What is the good life?
It is not having a pulse, at least not merely. Having a pulse is a necessary condition of the good life, of course, but it is not sufficient. A good life requires more.
It is not experiencing pleasure either, at least not simply. Of course, pleasure is generally better than pain. (I am a chronic pain sufferer, so I know whereof I speak.) But not all pleasures are created equal. Not only is the pleasure of doing right better than the pleasure of doing wrong, but even the pain of rightdoing is better than the pleasure of wrongdoing. In other words, better to suffer in the cause of justice (Martin Luther King Jr.) than to benefit from injustice (Bull Connor).
The good life’s complicated calculus is on display in 1 Thessalonians 3:6–8, where Paul, Silas, and Timothy write:
But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.
In this paragraph, the missionaries mention two pains they had experienced: “distress and persecution.” The two were related. Both the missionaries and their Thessalonian converts had been on the receiving end of persecution since the founding of the church (Acts 17:5–9; 1 Thes. 2:14, 3:3). The missionaries, being strong in faith, did not worry about themselves. But they were distressed for their converts, not knowing whether their nascent faith had survived the onslaught of opposition.
The missionaries went on to mention four pleasures: “good news” about the Thessalonians’ faith, “pleasant memories” on both sides, a mutual desire to meet once again, and encouragement “because of your faith.” For the missionaries, their ongoing friendship with the Thessalonians mattered more than other goods. What mattered most, however, was the end their friendship pursued: “your faith and love,” “your faith,” and “standing firm in the Lord.”
So here, if I understand it, is the good life’s complicated calculus according to Paul, Silas, and Timothy.
- In general, pleasure is better than pain, and pleasure in pursuit of good is best.
- But pain in the pursuit of good is better than pleasure in the pursuit of evil.
- Pleasure from friendship in the Lord is better than pleasure from any other source.
Is (3) a stretch? I don’t think so. Notice verse 6: “For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” In Greek, the adverb really does not appear in the text. Ironically, by adding it, the NIV actually weakens the force of the missionaries’ statement, “Now we live…”
To live is to be friends in the Lord. Everything else—pleasure, comfort, whatever—is gravy.