Augustine and the way to happiness

AugustineAugustine was definitely correct when he wrote in City of God: “It is a certainty that all people want to be happy” (X.1). But people have very different ideas about what happiness is and how we can achieve it. Ryan Hoselton gives us an interesting comparison between the proposal of pop singer Pharrell and the advice of Augustine. The difference is well worth pondering, but I’ll just leave you with the wisdom of Augustine, as Hoselton has kindly summed it up for us:

For Augustine, the happy person is one who knows and participates in God’s love, goodness, beauty, and grace. The following principles that Augustine developed in The City of God provide a framework for viewing happiness rightly.

Happiness is a gift.

When we understand that happiness is a gift from God, we will seek him for it. Augustine challenged the ancient Romans for turning God’s gift of happiness to mankind into a goddess to be worshiped. Seeking happiness while ignoring its source makes no sense. For no one “can escape unhappiness who worships happiness as a goddess and forsakes God, the giver of happiness, just as no one can escape hunger who licks at a picture of bread and does not ask for real bread from a person who has it” (IV.23). God depends on nothing other than himself for happiness because he is unchanging, eternal, and perfectly good, and he loves to share his happiness as a gift to mankind. He gives us life, creation, relationships, and so much more, but most importantly he gives us himself for our happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is tied to the pursuit of righteousness.

Like a fish on dry land, we will be miserable if we try to live in a way that we weren’t meant to live. Augustine believed, “No one is happy unless he is righteous” (XIV.25). We are most happy when we align our hearts and actions with the supreme good. When we desire the supreme good “not for the sake of anything else but for its own sake alone,” it will “leave us nothing further to seek for our happiness” (VIII.8). Since the supreme good is God himself, men and women will be most happy when they desire him supremely and delight in imitating his righteousness for its own sake. Unrighteousness and misery result from not loving God supremely and spending our desires on wrong things.

Happiness consists in love for God

 Our happiness is as strong and lasting as the things we love. If we look for it in “things that are material, temporal, mutable, and mortal,” then our happiness will be superficial, short-lived, and fickle (VII.19). But if we devote our “love to the one supreme good which is the immutable God,” then our happiness will be eternal (X.1). The love of God also frees us to find genuine happiness in things of this world—like relationships, food, music, recreation, work, learning, and so on—because they derive their goodness ultimately from him. The love of God also teaches us to have a right love for self, and it moves us to love our neighbors and promote their happiness.

With Augustine’s thoughts in mind, I believe that we can say very confidently that God wants us to be happy, without fearing that “happiness theology” will become another form of “prosperity theology.”


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “Augustine and the way to happiness”

Dear Sir,
I was looking for something on Perseverance of the Saints and your blog popped up.
Of course being a reader, I read some of your posts. Very thoughtful and I appreciate your thoughtfulness.
I am a Christian in the Reformed tradition. You have asked some questions that I myself can’t answer half as well as some of those that I have read.
1. Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation, by Richard A. Muller
I can’t express how much this help me to understand my own reformed beliefs better.

2. By Good and Necessary Consquence, by Ryan M McGraw….Little and compact, read in an hour or two. Highly Recommend.
3. Antinomianism Reformed Theology’s Unwelcomed Guest, By Mark Jones
Voss wrote a wonderful commentary on the Westminster Larger Catechism. I think it will be very helpful in answering some of your questions regarding Horton’s take.
Calvin’s Institutes, which I add you may have already read before, but I didn’t spend enough time on your book list to thoroughly check it through.

Anything by Dr. Robert Godfrey is also excellent. You can pick up his lectures on Sermon Audio for free.

Have a wonderful day,
Mrs. Zagnoli

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