In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson declared that all men are endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness; modern Americans seem to believe that happiness is their birthright.
The modern “gospel of happiness” can be summarized succinctly: do whatever makes you happy, and divest yourself of whatever makes you unhappy. Life is too short to be unhappy; you only live once. Are you unfulfilled and unhappy in your job or career? Then find a new one. Are your friends or family a drag? Have nothing to do with them, and get new friends. Are you unhappy in your marriage? Then end it and start afresh. Morality and virtue seem old-fashioned and quaint; now it is all about what feels good and what we think makes us happy.
Meanwhile, an army of marketers and salesmen work diligently to appeal to our desire for happiness. They do so not to really help us find happiness, but to associate the products they wish to sell with our pursuit of happiness. They do not even really want us to find real happiness; that would probably hurt the bottom line. Instead, it is all about feeling lack and insufficiency: if only we had this or that product, then our lives would be happier. We might get a good feeling buying the product, but afterwards it will not meet our desires for it. Far too many of us seek happiness in buying and getting things; these marketers and salesmen are able to make a good living, but in the end we find ourselves less happy than before!
For all the talk about finding happiness, pursuing happiness, and the pretense of happiness we find all around us, many Americans are actually quite unhappy and anxious. In true American fashion, this discontent has opened a large market for self-help gurus to proclaim the various ways in which to find true happiness. Some suggest it comes from holistic living; others have encouraged meditation, mindfulness, and other forms of asceticism; almost all suggest, in some way or another, that happiness can be achieved if we just work a little harder or think about it the right way. These methods provide some benefit for many people; and yet, for many others, it only deepens the difficulty, for now they are not only unhappy, but also are given reason to blame themselves for it.
And yet, in all of this, a fundamental question is never really addressed: what is happiness? Most people understand happiness in terms of good feelings and a sense of personal satisfaction. If happiness involves good feelings and personal satisfaction, by definition, happiness will be quite subjective: a “moving target,” if you will. Furthermore, how do we quantify happiness? How can two people be in relatively similar circumstances in life and yet diverge greatly in their levels of happiness? For that matter, how come many of the people who seem the happiest often have less in terms of material wealth or benefits than those who seem unhappy?
Let none be deceived: happiness is a good thing. It is a positive emotion, something which our Creator has made and put within the heart of man to enjoy. It is not automatically wrong to want to be happy. Nevertheless, for the Christian, a belief in the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness is an endeavor in missing the point at best and an invitation to idolatry at worst.
God has never promised the Christian that he or she would be happy on the earth. For that matter God has never commanded or expected Christians to put their efforts into pursuing happiness on the earth. God instead commends joy and contentment for the Christian (Philippians 4:4, 1 Timothy 6:6).
Many might wish to suggest that happiness and joy are synonymous. It is possible for a person to be happy and joyful; those who are happy likely have joy; and yet the goal of the Christian life is to maintain joy even if one feels unhappy. Happiness is more of an emotion or a feeling; joy is a mental perspective and attitude. Paul encouraged the Philippian Christians to rejoice in the Lord despite being imprisoned and in otherwise unpleasant circumstances; James the Lord’s brother encouraged Christians to consider it all joy when they underwent suffering and trial (James 1:2)! Life is full of disappointments, distress, failure, pain, and suffering; we cannot expect to always feel happy about everything. Yet no matter what we endure in our present circumstances we can choose to keep our minds, hearts, and souls focused on the Christ, Crucified then Risen in glory and find peace.
A lot of unhappiness stems from a feeling of scarcity: we do not feel like we have enough, we do not look good enough, we are not enough, etc. Ironically, no matter how much we have, we can always think that we lack some other thing. Yet we can also recognize that all we have comes from God as gifts from Him, entirely undeserved, and be thankful towards God for His gifts, and appreciate them (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:18): this is contentment. Contentment focuses on what we have, not what we do not have; contentment focuses on what we are thanks to what God has done for us in Christ, not what we are not (Matthew 6:19-34). When we are content, what we have in God in Christ is always enough; when we yearn for anything more, we will be plagued with discontent, anxiety, distress, and unhappiness.
In the beatitudes Jesus spoke of the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and those persecuted for Jesus’ and righteousness’ sake as blessed: the Greek word makarios means one who is fortunate or even happy (Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-23). We generally do not associate happiness with poverty, mourning, or persecution; people in the first century did not either! Jesus wished to challenge our perspective on how we live: it is not as if there is inherent happiness in poverty, mourning, or persecution, but those who undergo such things have better things to which they can look forward in life now and/or in the resurrection. Those who are rich, laughing, or accepted, however, can only look forward to future forms of despair. Happiness, after all, is fleeting; it may be here one moment, but it may be gone the next, whether our circumstances change or not.
The “gospel of happiness” is a lie; it cannot save. Life is not about whatever makes us happy; for the Christian, life is about what glorifies God in Christ, which includes the path of suffering. We ought to be content with what God has given us; we can rejoice in whatever circumstance we find ourselves because we have the victory in Jesus. Be not deceived: one can change jobs, spouses, families, friends, and all kinds of other things, but never find happiness, for happiness is not found in the abundance of possessions, and people always frustrate and disappoint. True contentment and joy is found in glorifying God in Christ through what we own and with whom we relate in life. In the resurrection of life there will be no more suffering, pain, or distress, but unbroken fellowship with God, basking in His light. May we trust in God in Christ to obtain true peace, joy, and contentment, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry