By Scott Keith –
Last week on the Jagged Word, I read an article by the Mischievous Muse that got me thinking. The article was entitled “Happiness is for Babies.” It was an insightful look into our current culture of endless narcissism and pursuit of all things self. My only criticism is I think what the Mischievous Muse described in her article was selfishness, not happiness.
I agree with her on almost every point. We are not, indeed, the center of the universe. We all need to realize that we are not the most important people in the world. But I don’t think that happiness is a selfish and vain shadow to chase. Rather, I believe that the author hit the nail directly on the head when she said that children in her house all are on a path of “learning how to love his neighbor.” I have one question: What then is happiness?
The Greek Philosopher Aristotle has a little to say on this idea in his influential work, The Nicomachean Ethics. There he puts forward an idea of happiness that, I think, is still relevant today. In these little talks, Aristotle is attempting to answer a question: “What is the ultimate purpose of human existence?” Aristotle observes that everywhere we see people seeking wealth, hedonistic pleasure, and at times even fame (I know, that’s why I write for the Jagged Word). But while even the Christian might acknowledge that each of these has some value, none of them can rise to the level of the ultimate purpose for our existence. To be an ultimate end, the thing in itself must be final. As Aristotle says, “That which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.” (Nicomachean Ethics) Seen from a particular light, happiness is the end which meets all these requirements.
Allow me to explain. The Greek word Aristotle uses for happiness is Eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία). Translating this word into English can be misleading. The issue is that happiness, as understood within the context of our current cultural milieu, is conceived of as an internal emotion as when one says one is happy when at Disneyland “having fun.” (B.T.W.: There is nothing wrong with having fun at Disneyland, it’s just not “happiness” according to Aristotle.) For Aristotle, happiness is a telos, or final goal, that encapsulates the entirety of one’s life. It is certainly not something that can be acquired or misplaced within the span of a few hours.
So too, the Psalmist proclaims, “Happy are the people whose God is the Lord!” (Psalm 144:15). Maybe, God built us to be fulfilled and “happy” when we are found in Him. Many Christian authors through the ages seem to agree with this assessment. In his work City of God, Augustine emphasizes the idea that the peace and happiness, which is found in the heavenly city, can also be experienced here on earth. In the final book of that work, Augustine tells the tale of the end of the City of God, after which the saved will be given eternal happiness and become immortal.
From a Christian perspective, C. S. Lewis put it this way: “God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.” (Mere Christianity) Happiness is not an emotion but rather a matter of “being,” as Aristotle might say. Then, it could be said that those who are happy are those who are saved by grace, through faith, on account of Christ. Apart from Him, there is no happiness, but in Him, happiness is in abundance.
Some have argued that the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes in a sense, describes a state of happiness. The Greek word makários (Μακάριοι), happy or blessed, used in Matthew chapter 5, is as old as Homer. Behind its use by Jesus lies the clear idea that sin, death, and the power of the Devil are the bases of all misery and that happiness is the antithesis of this misery. Jesus appropriates this word “happy” and places into a target rich environment turning all worldly ideas of “happiness” on their head. It is truly a shame that we have failed to keep the word “happy” in our modern translations if only as a means of confounding the world with it as Christ did.
Happiness, according to the Beatitudes, is:
- Being poor in spirit and relying on Christ alone;
- Mourning one’s sin and relying on Christ alone;
- Being meek enough to stop all foolish attempts at self-salvation and relying on Christ alone;
- Thirsting for the righteousness which we find in Christ alone;
- Showing mercy to others on account of the mercy first shown on us for the sake of Christ alone;
- Knowing that our pure heart is nothing more than Christ’s heart;
- Seeking the peace that passes all understanding in Christ alone;
- Understanding the persecution will come to those who stand in Christ alone.
This word, of course, has been hijacked by our culture. If things are going well, the bills are paid, the health is reasonably good, and there are no conflicts at home, someone might say they are “happy.” In fact, they might re-write the Beatitudes as follows:
- Happy are the beautiful;
- Happy are the wealthy;
- Happy are the popular;
- Happy are the famous;
- Happy are those with the most Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram “Likes”;
- Happy are the physically fit;
- Happy is he who dies with the most toys;
- Happy are they with the hottest wife/husband.
Nonetheless, I think that God desires your happiness and has created you to be happy in Him. Happiness, though, is not a fluctuating emotion; it is the result of being declared righteous on account of Christ alone. We are happily saved before God on account of Christ. We happily serve one another through our daily vocational pursuits for the sake of Christ. We are happily forgiven when we fail in our service. Even when we lament, our standing is as beings who were created to be happy, who won’t realize our full state of happiness until we join Him in glory.
At the end of the day, the Lord God Almighty has got us in His hands, and no one can pluck us out of His hands. So, maybe Bobby McFerrin got it partially right, “Don’t worry,” just “be happy” in Christ alone. This is not some prosperity gospel. Rather, this is being found in Christ alone! Finally, know that He forgives you in Christ and restores you with His gifts even when you don’t feel happy. Amen!