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The Pursuit of Happiness and the Lost Purpose for Learning

By Dr. Christian Overman

What makes a person happy? Before I go any further, let me say I do not believe personal happiness is what life is about. A “pursuit of happiness” apart from Christ leads over a cliff. For followers of Christ, our pursuit must be centered on Him, not on ourselves.

While happiness in itself is not a worthy pursuit, it certainly is a byproduct of living life as God intended it to be lived. Jesus taught His disciples to keep His commandments so their “joy might be full” (John 15:10-11). While some Christian leaders distinguish “joy” from “happiness,” there’s a lot of crossover.

The subject of human happiness has become the focus of much study over the past two decades in higher education. One may now earn a degree in the study of human happiness from such schools as Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

The results of empirical studies on what actually makes people happy are revealing and instructive. There is an important message here for educators and a validation of what authentic Christian education is about.

What caught my attention recently was a blog post written by psychologist Dr. David Mashburn. He shared that according to current research, one of the five pillars of human happiness (the one he believes may be “at the core of all the others”) is: meaning and purpose in one’s life.

Dr. Mashburn went on to say, “Prolific researcher Martin Seligman defines this pillar of meaning like this: ‘Using your strengths and talents to belong and to serve something that is larger than yourself.’ What these researchers have uncovered,” Mashburn continued, “is that much of how we experience any activity or pursuit can be altered by how we first approach that activity. That is, whether we pursue it solely for our own pleasure or if we also want to serve a higher purpose.” [1]

As I pondered these words, I recalled doing an interview a few years ago with Bonnie Wurzbacher, who at the time was the Senior Vice President of Global Accounts for The Coca-Cola Company. I knew Bonnie was a follower of Christ, so I asked her questions about how she related her faith to her work with Coca-Cola. During that interview, Bonnie passed on something very profound when she said: “We don’t get meaning from our work, we bring meaning to our work.”

She went on to say that until she understood the theology of her work, and she understood and embraced a biblical worldview that says “there is no secular and sacred split,” she was unable to bring meaning to her work. But when she saw how the work she was doing as a Coca-Cola executive “fulfilled and advanced God’s purposes for the world,” she was able to bring meaning to it.

What does all this have to do with Christian education? Simply this: We don’t find meaning in education, we bring meaning to it. But what exactly is the meaning that authentic Christianity brings to education?

Bringing meaning to education was not difficult for the innovators of education during the 1600’s who followed the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe. Their biblically-informed purpose for life itself provided a powerful driver for education. This driver was carried to the New World and can be seen in the early years of Harvard and Yale.

The 17th century reformers of education, such as John Amos Comenius and William Ames, brought meaning to learning by putting it in the context of something much greater than learning itself. Theirs was not education for education’s sake. Theirs was not education for a good paying job’s sake. Theirs was education that not only benefited humanity but served a much higher purpose: glorifying God through human vocation.

This view of education is best summarized by the Puritan Circle of Knowledge:

#1: God, the Prime Creator, initiates all things through His original creation of everything

#2: Humans discover what God has made, and this discovery is a big part of what education is about

#3: Humans imitate God by making “secondary creations” based upon their discovery and understanding of His primary creation

#4: God is glorified through the imitation of Him in human occupations of all kinds

Dr. David Scott points out that the Puritan Circle of Knowledge provided “a philosophical foundation for the working vocations. The human being as an artisan can follow in the footsteps of the Divine Artist. Through this circular pattern of the created order, humanity can fulfill its cultural mandate (Gen 1:26-28) and returns glory back to God.” [2]

So the shoemaker imitates God by making beautiful and functional “secondary creations” out of God’s primary creation. The shoes serve the needs of people and glorify the Prime Creator through the imitation of Him, thus bringing glory full circle from God back to God through vocation. The furniture maker imitates God by making beautiful and functional “secondary creations” out of God’s primary creation. The furniture serves the needs of people and glorifies the Prime Creator through the imitation of Him, thus bringing glory from God back to God through vocation. The banker, the lawyer, and the businessman each glorify God by serving the financial needs of people, bringing justice to the world, and creating employment for the community through the imitation of God via their respective occupations. And in so doing, God is glorified, and communities flourish.

I have no doubt this is why the Puritan pastor George Swinnock declared, “The pious tradesman will know that his shop, as well as his chapel, is holy ground.” Done in the right way, with the right attitude, for the right reasons, any “secondary creations” that imitate God rightly will glorify Him and bless humanity. This is true whether making shoes, running banks, or rearing children.

John Milton, the great Puritan leader, summed it up well when he wrote in his essay, Of Education: “The end [purpose] then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue.” And he continued, “I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously all the offices both private and public of peace and war.” It doesn’t get more all-inclusive than that.

This understanding of the purpose for education provided a backdrop for the flourishing of the United States. To recover such a compelling purpose for learning could change the course of history once again.

This lost purpose for learning needs to be restored, first in Christian schools and churches. This can be done if we will understand what has been lost, and then take the necessary steps to restore this lost purpose in ways that are systemic, intentional, and repeatable. This will not be a quick and easy fix. But we must begin by making modifications in thousands of schools and churches without further delay.

If these words whet your appetite, I invite you to read more about this in the essay, The Lost Purpose for Learning, available at no charge to all Renewanation Review magazine readers at Hard copies can be purchased at


1. David Mashburn, “The Five Pillars of Happiness: Meaning and Purpose,”

2. David Hill Scott, “A Vision of Veritas: What Christian Scholarship Can Learn from the Puritan’s ‘Technology’ of Integrating Truth,”

Volume 9 Issue 1 - The Renewanation Review


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