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Does Jesus want me to be happy?

happyThe other day I walked into my local books store. I usually head in one of two directions: either I make my way to the Starbucks located off to the side, or find my way to the ‘Religion’ section – normally pushed back against some dark corner. This time, however, I stopped in the middle, intrigued by the array of books arrayed on display.

At first it was only one book that caught my attention. It was called “The Happiness Trap”, written by Russ Harris. I noticed this book because a parishioner had recently spoken to me about it. Soon after noticing this book, however, my attention was drawn to the one next to it, then the one next to it, then the one next to it. Here are a list of some of the titles I noticed: The Happiness Equation; The Happiness Project; The Happiness Pursuit; O’s little book of Happiness, The Happiness Advantage; There is no App for Happiness; Hardwiring Happiness; Uncovering Happiness; Stumbling on Happiness . . .

You get the idea.

It seems as if modern culture is almost drunk with a desire for happiness! In fact, the happinessUnited Nations has declared March 20th as ‘The International Day of Happiness.’ The UN resolution that created such a day cites that the general assembly was ‘conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal.’ Sure this sounds great, but what exactly do they mean by happiness? Exactly how does a happiness pursuit differ from a happiness project? The Happiness Trap advocates a clarification of one’s inner values, and the practice of ‘mindfulness’ in order to attain inner happiness, while The Happiness Track links happiness to the acceleration of our personal (and financial) success.

Undoubtedly, each book contains a unique and proprietary take on how one cultivates happiness, but given this, how am I to know which book to go to?  How can I possibly discern which manuscript contains the best equation for the maximization of my own personal and individual happiness? Am I now trapped in an endless cycle of happy-book purchases?

As I stood, scanning these titles and feeling quite overwhelmed by the sheer volume of voices on this matter, I started to question the basic premise poised by that UN council. Is happiness a fundamental goal of life? Am I really called to pursue my own happiness the end goal of my entire existence?

This question gets a little more complicated when we view it from from the standpoint of our Christian faith. Do we turn to God simply because God makes us happy? Is happiness part of the vision of God’s Kingdom that Jesus invites us into? Is happiness the ultimate reason for our creation?

Frankly, I am prone to answer ‘No.’  And thus, to the question which posed as the title for this blog, I would say ‘No, Jesus does not want me to be happy.’

To pursue happiness as a foundational goal for our existence is to see happiness as a product of how we arrange our lives. It is based on external circumstances, and is completely self focused. In his book ‘The Good and Beautiful Life’ author James Bryan Smith defines happiness as a ‘temporary condition based on externals; it denotes a more shallow state of being.’ Happiness is about how we feel in this moment. It is about the maximization of our own kingdom and how we view the things in life as lining up with our own individual plans and/or efforts. I become happy when my grocery-store check out line moves quicker than the others; I become ‘unhappy’ (and sometimes angry) when my line stand and wait 5 minutes longer than I would have liked.

It would seem in this that Happiness is self focused; it’s gauge is the self and it is concerned with the life we wish to build for ourselves. This state of internal pleasantry, however, is temporary at best, because it is never something that we are able to count on. It comes and goes without warning.  If happiness is seen as that which I can create via my own skill and intelligence, it is also something I can lose because of my own incompetence and stupidity.  When I do not have happiness, I am striving to obtain in; when I have happiness I become fearful of losing it.  Thus the pursuit of happiness, as advocated in such popular books (and the UN initiative) actually seems to condemn us to the constant striving toward something we can never actually achieve or maintain.

Jesus does not want me to be happy because he has a different, and better, vision for our lives. Jesus did not arrive pronouncing the arrival of God’s kingdom to those well-off or well-to-do in their circumstances of ease and comfort. In fact, Jesus spoke directly against this narrative. Perhaps this is why Jesus began his sermon on the mount with the words “Blessed are . . .’ rather than ‘Happy are . . ‘ I wonder what it says about our own individual approach to Jesus’ very way of life that modern translations attempt to render ‘blessed’ as ‘Happy’?

God desire for our lives is not for us to be merely happy. God’s wants us to live blessed lives, lives which are open to the joy, strength, and guidance of The Spirit. A blessed life can never be defined by ourselves or our own strivings – nor does it describe some external circumstance that we can manipulate for our benefits. A blessed life can only be seen in light of the presence of God, and the manner in which we live out our relationship with our holy Saviour.  This is the reason why we can trust in blessedness, whereas we can’t trust in happiness. Blessedness is not based upon ourselves or our works.  It is a gift which comes from God’s own presence and joy over our very creation.  We saw this poignantly depicted in the parable of the Lost Son, read just last Sunday. It was the son’s desire for happiness that drove him to dissolute living (and unhappiness); it was in being embraced by the extravagant love of his Father that brought him into a place of blessing.

James Bryan Smith offers another helpful word: “[Jesus] knows that we try to find solace in our wealth and fulfilment of our bellies. And we confuse fleeting pleasures with joy. When all is well in the kingdom of this world, we are tempted to think we have no need for the Kingdom of God.’

Of course, our life with God will make bring us experiences of happiness, joy, peace, and love. Of this there is no doubt. However, there is a world of difference between pursuing our individual happiness and pursuing the blessing of God. Blessedness calls us to not just cast our eyes upon ourselves, but rather to cast them to God and the heavenly kingdom. Blessedness is beyond happiness because it is only in the presence of God that we find our true selves. We see our full satisfaction only when we lay ourselves down before Christ’s own kingdom, and attempt to live in a manner that pleases him beyond ourselves.

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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2 Responses to Does Jesus want me to be happy?

  1. There was a book written back in 2005 called “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. It looks at the beliefs of the modern day teenager ,but not limiting the idea to just them , and came up with a definition of their belief system and called it “Moralistic therapeutic deism” the tenets of this system are A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.Good people go to heaven when they die.. God becomes relegated to the a sort of genie in the bottle that we call on when ever we want things

  2. In reading this, I could not help but reflect upon the connection of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” with Locke’s original use of property. It is a phrase intimately connected with materialism, always prevalent in human society.

    That said, I will offer a brief defence of JB Philips, one of those authors who, in his Your God is Too Small, paraphrased the “counter-cultural beatitudes” using happy. When I first read that, I had the same distinction in mind: the happiness he spoke of was not in things on earth, but things above. A transcendent happiness that comes from following God and living in his will, rather than in the pursuit of our own objectives.

    St Bernard of Clairvaux offers similar reflections in his On Loving God, in which he describes the four degrees of love, the last of which is the inability to love anything apart from for the sake of God. What he describes is still perhaps better caterogorized not as happiness but as joy. Very much the idea of transcendant happiness that is no longer fleeting because it is rooted in our own desires and emotions (which are fleeting) but in the sure foundation of God. It reminds me both of St Paul’s words in Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (4. 4) and also Christ’s parable of the two sons, in which the father speaks to the elder son, saying (in the NIV translation), “we had to celebrate and be glad,” (St Lk 15. 32).

    Perhaps Christ does not want us to be happy in the same sense as happiness is secularly defined, I strongly agree with you that we are offered something better, from a loving God, who desires good for us, who desires to celebrate with us and who desires for us true and eternal joy!

    Your reflections here are also quite interesting in light of Fr Greggor’s more recent reflections on Passion Week (“A whole lot of hoopala” March 16), which challenges us to reflect on how we try to control God and remake him in our own image (desiring our own version of happiness, for instance) rather than submitting ourselves to him (and accepting the joy offered).

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