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Sophronos and The Good Life

January 30, 2018

A full quarter of Yale’s undergraduate students are enrolled this semester in a psychology course on “how to lead a happier more satisfying life.”  According to the New York Times article about PSYC157, Psychology and the Good Life is being held in the largest space available on campus.

Dr. Santos, the psychology professor teaching the course, said in her interview for the article, “Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus. With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.”

Here is a wide open door for Christians to enter into the cultural conversation of the day and till the soil.  (Flashback: Listen to my interview with Fuller Professor Makoto Fujimura about doing just this!)

While Yale’s department of Psychology may define the mind and its health based on evolutionary cognitive development, the Christian knows that the mind is more than brain matter. The mind can be right and righteous and the mind can be tormented, hostile to God and corrupt. Those who are reconciled to a right relationship with God in Jesus Christ are then able to cultivate and know the mind of Christ – what the Bible calls sophronos. Sophronos includes disciplined, sound thinking influenced by faith and sophronos produces an internal balance within the believer – what Paul describes as the secret of contentment (Philippians 4:11-13) or the peace which passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Something the world – and Yale – might call happiness.

Where the term appears in Titus 2:12 the concept of sophronos encompasses sober-minded, sensible or righteous thinking applied to life. I like to call it the mind of Christ applied to the matters of the day. Sophronos is cultivated by actively seeking to know God through His Word and actively submitting to the continual work of the Holy Spirit, bringing every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

So what’s the difference, for the individual and the community (college campus or culture), for a person to be in their right or righteous mind versus having a mind that is tormented, conflicted, hostile to God and corrupt?  It’s the difference in the fruit produced: good or bad. Systemically it can mean the difference between life and death or a culture of life or a culture of death. It can mean the difference between a person at peace living peaceably with others and a person and culture at war.  The advantages are not difficult to imagine and well worth pursuing.

The Yale course not only provides the opportunity to talk about what we’re thinking and how we’re thinking about what we’re thinking about, it also uses the terms good and life. So, let us turn to a conversation about what is good.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all share the encounter of Jesus with a person they describe as “a rich, young ruler.” He addresses Jesus as “Good teacher,” and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds first to the way He has been addressed and then to the question posed.

Jesus asks back, “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone.”

Jesus knows that God is infinitely good, defines the parameters of what is good (and therefore what is not good or evil). If you’re seeking Jesus’ counsel because you judge him to be a pretty good person by comparison to everyone else or because you hope he’ll do good for you, Jesus wants to clarify that there is no good apart from God.  By comparison our relative richness, youthfulness or worldly positions are utterly meaningless. This is the point at which I would encourage Christians to till slowly with those who are asking “how can I lead a happy life?”

Transitory or circumstantial answers of any kind will ultimately disappoint. But Jesus, who is good because He is God, never disappoints. Until we know God, through Jesus, we can never really know ourselves – we can never be in our right mind and we can never be in right relationships with others.  Indeed, goodness is next to Godliness because what is good – life and joy and peace – are found in Him.

It may be interesting here to point out to our conversation partners that of the three Gospel accounts of this story, Mark wants us to know that Jesus loved the young man who is described as having left the conversation sorrowful.  Clearly Jesus loved the man enough to speak the truth to him – knowing that he would walk away.  We are left wondering what happened to that young man. We are left wondering if he ever came to his senses and returned to the Lord. Our heart yearns for him to know that the good life is not found in the sum of our possessions or the positions of power to which we rise in this life, but that the good life is found in the One who is the Way and the Truth and the Life.

That brings to mind another occasion where people didn’t like what Jesus had to say and departed from Him. John records it in the sixth chapter of his gospel. Verses 67-69 read:

So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

That’s the rubber and the road of this conversation. Want the good life? If you’re looking for it apart from Jesus you’re going to come up short. Peter knows who Jesus is and therefore knows there’s nowhere else to go if we want a life that is full of meaning, purpose, belonging and yes, happiness.

The dialogue between Jesus and the rich young ruler and the conversation in John between Jesus and the twelve disciples provides a natural segue in the conversation from a consideration of what is good to a consideration of life itself.

When the Yale course promises a good life through psychology we need to stand ready to discuss the definition, scope, meaning and purpose of life. You cannot have those conversations in a closed, naturalistic system or you end up with nihilism. That is, by definition, contrary to happiness.  So, in order for the conversation at Yale and the conversation in the culture to be authentically about the good life, it has to include God (who alone is good) and consideration of life in all its eternal fullness. Christians, that’s a wide open door for conversation. Yale just put out the welcome mat.

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