this discussion shapeshifts depending on whether one loves or “feels called” in one’s work, or if work is pure drudgery…

    Thanks for all you do on here!

  2. Enjoyed the reflections here. As theologians, we certainly feel the weight of altering loyalties. Karl Barth’s theological turning was often described by him in terms of the sheer joy of discovering for the first time the wonder of theology’s living Sache. However, a strong glance at his works during that period, and his own later, more sober, recollections, also talk of the utter despair his discovery had upon his ministerial and theological work. I love his late reflections on the ‘existentials’ of theological work in his Evangelical Theology. Barth notes that it is the living Subject matter of theology that places the theologian in the most serious state in regards to temptation. Barth here finds the troubling temptation of us theologians to entertain idols in place of the dismantling of true grace. However, he then calls theology the ‘happiest’ of sciences, because the manifest presence of God in Christ always has a way of recapturing us from our disloyalties and self-obsessions and leading us into his ever wonderous triune love. Hence he ends the lectures on love.

  3. Thomas and Dustin, thank you for your thoughts.

    Dustin, I think Merton would want to encourage excellence in work, just not for its own sake. Take preaching for example – anyone who has preached knows the temptation of “knocking one out of the park,” or waxing eloquent so that the congregation leaves in awe. I think Merton would turn our attention to God, leaving us to answer the question: What does it mean to preach for God’s sake alone?

    I personally worry about a lot going on right now with work and mission. I think the emphasis is way too much on what we can accomplish, rather than what God has and what God will continue to accomplish. Merton wants to push us away from our ability and towards God’s, so that we don’t work for our own selfish beliefs and desires. We can all point to people who have been building their own kingdoms in the name of God, and, to some degree, that is probably true of all our work. Following Thomas’ comments, I think Barth is a good theologian to go for this. He is always concerned with pushing our thought back to God, and I think that is where we need to be.

    I appreciate your thoughts, thanks for replying!

  4. Kyle, your comments on Merton remind me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ reflections on Ignatius. Here is an excerpt from a piece called ‘Creation and Redemption’ (1881): ‘It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smitting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping scouring, everything gives God glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty. To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him glory too. To lift up hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a sloppail, give him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live.’ He builds this on the foundation that simply in ‘being’ man can and does bring God glory, but that unlike the other creatures man can intend to bring God glory.

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