Can I be happy?
We all want to be happy. In fact, in many ways if you boil it all down this is our core drive. We often reveal this in the way we talk about other areas of life. We want a marriage that makes us happy, a career that makes us happy, we are told to get rid of objects if they don’t make us happy (think Marie Kondo), a country where we are free to pursue happiness. Even in how we assess morality we often say something like “do whatever makes you happy as long as you don’t hurt anyone else”. Even if we don’t use the word happiness we still talk about being fulfilled, living our best life, living the good life, and all sorts of other ways of getting at the same thing. We want to be happy. We don’t just want moments of this but a life of happiness. We want it to permeate every relationship, choice, trip, food, and even object that we have. What more could we really want? Happiness maybe is hard to define but if we think of the synonyms from Oxford dictionary it gives us a helpful picture. We want to be content, satisfied, to feel pleasure, to have joy, delight. We want to enjoy every moment, to feel at times exuberance and bliss. We want to have high spirits not to be down. We want to experience total well-being and in some sense build our own little paradise. Who doesn’t want that to describe their life? Blaise Pascal famously said, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. They will never take the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” Our hunger for happiness is pervasive.
The problem however, that all of us experience, is that nothing lives up to this striving. Happiness seems to always be out of reach. We get glimpses but never completion. Often I think of this in three ways. The happiness we can find here dies. We buy things and they break. We love people and they pass. We have flowers and they shrivel. Eventually the things we love and find happiness in die. Secondly, they diminish. At first they are great but the pleasure runs out. It is never quite enough to maintain a level of perfect happiness. The first bite of a maple glazed old fashioned donut is delicious. The second is pretty good. The third is still good but by now the initial taste rush has diminished. Kids get exactly what they asked for on Christmas and in a few days it’s in a bin under the bed. All we have to do is check Goodwill for evidence. The joy wears off. It diminishes. This is why we get bored so often with places, hobbies, even people. It’s why we constantly feel the need for bigger and better. Maybe, we think, there is a source of happiness that cannot be diminished, we just have to find the right one. And advertisers are all too happy to tell you that this is indeed true. You just got the wrong product or chose the wrong hotel – the next one (theirs) will finally satisfy. We know it’s not true. But we hope it is. And finally, it also gets defiled. We took the trip of a lifetime recently, a 3- month sabbatical to Italy. I am thankful for it. And yet it didn’t live up the travel blogs or even my imagination. One month on a quiet farm in Tuscany sounds like the stuff happiness is made of. But for all its greatness it was defiled. My allergies were out of control with all the mowing it takes to maintain hundreds of acres of farm and a dozen cats that were resting on our porch. There were bees the size of mice. Ants made their way in a steady marching line through our home. And with no air conditioning we spent many nights, our skin sticking to the sheets, with little sleep. Nothing can quite live up to our desires. It is defiled. This isn’t to say that all of life is awful with no happiness but it is to say what we all have learned by experience: happiness will never be what we want it to be. We are always pursuing but never quite grasping.
Is there a way to have a better happiness? One that doesn’t die, diminish, or get defiled. Is there a different happiness, a true happiness? The surprise here is that often the one place we don’t look is actually the only place where it can be found. It may sound too religious but in truth full happiness is found in Jesus. Sadly, we often pit God and happiness against each other. Christians sometimes use phrases like “pursue holiness not happiness”. People that are not Christians may feel that the problem with religion is that it hampers happiness and restricts the pursuit of joy. In reality God is the source, the fountain, the Creator of happiness. And, in fact, the main thing God wants in your life is for you to be happy. I know that’s a shocking statement for many but consider even that at the announcement of Jesus’ birth the angels said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10). Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44). That means that this is what life is like when God is King in our life. Jesus summarizes all of his teaching ministry saying, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11)”. The Apostle Paul summarized his ministry mission statement as, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy… (2 Corinthians 1:24)”. Author and Pastor John Piper has slightly modified the traditional Christian catechism saying “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever”. If this is true, what it means is that the truest goal of our life is to experience the truest joy. God made you for this. He put that longing inside of you. He even designs the frustration of it not being able to be completely fulfilled because he wants you not to be satisfied with a lesser happiness. He wants your joy more than you do.
So, where do we get it? In Him. Like David says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11). It is in his presence. Everything in this world fails us so we need something or rather someone from outside of this world. Only someone eternal can make us feel something eternal. How do we enter in to his presence? There are many ways but at least it means to ask him to enter into your life, to save you, and fill you with His Spirit. It means to enter his presence by getting to know him in where we see him most clearly (the Bible). It means coming near to others where his presence dwells in the church. It means seeing his work in your life and thanking him for all the good gifts he gives. We all want a happiness that won’t run out. Jesus says he came to give us abundant life found in knowing him. We can experience that now in degrees and one day we will live fully in a happiness that is no longer dying, diminished, and defiled but rather, “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (1 Pe 1:4).”