“I Can Find Heaven on Earth”
The person who says this usually means he hopes to find happiness by the accumulation of riches. Although it seems that few people actually make that statement, a good number live as if that were their goal.
The fictional play Doctor Faustus portrays a man who proposes a pact with the devil to sell his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of power to do whatever he wants. After vacillating back and forth, he signs the contract in his blood. After the twenty-four years are up, he must surrender his soul for all eternity. The point of the play is that he made a bad bargain (clearly!). To a degree, all of us may be tempted to sell our souls—or a part thereof—to the devil for power or success.
We might think there are few instances of that happening today, but it happens in politics quite often. Politicians who claim to be Christians will become “pro-choice” (pro-abortion “rights”), or embrace a position favoring same-sex “marriage” so as to get elected despite biblical principles against these things.
Another example might be the person who refuses to help the poor, using all his wealth for himself. A related aspect of this building heaven on earth is seeking happiness through wealth or possessions. Jesus warned against this: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19–20). And again: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (Mark 8:36–37).
In an article published in 2017, researchers found that millionaires are generally happier than those with net worth below that level. Those with a net worth of over ten million dollars are just slightly happier than those who have only (!) a million. Those who earned their millions are happier than those who inherited it. The researchers found that those who earned $100,000 a year were not much happier than those who made $75,000 a year. Those conducting the study found that those who gave away much of their fortunes found more happiness than those who spent them on themselves.
A different study in 2017 found that wealthy people tended to be more self-centered than those who were less affluent. The researchers compared the financial situation of each participant against how often they felt the emotions awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love, and pride. The study, published by the American Psychological Association, found that “people with lower incomes find happiness in other people, through feelings of love and compassion, according to new research. However, rich people find their happiness in more self-involved traits, such as pride.” Those who are less affluent had emotions relating to other people, especially compassion and love. They also were more likely to feel awe and beauty relating to their environment. The authors of the study wrote, “Lower-income individuals have devised a way to cope, to find meaning, joy and happiness in their lives despite their relatively less favorable circumstances.” The less affluent find fulfillment in deeper elements of life.
Another study, appearing in 2018 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, found that the wealthier we become, beyond a certain point, the less happy we are. The researchers found that earning more than $105,000 per year in the United States (or $95,000 globally) “tended to be associated with reduced life satisfaction and a lower level of well-being.” And the same applied to children in families with these income levels.
So what is the problem? According to the Purdue University researchers conducting the 2018 study, it seems that once you have enough money to fulfill your fundamental needs, more money may lead to pursuing additional material possessions and making comparisons with the affluence of others. Both of these tend to decrease our personal fulfillment.
The problem, of course, is that plenty of research shows that most material possessions don’t make us happier—instead, it’s things like experiences and having more time to do things we love—and spend time with people we love—that drive happiness. “The deepest pleasures are derived from interpersonal love, warm relationships, giving, appreciation, and gratitude,” explains Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.”
There is another problem with increasing income immoderately: it tends to move us away from others, to isolation. This could result from selfishness or competition. Or, it might just be that with affluence we don’t need others as much as we did when we were less affluent. In any case, being less associated with others reduces our sense of well-being. A further problem for some high-earners is that such people tend to become workaholics. The Atlantic magazine pointed out that wealthy men in the United States work longer hours than those who are less wealthy and longer hours than the rich in other countries. They have less leisure time than the others. It is that leisure time to be with family and friends that tends to make us happy.
So, if we hope to find a “heaven on earth” through wealth and possessions, we are barking up the wrong tree. As the psalmist wrote,
Then do not fear when a man grows rich,
when the glory of his house increases.
He takes nothing with him when he dies,
his glory does not follow him below.
Though he flattered himself while he lived:
“Men will praise me for all my success,”
yet he will go to join his fathers,
who will never see the light any more.
In his riches, man lacks wisdom;
he is like the beasts that are destroyed.
The Foolishness of Seeking Riches
So pursuing riches hoping for happiness is foolish. There is nothing wrong in seeking happiness in this world, especially if we seek it in the Lord. The psalmists tell us: “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4); “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Ps. 34:8, NKJV); and “Happy are the people whose God is the LORD!” (Ps. 144:15). But we must always remember that no matter how rich a person might become, he won’t find a happiness that could be even close to Heaven. In this life there will always be suffering and death, but these will not exist in the eternal Kingdom:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
That is the heaven we should strive for, the everlasting Heaven.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Morrow’s Overcoming Sinful Thoughts: How to Realign Your Thinking and Defeat Harmful Ideas.
It is available as an ebook or paperback from your favorite bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press. Also check out Fr. Morrow’s previous books, Christian Dating in a Godless World and Overcoming Sinful Anger.
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash