I know it has been forever since I have been on here, but between softball schedules, church demands and a surprise visit from my sister in Africa, my life has been full (in a good way) for the last several weeks. So with your forgiveness, I’ll move on 🙂
The Pursuit of Happiness
I read recently an article in Psychology Today that revealed an interesting trend in our culture. According to this article in the year 2000 there were nearly 50 books published on the subject of happiness. In the year 2008 over 4000 books were published on that same topic. Why the rapid increase? Could it be that a society based on materialism is discovering the emptiness of physical possessions? Or perhaps in the post 9/11 world we are simply more aware of the evil in the world and as a culture we are searching for a way to cope. Or could it be something more?
Long ago, when this nation was founded, Thomas Jefferson penned within the Declaration of Independence a trinity of inalienable rights. Any eighth grade civics student could tell you that they are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As I study the history of our nation, I see where the rights of life and liberty were cherished, protected and fought for. But over the last century, especially the last 50 years, I see a culture that wants to demand its right to be happy. They fail to notice that Mr. Jefferson said we had the right to pursue happiness, not that everyone would succeed in such a pursuit.
So what happens when a nation pursues happiness above all else? The rights to life and liberty suffer. The legalization of abortion has forfeited the right of the unborn to live in the name of “happiness” for the mother. Even now, big government threatens the liberties of many to secure “happiness” for a few. But let’s avoid politics and look at the many other ways Americans are pursuing “happiness”:
Materialism – The hope that “stuff” or money will make you happy
Hedonism – The hope that worldly/physical pleasures will make you happy
Intellectualism – The hope that education and knowledge will make you happy
Activism – The hope that pushing a certain agenda/cause will make you happy
Fundamentalism – The hope that absolute adherence to a certain dogma/religion will make you happy
One would think with all these avenues to happiness, we would be an ecstatic country. What other country has more stuff/pleasures/opportunities for education/causes/religions than the great U.S.A.? Then why so many books on happiness? Why, according to one study, do less than 40% of Americans describe themselves as happy?
Confusing Happiness with Joy
I’ve got something radical to tell you. Some of you might even label me “unAmerican” for suggesting such a thing. The right to “pursue happiness” is nowhere supported by Scripture. It is a wholly worldly idea from an imperfect human mind. To elevate it to a God-given right is not only unBiblical, it is downright dangerous. What we are called to do is pursue God and the joy that He gives, and there is a massive difference between pursuing joy and pursuing happiness.
We as Christians are called to rejoice with an “inexpressible and glorious joy” because of our salvation in Jesus Christ (I Peter 1:8). We call Jesus’ message the “Gospel” or “good news” because of the joy that it brings. Yet I have seen Christians weep at funerals. I have seen them hurt by betrayal. I have seen them angered by sin and evil. Does that mean they are not joyful at those times regardless of the command to “rejoice in the Lord always”? (Philippians 4:4). And what about those that reject Christianity because they thought it would make them “happy” but then it didn’t? Did the good news of Jesus fail to bring them joy? No, what they did was they confused the word “joy” for happiness.
What is Joy?
Joy is not an emotion, although it may elicit several emotive responses (the Bible mentions laughter, singing, dancing and making music as outward displays of joy). Joy is a sense of peace and fulfillment knowing that God’s will is being accomplished. Throughout the Old Testament God’s people respond with joy whenever His will is being accomplished, whether it is in the atoning for sins (Leviticus 9:24), the returning of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (I Chronicles 16:8-36), or the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 3:10ff) to name but a few.
But joy is more than finding peace in seeing God’s will accomplished. It is also that sense of fulfillment when you are actively involved in bringing God’s will to fruition. This is how the writer of Hebrews can say that “for the joy set before Him, [Jesus] endured the cross, despising it’s shame.” (12:2) The Bible is not saying that Jesus was on the cross laughing and having a good time. But it does say that the cross was a joy that God set before His Son. How can Jesus enjoy the cross? By understanding that He was actively participating in bringing about the completion of God’s will. When He shouted “It is finished!” from the cross, it was not merely a shout of declaration, nor was it only a shout of triumph. It was a shout of joy!
What does this mean for us as Christians? It means that fulfilling God’s will is not always pleasant, but it is joyful. And when we discover that “peace that surpasses all understanding” is directly linked to “rejoic[ing] in the Lord always” (see Philippians 4:4-7) the outpouring of emotion may very well be a happy one.
The Bottom Line
What it boils down to is this: Happiness is circumstantial in that it is based on the circumstances of your current situation. Joy is relational in that it is based on your relationship with God and in your fulfillment of His will. Getting back to the original question of why are so many Americans “unhappy”? Because many of them are living outside of God’s will. If we want to impact the world for Jesus, we need to explain what true joy is. That it can, and at times will, make you “feel” happy. But that mostly, joy is the taking pleasure in seeing God’s will done on earth just as it is in heaven.