In Search Of The Good Life: Why Is It So Hard To Find?

I titled this, “In Search of the Good Life: Why is it so difficult to find?” You know, what most people don’t realize is that this question, how to find the good life, is the question that birthed philosophy, as we know it today. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to go too deep into this, but I do want to make this comment.

The Greeks responded to this question with two schools of thought. You had Plato who believed that the answer came from unchanging ideals, universal truths, such as justice, truth, goodness, and beauty. And then, you had another school headed by Aristotle, who believed that the good life consisted of ascertaining knowledge through experience. What we can perceive of this world through our senses.

Though they disagreed on how to find the good life, they both saw the good life as that which impacts and benefits a community, and that’s why it was so important.

And I share that because, if today, if you go into your office when you leave here, and you go to Google or any search engine on the Internet and type in, “what is the good life”, you’ll be overwhelmed by the response. Some of them, for instance, is shopping, consumption, places to live. You’ll find a host of books that offer formulas on how to find the good life. There are many retail stores that sell goods that promote the good life. Buy this, and it will contribute to your life. But what you won’t find is that the good life is a life of wisdom and knowledge that leads to a virtuous life.

Instead, most of the entries involve material pursuits and games, which sadly, I think, reflects our modern definition of what’s good. There’s a popular show, I don’t know how many of you listen to public radio, but there’s a popular show called “This American Life.” I think it originates in Chicago, at Chicago Public Radio.

The host is a guy by the name of Ira Glass and, on one of the shows, he shares his thoughts on an informal poll that he had conducted, and he believed that the results of this poll reflected a universal reality in life. He had a room of 100 people and he asked them to think back to the beginning of adulthood, when you are first formulating a plan for your life, the good life, which he called plan A, and then he asked them this question:

“How many of you sitting here today are still pursuing plan A?” How many of you achieved the good life that you’ve dreamed of, and out of 100 people, one hand went up. The hand that went up was a 23-year-old woman.

You know, there was a fascinating study that was done back in 2003, and their findings were reported in The New York Times magazine, and, the study was conducted by four men who had great credentials. Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, psychologist Tim Wilson, University of Virginia, the economist George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon, and psychologist and economist Nobel Laureate David Kahneman of Princeton. This is really interesting. Listen carefully.

They studied the ways in which people make decisions that actually shape their well-being. In other words, they sought to determine how well do our decisions about life give us the emotional consequences we expect. Let me say that again. How well do our decisions about life give us the emotional consequences we expect? And their conclusions were astounding.

They said most people really don’t know where to find happiness. They don’t know where to find the good life they’re looking for, and the problem, they said, is not that you can’t always get what you want, but that getting what you want often doesn’t give you the thrill you anticipated. Furthermore, they said you can’t always know what you really want because your desires bear little relation to that which leads to true happiness.

From the work that I’ve been doing over the last 10 years, I can say this with great confidence, there seems to be a huge gap for so many men between the life that we dream of and believe we deserve, and the life that we actually end up with. And this is why I believe Pulitzer prize-winning author John Cheever made this observation. He said, “The main emotion of the adult American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.” And for this reason, though we may never share this with anybody, I think we always seem to find ourselves looking for a better life. A better life than we’re currently experiencing, which is logical, which is okay. But the question is, where are we looking and what are we putting our hope in?

You know, now that I’ve laid out this conundrum, I’ll respond to it by reading you what many consider the most important parable in the New Testament. In fact, the famous Russian author Dostoyevsky said this is the parable that turned his life around, and as he lay on his deathbed, the one request he had was to read this parable. It’s the parable of two brothers, two sons really, you’re familiar with it.

We’re just going to look at the young son today, even though the other brother, we can learn a great deal from him as well, but most people just refer to this as the parable of the prodigal son. I think there are some interesting insights that are pertinent to what I want to talk to you about this morning:

“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.” So he divided his wealth between them, and not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country and he began to be impoverished so he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country and he sent him into the fields to feed swine. He would’ve gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving him anything to eat.

But when he came to his senses, he said, how many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread but I’m dying here with hunger? I’ll get up and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father I’ve sinned against Heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.’ So he got up and came to his father, but while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet, and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate, for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life. He was lost and has been found and they began to celebrate.”

You know, as you read this parable, one of the things you realize is that it’s highly unusual for a young man to go to his father and ask for his inheritance before his father is passed on. It is probably just as unusual for the father to consent, but this is the way the parable goes. But what I think is clear, as you look at this young man’s life, when he got his inheritance and he went off to this distant land, he did it because he was seeking a better life. A better life than he was currently experiencing.

If you really think about it, he left home, I’m sure, with a real sense of freedom, and the reason is he had two of the most important ingredients that modern people think you have to have if you’re going to find the good life. He had money and he had a life without restraints, particularly moral restraints, because there would be no interference from his father. He was in a distant land, he didn’t just move down the street. He went to a distant land to get away from his father and his family. So think about that.

You know, we value money for all different types of reasons, but, if you think about, if you have enough of it, it really does provide all types of freedom. If you have enough money, you can go anywhere you want to go in the world, no restrictions. You can go whenever you want to go, you can buy whatever you want to buy. If you want to work, you can work. If you don’t want to work, you don’t have to. Again, you can see, money does seem to help provide this freedom that modern people are looking for. And furthermore, I think many people believe that money will just solve all your problems. I bet there are a number of us sitting here today that think, “If I had more, my life would be better,” and one of the reasons we believe is that money can solve your problems. That somehow it leads to a trouble-free life and I’m sure as that son left his home, that’s kind of what he was thinking.

There’s an interesting story, true story that Charles Colson tells, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but he was a special counsel to President Nixon. He spent seven months in prison because of Watergate. When he got out of prison, instead of going back to politics, he started a ministry called Prison Fellowship. It’s a wonderful work and he’s an outstanding speaker if you’ve ever heard him. Well, he was invited to come down to South Florida to the home of a very wealthy couple. They had this beautiful home, you could look out on the water and see the ocean, and they invited all their friends, and had a big tent set up in the backyard looking out over the ocean, and they asked Colson to speak.

He shared with them about the work that he did in prisons. He said his message seem to be received with indifference. He said when he was finished they gave him an applause but it was what he called respectful, but unenthusiastic. He said the hostess then said, “What about questions?” He said he had questions about President Nixon, he had questions about Watergate. He said, but then there was a man in the back who put his hand up, leaning against the pole there in the tent. He said, “Mr. Colson, as you can see, all of us here live a very good life. None of us, of course, would have experiences like yours, going from the White House to prison. What would you say to people like us who have no problems in life?” Colson was somewhat stunned as he stared at the man, and he told him, “I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t have problems and that if people at this party were without problems,” he said, “I’d really like to talk to them afterward to find out how they managed it.

I told him that I could see the surroundings were indeed regal, and that the guests obviously had all of the so-called good things in life”, he said, “But I question your premise. For example, sir, what are you going to think on your deathbed when you’re lying there knowing that all this is about to go away?” Colson said it was like if you looked at this man, it was like someone had hit him in the stomach. He said he was pained and crumpled, and this awkward silence fell over the room. Finally, the hostess stepped in and thanked everybody for coming and said, “I’ll see you all later.”

He said, “But this is what’s interesting. For the next hour, I stood there listening to people’s tales of woe: divorce, family squabbles, civil suits, drugs, wayward kids, the works. No one accepted my invitation to explain how life can become problem-free. No one under that tent lived such a life. The attitude was a pure façade.”

So this young son in the parable had money, but the second thing he had going for him was truly freedom from the restraints of his father and family. Again, he went to this distant country where nobody knew him, where he could take all of his wealth, spend it on loose living. You know, that’s what so many people in our culture believe real freedom is, that it’s part of the good life that we’re searching for, to be free from restraints, to live however I want to live, to push the envelope.

Back in 1983, there was a very interesting article; a special edition celebrating 60 years of Time Magazine. It was titled, Those Amazing 60 Years, so I guess that would go back to 1923 to 1983. It began with these words, “The atom was un-split, and so were most marriages.” And the main essay was titled, “What really mattered during those 60 years?” The author said, “In order to understand the last 60 years, you need to understand the idea that characterized the age. It was the idea of freedom. Freedom in an absolute sense.

The fundamental idea that America represented corresponded to the values of the time. America was not merely free, it was free, it was unshackled. The image was of something previously held in check; an explosive force of a country that moved about in random particles of energy yet at the same time gained power and prospered. To be free was to be modern. To be modern was to take chances. The American century was to be the century of unleashing, of breaking away, at first from the 19th century, and eventually from any constraints at all. Behind most of the events of the last 60 years lay the assumption, almost a moral imperative, that what was not free ought to be free that limits were intrinsically evil.”

And I believe we have seen a real shift in our country, where more and more Americans have come to believe that freedom means the absence of restraints in your life. To have the freedom to live outwardly based on what I want and desire inwardly.

It’s interesting, C.S. Lewis, until the age of 31, was an atheist, and as he looked back on his life, he said, “What really attracted me to atheism was I could gratify my wishes. I realized I didn’t want a divine authority interfering with my life.”  Many of you are familiar with Lee Strobel. He’s written many wonderful books, he’s a real scholar, very well-educated, graduated from Yale Law School, went to work with The Chicago Tribune, moved up, and became head of legal affairs at the Tribune. He described his life as a decadent atheist. He said, “Me and my wife were both decadent atheists, and we lived it, and everything, I felt, was going just fine until one day, my wife walks in and informs me that she’d become a Christian.” He said, “That’s the worst news I could’ve ever heard. So I developed a strategy that I was going to prove to her how foolish she was. I knew nothing about religion, I knew nothing about Christianity, but I began a search. I began to go see scholarly Christian people and ask questions. I even flew around the country to ask people who were at the top of their fields.” And then, it’s interesting, after a period of time, I think a year or so, he said, “The unthinkable happened. I began to realize that all of this is true.” And a while later he became a Christian. He went to seminary and today he is a minister and an author, but he said, “I can look back and I can truly say, with all sincerity, I had latched on to a naturalistic worldview because, it was as an excuse to jettison the idea of God, so I can unabashedly pursue my own agenda and life without moral constraints.” It makes you wonder how many people in our culture disbelieve in God or choose to leave him out of their lives because they see him as one who is an obstruction to their freedom? And as I sit here this morning in this large group, I wonder how many of us see God in that light? He’s one who wants to restrict my freedom.

As you go back to this parable, over time, what you see happen in this young son’s life, it says he squandered everything, and he ends up in the pig sty working with the pigs. You see, this young son had everything a person needed to be free, but his pursuit of the good life broke down and personally, I think this son’s example explains why people’s lives aren’t working in a culture that seems to have it all.  What people don’t realize is that historically, happiness and the good life refers to a life that is well lived, a life of virtue, a life that is rooted in the truth, clearly this is what our founders intended when they referred to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right. They realized that a life of hedonistic pleasure is destructive to a person’s well-being, and yet truly, this seems to be the path that so many Americans are going down because they believe this will lead to the good life. A life of pleasure and hedonism.

It’s interesting, I was reading, if you go back to that article in Time Magazine, that 60 year period, one of the people they refer to that had such an impact was Sigmund Freud. He’s probably considered the most influential psychiatrist of the last century. So many scholars think we’re living today under a spell that was cast by Freud. You may be familiar with this because I quote from it all the time. It’s a book called The Question of God, written by Armand Nicholi who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He’s a Christian, but he teaches a course in their undergraduate school comparing the life of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. It’s a fascinating read, but in one of the chapters. he compares and contrasts Lewis’s view and Freud’s view on happiness and the good life. As you read it, what you realize is that these two men represent polar opposite views on the nature of human happiness. Freud embraced the pleasure principle. Lewis taught virtue and dignity rooted in the love of God. Freud believed that the main goal in life is to become happy and remain so, and he made a direct correlation between happiness and pleasure, particular the pleasure that comes from sexual experience. “The pleasure principle,” he said, “dominates the operation of the mental apparatus from the very beginning.” He argued that people live in psychological dysfunction and are unhappy because social conventions limit our doing what we really find pleasure in. In the book, you also find that he was one of the first people that ever experimented with cocaine. This was before it was illegal. Freud suggested that we would find happiness if we could simply break all of the social conventions that constrain us. The fact that we don’t do so creates guilt. But in his sober reflections, however, he realized that there’s a dilemma with his views. He wondered what would happen if men were able to take any woman they chose. You know, everybody just had open marriages. You can have sex with whomever you wanted, but asking that question made him draw back and recoil, recognizing that the individual’s desires had to be balanced with society’s interests. Inevitably, pleasure, Freud acknowledged, was fleeting so it cannot, in the end, provide real happiness. This is why Freud’s worldview was so despairing and why, in many respects, he lived such an unhappy life.

I went back through the book and I was amazed see all of the quotes of him talking about how joyless this life really is, and how he lived in such misery. Freud, tragically, just like the young son in the parable, found himself in the pigsty, and he never found his way out. I share all of this because his views of happiness have had such an impact on our culture, and yet, in reality, he lived in misery. If you go back to the parable, the young son is in the pigsty, and it says, he comes to his senses, and he saw his need for his father. Tim Keller believes we often find God when we are in the pigsty. He says, “Ordinary life makes us too busy and disinclines us to search for God.” But, when he gets right down to it, I think one most difficult things for a man to do is to make the admission that I’m lost, that I’m in need, that I’m in pain, that I’m hurting, and I wonder how many of us, no matter where we are in life, and what we’re experiencing, are we willing to admit, I’ve lost my way in this life? We live in a culture where men are supposed to be tough, we’re to be strong, we’re never to get down, and we’re never to be depressed. Remember those words from Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a rock, I am an island, and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” This is a description of what men are supposed to be.

So, a light comes on in this young man’s life, and he sees himself in his true condition, possibly for the first time. The literal translation was, it was like he was unconscious, and he came to. It’s like he woke up, and the text said, it’s like he was spiritually dead, and he was lost, and he finally sees his waywardness, and again his need for his father. I’m sure he also realized this. Here he had gone out to conquer the world. I think he probably realized that this world that we live in is not devoted to making us happy. It’s a harsh reality. The world we live in doesn’t care about us, and our happiness, and our well-being. They generally want something from us, but when we end up in this pigsty, nobody seems to care, except this son realized there is one who does care, my father. In order to return to his father and get in right relationship with him, he does two things, and this is crucial to grasp, because this parable, in essence, reflects the theme of the entire Bible. That theme is, man being reconciled to God, man getting in right relationship with God, and the first thing this son does is he acknowledges, he takes responsibility for his life, he acknowledges his sin to his father. He confesses to his father, I’ve sinned against Heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. You see, he recognized his need for forgiveness. He needed his father’s forgiveness. So, what does he do? He humbles himself.

Three chapters later, in Luke chapter 18, there’s another very short parable, and it talks about the importance of humbling ourselves before God. It’s the parable of a Pharisee and a tax gatherer. Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood, and was praying this to himself, God I thank you I’m not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterer, even like that tax collector. I fast twice a week, I pay tithes of all that I get, but the tax collector, on the other hand, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast saying, God be merciful to me, the sinner. I tell you this is important, this is Jesus talking, He says, “I tell you, this man, the tax gatherer, went to his house justified before God, rather than the other man. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” This young son humbled himself before his father and said have mercy, the second thing he did, I think the son recognized, in order to get back in right relationship with his father, he couldn’t return home on his own terms. He had to return home on his father’s terms.

I share this because I think so many of us think, you know, I do want to be a Christian, but I want to be a Christian on my terms, not God’s. I want to serve you, but I want you to know, I want to serve you on my terms, and it doesn’t work that way. So, what does this young son do, he says, I will rise up and I will go to my father. I’m leaving my old life behind for a new life. This is what the Bible calls repentance, it’s a turning, and it comes from the Greek word “metanoia”, it’s a turning. It’s a changing of the mind, but it’s a turning from self and living for self to God. And if you go through and read all the verses in the Bible on repentance, you realize it is essential. One example is Peter who says in II Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but He’s patient towards you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.”

I want to make a final observation about this parable, share with you a quick illustration, and tie it all together. Initially this son did not understand his father’s love. He didn’t understand his father’s willingness to forgive. Remember what he says, I’ll go to my father, and maybe he will hire me as an employee. I can go to work for his company, having no idea of the homecoming, and the celebration that waited him, and just the joy of the father. I share this because I think one of the great misunderstandings people have about God is His love and His Grace. I think too many people see God as a harsh demanding God, and it’s hard to win His favor and earn His love, and I share this because if you read the four Gospels, one of the things you’ll notice, is that Jesus, the greatest warning that Jesus gives to all of us, is beware of believing what is false. In one sense He’s saying it can be deadly to have false assumptions in your spiritual life, and I believe this is why this parable is so crucial, because it points to the fact that this son got back into relationship with his father not by living a good life but by humbling himself, and confessing his sinfulness, and seeking forgiveness, and repenting. Though we don’t know this because it’s just a parable, we can assume that after he comes home, after the celebration, his life going forward would never be the same. This is why I think this parable is so pertinent in finding the good life.

A number of years ago, I saw a youth director perform a stunt, that I think proved to be a wonderful illustration for this big group of teenagers that he was sharing this with. He had this big group of teenagers and this youth director, he comes in, and there’s a table, it’s empty, there’s nothing on the table, and in one of his hands, he’s got a little fishbowl with water and a single goldfish, and he reaches his hand into the bowl, he grabs the fish, any he drops the fish on the table. And, as you can imagine, the fish begins to flop all over the place. All over the table, in fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d think he looked like he was having a pretty good time. And then he flops on the floor and flops around for about a minute. As you can imagine, these teenage girls are screaming, “put him back in the water!” and the boys were all laughing, but as the fish lay there dying for oxygen, gills wide open, this youth director asked a great question to the students. He said, “You know that fish was restrained in that little tiny bowl until I put him on the table?” and he asked the question, “Was this fish really free when I put him on the table?” You know, in reality, it was quite obvious that the fish could only be free in water. You see, what makes a fish perfect in water is his design. He has gills that absorb oxygen in water. He has fins which allow him to move comfortably and precisely through water, and though a fish is restricted to water, it is only in water that a fish can really soar, and I share this because just as a fish was made for water, you and I were made for God. That’s what Bible says. In Colossians 1:16, it says that, “We have been made through Him and for Him.” You were made for God.  In I Corinthians 8:6, it’s a long verse, but right in the center is this little phrase, “We exist for Him“, and then in I Corinthians 1:9, it says, “We have been called to live our lives in fellowship with Jesus Christ,” and that word fellowship literally means companionship. I think Augustine may have said it best when he said, “You have created us for Yourself oh Lord and our hearts will not find rest until they rest in Thee.”

Earlier in my presentation, if you remember, I mentioned that study conducted by those four men with all those great credentials that was published in The New York Times magazine. Interestingly, one of their conclusions is that a real key to finding the good life, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone, is quality relationships. Think about all the wonderful potential relationships in your life. Your friends. For many of us, we still have either our parents, or a parent still alive, your parents. Your siblings. Your children. The Bible says that there are two relationships in this life that transcend all others, and he says if you get these two relationships right, they will impact every other area of your life. In fact, the rest of your life will fall into place, and, of course, the two relationships I’m speaking of are your marriage and your relationship with Christ, and I share this because they are very similar. You see, they are the only two relationships in life that are holy, that are binding, and that are covenant relationship. You know, I have a lot of friends in this room, but none of these relationships with my friends are really binding, like my marriage is.  Marriage and our relationship with God require tremendous commitment. Listen to this, and you have to enter into both of these relationships, and when you do, you have to give up your freedom. Stay with me here. Think about the day you woke up after your wedding day to your life partner. You weren’t free any more. You really weren’t. You had given up your freedom; you’re joined at the hip with this other person to go through life with. You no longer make unilateral decisions like you did when you were single. How many of you say quite regularly, well I need to run that by my wife before I can give you a decision? That’s the way it works, but the beauty of being in total union with someone else transcends almost everything else in life, and clearly every other human relationship.

And then you have Jesus. You know the Scripture says that Jesus is a king, and not just a king; He is the King of Kings. He’s a perfect king and when He rules in a person’s life, there’s harmony. This is the irony, this is the paradox, He is the only king that can set you free and give you real freedom. He wants to set us free from all of our fears, from our insecurities, from our despair, from our lust, from our greed, our pride, and our self-centeredness, and He’s the only one who can set us free from life’s greatest fear, and what many people consider life’s greatest enemy, and that is death. But paradoxically, in order to experience the freedom that He offers, we have to give up our freedom, let Him be our King. Let Him be the Lord of our life, but also allow Him to be our Heavenly Father.

Let’s close in prayer. Lord I thank You for these men and each of their lives. We do thank You for the relationships that You’ve blessed us with, and we thank You Father, that just like the father in the parable, You’re waiting for so many of us just to come home. Because our natural inclination is to want to go to that distant land and to be free from You, and yet we realize that true freedom can only be found in You. Lord, I pray that You would do a work in each of our lives. I pray Your blessing on each man here, each family represented here, and that Your face would shine upon them this day. In Christ’s name. Amen.


Add grace and understanding to your day with words from Richard E. Simmons III in your inbox. Sign-up for weekly email with the latest blog post, podcast, and quote.

Fill out the form to receive wisdom in your inbox from Richard E. Simmons III.