I belong! True happiness doesn’t come from autonomy



January 3, 2018

By Mark Penninga

In his recently-published sketchbook/devotional Just Thinking, Jason Bouwman includes an entry called “Start with ‘Whose?’”

Bouwman is working off a popular TED talk by Simon Sinek about inspiring people to action, one that I have showed to the ARPA team a couple of times. Sinek convincingly demonstrates that if we want to get people to do something, we need to start with answering “Why?” It’s well worth watching.

But Bouwman argues that Sinek has not gone deep enough. The “Heidelberg Catechism teaches us to start not with ‘Why?’ but with Who?’ or better yet ‘Whose?’”

In response to the very first question “What is your only comfort in life and death?”, this catechism answers: “That I am not my own but belong…to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”

As I was staring into my electric fireplace, contemplating this, it struck me that a person’s answer to the question, “To whom do I belong?” will determine where he stands on most moral questions debated in the public square.

Those who can say “I am not my own” have been on the losing side of most big legal and political social developments in the past few decades in Canada.  They stand in stark contrast to those you believe “It’s your life. It’s your choice.” (the slogan of Dying with Dignity Canada).

‘Autonomy’ – literally “self-law” – is a term that arises again and again in crucial Supreme Court judgments on the basic question of whether someone may kill someone else (via euthanasia, assisted suicide, or abortion). The court has gone so far as to equate human dignity with autonomy. Perhaps this is captured best by Justice Bertha Wilson in the Rodriguez decision when she explains her understanding of human dignity by quoting from professor Neil MacCormick:

“To be able to decide what to do and how to do it, to carry out one’s own decisions and accept their consequences, seems to me essential to one’s self-respect as a human being, and essential to the possibility of that contentment. Such self-respect and contentment are in my judgment fundamental goods for human beings, the worth of life itself being one condition of having or striving for them.”

The point is that according to some of our top legal and political leaders, our dignity and comfort comes from believing not that “I am not my own”, but “I am my own.”

From gender identity to abortion to euthanasia, our stance will be determined by our belief about whether we have ultimate authority over our lives.

The Heidelberg Catechism’s answer may be surprising, even intriguing, to some of our secular neighbours. It flies in the face of what we think should make us happy and comfortable. Like little children, we naturally think that we will be happy if we get our way. Yet the older and wiser we get, the more we realize that true happiness doesn’t come from autonomy. On the contrary, it is through love that we experience the deepest peace, joy, and yes – comfort.

Loving and serving a person with a terminal disease may not be what we would choose, but doing so blesses not only the person receiving the care, but also the one giving it. And nurturing a pregnancy when it is entirely inconvenient may seem to be a foolish choice if autonomy is our standard, yet countless parents look back on it with more thanksgiving than most other choices they ever made.

I’m hopeful that the many lonely men and women throughout this land, including in our legislators and courts, will come to know in their heart that autonomy isn’t the answer they thought it was. And that instead of responding with hopelessness, they will encounter image bearers of Christ, who emanate joy and hope that comes from confessing “I am not my own but belong to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ.”

The answer to the catechism’s question will not only determine where we stand on current political issues. It will also determine where we end up for eternity. Hell is where people who want autonomy get what they ask for – and realize how miserable it is to be separated from God. In contrast, those of us who confess that we belong to Jesus Christ have the amazing privilege of looking forward to an eternity in communion with the God of life and in the fellowship of all His children.

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