January 13, 2010

The right to pursue happiness


ecently, the topic of our “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has come up in conversation. Do we really have the right to pursue happiness?

I tend to agree with John Piper’s view that happiness is something we were created to seek. God created us with the desire for personal fulfillment. But the only way we are able to find true happiness is when we seek that happiness is Jesus Christ and in God’s purpose in the world.

Others, who may not disagree with Piper’s position but who would state it differently, object to the concept of an inalienable right to pursue happiness.

This topic is addressed by R.C. Sproul and I thought it might be of interest, so here is his answer to the question:

Even though the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right in the U.S. Constitution, do we as created beings have this inalienable right? Many people are frustrated because they expect happiness in life. But should that be a rightful expectation, especially for the Christian?

First we have to distinguish between the U.S. Constitution as a legal document that circumscribes the way in which people are to be treated under the law of the state and the principles operating in the kingdom of God that are set forth in God’s law.

When the Constitution guarantees the inalienable right of the pursuit of happiness, it is meant to protect a free society from other people’s attempts to destroy or to hinder that pursuit. Even the Constitution recognizes limits to this inalienable right. For example, it recognizes that if the thing that makes me happy is murdering other people, I don’t have an inalienable constitutional right to pursue happiness in that manner. What we're saying here is that the law is set up to allow people to pursue those things that bring happiness to them. Of course, the Constitution doesn't guarantee the acquisition of happiness, only the right to pursue it, and that right to pursue happiness is subject to some limitations.

Does God give us this inalienable right? When we consider that a right gives us a legal claim, we have to say that, no, God does not grant us rights in the way a country’s constitution does. The Bible nowhere gives any sinful human being (meaning any human being) an absolute guarantee or right of happiness. The Bible does hold out all kinds of promises concerning the attainment of happiness, but happiness is ultimately a gift from God, a manifestation of God's grace. If God were to deal with us in terms of rights, it would mean that he treated us strictly according to justice. The only way we would have an inalienable right would be to say that we are so virtuous and meritorious that if God is just, he must bestow happiness upon us. That’s the very opposite of what Scripture teaches regarding our condition before God. We are guilty people before our Maker, and therefore our Maker owes us no happiness whatsoever.

In spite of the fact that God doesn’t owe us happiness, he pours out joy and peace and happiness and blessedness in abundance to his people. I think it’s perfectly legitimate for a Christian to pursue joy and contentment and the fulfillment of our humanity in everything that God has made us to be, which is found in our reconciliation with God. When we are reconciled to God and living according to his will and principles, happiness is often a by-product and, even at that, a result of God’s grace and gifts. It is certainly not a demand that we make upon him.

Now That’s a Good Question, R.C. Sproul



  1. This reminds me of a quote I've never forgotten from Dr. Rembert Byrd Carter. "Your right to swing your arm ends when it reaches my nose."

  2. But it's not the Constitution. It's the Declaration of Independence. I can't believe Sproul answered that whole question without catching the slip in the question! Oh, well. Good answer, anyway.

  3. I'm sure this book was written using the Socratic method and these questions were never actually asked by real people. I may be wrong about that, but real people would have provided a convenient excuse. Of course, only you noticed the problem. Good catch!

  4. I'm surprised an editor didn't catch it. That was back when editors were good. :-)

  5. R. C. Sproul is completely off base about the Constitution. Of course it was the Declaration of Independence that declared that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalianable rights...." Clearly the founders of this great republic believed that our rights come from God, not government. The Constitution is a delegation of certain enumerated powers to the government. The powers are granted to the government by the people who are the sovereign power, not the government!

    Fortunatly, Dr. Sproul has a better grasp of theology than he does of Constitutional law.

  6. Replies
    1. After searching the scriptures, i come to agree with Dr. Sproul. No where in the Bible is man given the "right to pursue happiness" outside of the grace of God. We are all born into sin and deserve nothing less than eternal damnation and separation from Him. If God was fair our lives would be pointless, but God, as it pleaseth him bestows grace unto those of them that are chosen from the beginning of the world(Eph. 1:4-5) There truly is no right to pursue happiness, no virtue, or any good thing without the grace of God. The only way we can be truly happy is by devoutly serving our Lord and "giving up ourselves to His service" all our days. Augustine says, and that correctly, "our heart is restless until it rests in you (the Lord)." Confessions, Book1 Ch.1


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