Happy?

Are you happy? And—to press the issue—is happiness your aim in life?

I ask because the answer, yes, is widespread. The classical religions and their teachers—led by Greek and Roman philosophers in particular—made happiness an ultimate value.

Aristotle, for instance, was a “eudaimonist”—one who seeks goodness-satisfaction-happiness—and he made the state of happiness his measure of ethics. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—a virtue-based system defined by eudaimonic values—is present in much of modern moral thought.

Happiness was, in turn, at the heart of the 18th century Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson, a child of that era, reflected this in his creedal Declaration of Independence by assuming that “the pursuit of happiness” is an ultimate and proper ambition for all.

Even today the pathway to personal happiness is a trajectory Baby-Boomers successfully passed along to their offspring. Entertainment—reflecting this transmission—is now central to Western life. Neil Postman’s prescient study of the 80’s, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was spot-on in anticipating how media would nurture this appetite among post-moderns—the realm of most teens and twenties today. Their screen-devices have become venues of happiness.

By now some readers may be wondering: “So where are you going with this; are you ready to say we should pursue unhappiness? Is your big ambition to be a gloom-monger?”

God forbid—that’s certainly not where I’m going. But let’s at least ask where following Christ will take us.

And I say “God forbid” advisedly because in Scriptures we find that God is not about the pursuit of happiness or unhappiness. Instead he warns us—as we move to a bottom line—that we must not eat the forbidden fruit of trying “to be like god” and, with that, of determining good and evil by our own measures. By missing this warning Aristotle and Jefferson were wrong. Both used human happiness as an anthropocentric measure of good and evil.

C. S. Lewis, by contrast, charted a proper trajectory in Surprised by Joy. His book—the story of his conversion to Christianity—tells of how he felt moments of joy in his early life. These brief encounters with joy—a term overlapped with happiness—became a fixation for Lewis. He found that joy couldn’t be predicted or controlled—it was real but ephemeral. So whenever he experienced joy he tried to capture it. That is, in the moment of joy he quickly made joy itself his focus; but in his trying to nail down the substance of joy it instantly evaporated.

Eventually it dawned on him that joy isn’t an independent quality—an emotional end in itself—but the result of encountering one who stirs joy in us: ultimately, God.

A distinction between joy and happiness is now worth noting. Both are positive emotions but in common usage happiness is more pleasure-centered—a video game, for instance, may keep a child happy for a time.

Joy, on the other hand, is a more complex emotion that can be sustained even in the face of pain or loss. I recall, for instance, my mother’s tears as my parents saw me off to university. She wasn’t happy—it wasn’t a pleasure for her—but in the moment of loss she also experienced joy in my moving forward in life. And, much more deeply, Hebrews 12:2 speaks of Christ enduring his crucifixion “for the joy set before him.”

So let’s embrace joy as a proper longing rather than happiness. And, with that, let’s return to the lesson Lewis learned: joy is a relational word. We can find real joy in a someone rather than in a something. We might be “happy” with a new toy but the emotion fades as soon as the battery runs low, the fuel is used up, or the paint is scratched.

Joy, on the other hand, is ever and always reawakened whenever we see the smile of one we love and trust.

Why? Because God made us to be relational beings—made in the image of the eternally loving and trustworthy Father-Son-and-Spirit God. He, the relational One, captures us with his love and loveliness.

What, then, of the widespread ambition to be happy? Is it, perhaps, an ultimate idol meant by God’s Enemy to distract us from joy? Is it possible that in our pursuit of happiness we’ve replaced God with an unending appetite for shallow and fleeting pleasures?

Certainly, yes! And happiness is an idol so deeply entrenched in our hearts that we won’t see its falsity until by the Spirit’s urging we look away from self to see Christ gazing at us in his grief and love.

Repentance, by this measure, is a turning away from our toys, our devices, our material passions, and our degrading entertainments. In their place we look to Jesus who loves us and brings us to his Father.

In God’s communion, then, we find unending joy as it spreads first to us and then through us. Call it happiness if you like, or blessing, or delight—just be sure to keep the focus where it belongs: on Christ alone.

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5 Comments

  1. Jon Stephens

    Ron, this here article truly speaks to me as I myself have been caught up in my own pursuit of happiness. If have found that between finding a better paying job that in the end could have more potential for supporting a family then my current job, as well as finding a wife that could fill my cup rather then God I believe have made both of these pursuits an idol in my own life. Now while neither of those things are inherently idols but can generally be classified as rich blessings from God, I find that my pursuit of either one could most certainly be idolatry especially when I am ultimately choosing the pursuit of more money and a wife over pursuing God. Again thank you for helping me see this, and I hope to hear from you soon.

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks so much, Jon, for the response. The treasures God gives us are joy-producing, aren’t they. But your point is well-taken: the gifts must not get between us and the Giver who loves us.

    And speaking of joy, I still look back to our ‘read-through’ with special pleasure. And, yes, we’re overdue for a reunion!

  3. Judy

    I found it interesting, Ron, how you traced the source of the words penned by Thomas Jefferson… “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence leading back to Aristotle and to original sin. It is fascinating to see how these words have effected our American culture. By the way, I find the term “Enlightenment” such an amazing contrast between the world and God.

    When in Israel a couple of years ago, our tour guide was asked how he viewed our American culture. He quickly gave a one word response, “Entertainment.” It is so sad to see how deluded we are, exchanging self happiness for God’s ever awakening joy.

    However, as you state, “joy…is ever and always reawakened whenever we see the smile of one we love and trust.” While reading The Pursuit of God, I was struck that the word faith and look come from the same root in Greek. It makes sense that focusing or looking at Jesus, “the founder of our faith,” brings us joy. Likewise, looking away from Jesus, or disbelief, brings us back to our wretched ..”pursuit of happiness.”
    Thank you for grounding us in truth by contrasting joy and happiness. Judy

  4. Kinga

    Thank you once again, Ron for your genuine, honest thoughts. They always speak straight to my heart. In the last few weeks many times came to my mind what you (and P.) told us about being relational human beings. In a desperate try to get in a better place financially, pursuing the western style happiness it is so easy to leave behind what is really important: the joy of knowing God, of belonging to Him. I don’t know why I have to be reminded constantly that not my achievements, successes, financial or marital status defines me, but what the Bible tells about me. Maybe because we live in a culture where even in christian communities nothing stay close to the Bible anymore.

  5. R N Frost

    It’s good to hear from you Kinga. We’re in the middle of another CD Intensive and we talked about relationships today: so important!

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