WHAT IS HAPPINESS?
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Epictetus, the ancient philosopher said, "If a man is unhappy, this must be his own fault, for God made all men to be happy." A Christian writer, St. Bernard, said something similar. "Nothing can work me damage except myself; the harm that I sustain I carry about with me, and never am a real sufferer but by my own fault." These two men represent the internal philosophy of happiness. External mean nothing, and need have no effect upon the happiness of a person, is their view.
External evil is recognized as a reality, but one does not need to let it penetrate his inner being. Epictetus, for example, said, "I must die, but must I die sorrowing? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Can I be prevented from going with cheerfulness and contentment? But I will put you in prison. Man, what are you saying? You may put my body in prison, but my mind not even Zeus himself can overpower." Here is a rare example of how even a pagan slave can, by the power of positive thinking, demonstrate the human capacity for internal happiness without the externals usually associated with happiness.
The facts of life and history show that this is possible, but it is also highly improbable that more than a few rare individuals can completely ignore the externals of life. The vast majority of people depend upon externals almost exclusively. They grasp at things as the only source of satisfaction. People really believe that more money can bring happiness in spite of the fact that the suicide rate is higher among the haves than among the have nots. Abdalrahman the Khalif had thousands of wives, and millions upon millions of wealth, but this is what he wrote near the end of his life: "I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace. I have been beloved of my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honor, power and pleasure have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: They amount to fourteen."
No amount of eternals can guarantee happiness, yet man's natural tendency is to search for happiness in that direction. Men have a hard time believing that there is any hope of happiness apart from externals. Aristotle represented the Greek view when he said that the blessed life was impossible to the diseased, the poor, and the slave. Samuel Johnson had a close friend who said that his sister-in-law was really a happy woman. This made Johnson mad, and he replied like the brute he could be, "If your sister-in-law is really the contented being she professes herself, sir, her life gives the lie to every research to humanity; for she is happy, without health, without beauty, without money, and without understanding." He went away growling, "I tell you the woman is ugly, and sickly, and foolish and poor, and would it not make a man hang himself to hear such a creature say she was happy?" The very idea of being happy without the values so treasured by his materialistic heart made him angry. It does not seem fair to the secularist who has struggled for all the externals of wealth, power, and fame to see people who are happy who have not made the struggle.
Paul would have made him angry by his words in Phil. 4:11-12. Paul said, "...For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." Paul's happiness was not dependent upon what happened, or what he had. This means that Paul's happiness was internal. Paul did not have control over the externals of his life, but like everybody else does, he had control over how he would react to life internally.
If it is only going to be a happy new year for us if we get more stuff, and all goes well, then we are living on a different level than Paul was on. This does not mean we should not get more stuff, and that we should not strive to make all go well. Paul advised Christians to live peaceably with all men, and to prevent all the negatives of life that they can. But if this is your only level of happiness you are too controlled by the externals, and changes can quickly rob you of your joy in Christ. We need to see the externals as fringe benefits, and not the base salary of the Christian life. The foundation is to be internal and attitudinal rather than external and material. Jesus and Paul agree here completely. Happiness does not depend on what happens, but on how you face all that happens. Jesus is saying in the beatitudes that you can be happy even if you are experiencing many negative externals.
At this point we need to take a detour off the main road to deal with the problem that Christians have with reconciling being happy and miserable at the same time. One of the major problems the Christian has in the pursuit of happiness is the sense of failure that comes due to times of depression and other unhappy feelings. Many feel guilty for not being happy in the Lord. Their unhappiness is magnified by their guilt. They say, "I know I should be happy, but I just can't seem to feel the joy of the Lord." The first thing we need to do is clarify the Christians right to be miserable on a variety of levels. Jesus wept because of people's rejection of God's grace. This makes it clear that the Christian has every right to be unhappy over lost people. If a Christian feels guilty about being sad over this lost world, he is feeling guilty for being Christlike, for Jesus wept over this same thing.
Jesus also wept over the sorrow of death and the lose of a loved one. He was very unhappy also with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and the injustice of man to man. He felt rotten about the way the temple was being used to rip off the poor, and how widows were being taken advantage of, and their houses being taken from them. Add up all the unhappy feelings of Jesus over the fallen nature of man, and you have a host of legitimate reasons to be unhappy as a Christian. In fact, it is unchristian if you are never sad and unhappy about a fallen and lost world.
There are legitimate reasons to be unhappy, and it is folly to feel guilty for them. We could list all of Paul's negative emotions as well, but it is not necessary, for if our Lord had good reason to be unhappy with much of life, who can be so presumptuous to expect to live on a higher emotional level then Him? Anyone who expects to be feeling happy all the time is trying to live in a world that does not yet exist. The only way to get there in the present is by insanity and the loss of touch with reality. Some unhappiness is just part of the price we pay for living in a fallen world. We have to get it out of our head that Christian happiness means freedom from all care. It that is the case, the average cow is happier than the average Christian. It was because Paul cared so much for the churches that he went through so many negative emotions of frustration and anxiety.
What we are dealing with here is a paradox. It is the reality of being able to be miserable and happy at the same time. Paul was often miserable over the problems in the church, and yet he had an inner sense of well being that made him happy. This means that Christian happiness is not always and emotion. One might be dominated by the weeping with those who weep, and so they would feel sad at that point. This does not rob them of contentment. Paul did not have the same emotion when he was feasting with his friends as he had when he was in the dungeon starving and alone. Paul is not saying that one is just the same as the other. He would have to be a pet rock to be in such a state.
Paul had all kinds of emotions, just as Jesus did, but his point is that he had an attitude of contentment within regardless of his emotions. When he said that Demas had forsaken him he was feeling bad about it. He was not indifferent to circumstances and saying its all fine with him regardless of what was happening. But even when he felt bad about circumstances, he still had his contentment in Christ which circumstances could not change. This calls for great discipline to be truly happy on this level. We get a glimpse into the depth of what it means to be Christlike by looking at this inner contentment of Paul. Look at the reasons for why we are so often discontented in life.
1. Selfishness. We want things to be our way and good for us. When they are not we are discontent. We will all have some unhappiness because we always want to get our own way.
2. Envy. This makes us discontent because we see the possessions and gifts of others almost as if they were stolen from us, and we resent it, and so feel unhappy.
3. Covetousness. We have a strong desire for more than we now have, and this robs us of the enjoyment of what we do have. No matter how much we get it is never enough, for there is so much more to covet. There is always an emptiness that can never be fully filled because we covet more.
Paul was happy because he did not have to wrestle with these vices. He had conquered them, and so he was content with his life. A happy life does depend on our conquering all the temptations of life that fill us with discontent. This means that it is hard work to be happy, for you have to die to self and all that the world appeals to in us.
It is important for us to be aware that almost everything that people do is because they believe it will lead to happiness. The Prodigal Son did not take his money and go off to live in the pleasure of sin with any other motive than the desire to be happy. Men just do not pursue evil for evil's sake. Few if any could care less about pleasing Satan. All they want is happiness for themselves. Men chose the path that leads to misery only because they are convinced it leads to happiness. Sin would have nothing to offer man if it did not hold out the deceptive offer of happiness.
Satan competes for the souls of men by offering and imitation of everything God offers for man's true happiness. From the start this was the case. The first temptation was an offer of greater happiness by eating the forbidden fruit. Satan is constantly trying to under sell God, and he offers to men what he claims is greater happiness at less cost. What the sinner fails to think of is that it is God who does the ultimate billing, and the cost of Satan's happiness is eternal unhappiness. No one who really knew the whole story could purchase temporary happiness at such a cost, but Satan is the master deceiver. It is the purpose of the Christian to distinguish between the false happiness of Satan, and the true happiness of God, and then demonstrate its superiority in life to enlighten men. This is part of what being the light of the world means.
A college girl told me that non-Christian kids on campus think that the Christians are dull and boring. A cab driver said he didn't like church conventions coming to town because Christians come with the Ten Commandments and a ten dollar bill, and they don't break either of them. His concept of happiness was the pleasure of sin and the spending of money. The Christian cannot please men on that level, but Christians ought to make it clear that it is a joy to be a Christian. The world should be impressed with Christian happiness. When the non-Christian says we are all seeking the same thing, we should agree, but be able to show him that the happiness the Christian finds in Christ is of a much better quality.
The problem in doing this is simply that Christians have not given enough thought to what happiness really is, and so they are on the same level with the world in their search for it in many different directions. Man is a complex being, and every desire, and every different kind of disposition leads to a different theory of happiness. The ancient writer Cicero said that in his day there were 20 rival opinions concerning the source of true happiness. Varro was able to enumerate 280 such opinions. There are probably more opinions on the way to happiness than on any other subject, and the problem is that there is some truth to every one of them. Happiness has a thousand faces to match the diversity of personalities, gifts, and natures. The poetess Priscilla Leonard wrote,
Happiness is like a crystal, Fair and exquisite and clear,
Broken in a million pieces, Shattered, scattered far and near,
Now and then along life's pathway, Lo! Some shining fragments fall;
But there are so many pieces, No one ever finds them all.
You may find a bit of beauty, Or an honest share of wealth,
While another just beside you, Gathers honor, love or health.
Vain to choose or grasp unduly, Broken is the perfect ball;
And there are so many pieces, No one ever finds them all.
Yet the wise as on they journey Treasure every fragment clear,
Fit them as they may together, Imaging the shattered sphere.
Learning ever to be thankful, Though their share of it is small;
For it has so many pieces, No one ever finds them all.
There is no doubt that she has in this poem expounded a basic truth which the Scriptures support. Being a Christian, and receiving God's best, which is salvation through Jesus Christ does not supply one with every kind of happiness. The Bible makes it clear that there are different gifts, and different degrees of talent among Christians. There is probably no Christian who has ever had everything that can be had to increase their usefulness and happiness. If we could be happier with a gain of anything either internal or external, we are not yet in possession of perfect happiness. Complete happiness is impossible, therefore, in this life. That is what heaven is all about. Even Jesus knew sorrow, pain, and grief in His human life, and, therefore, the Christian goal for this life is never absolute happiness at any price.
The Christian must recognize the limits of the happiness that can rightly be theirs in God's will. Sometimes God's will requires us to be unhappy, and this then brings us back to where we begin, and that is that Christian happiness is basically internal, and it is in the character of the Christian. Someone said, "Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling." The blessedness Jesus speaks of in the beatitudes is an internal attitude which completely contradicts the expected response to the external facts. The direction of Christian happiness is within rather than external, but because many pagans have also found this to be the best source of happiness, the Christian view cannot be that only. Therefore, Pascal says, "Happiness is neither without nor within us, it is in God, both without us and within us."
This sounds like a circular argument that says it is neither, and also both. It does say this, but so as to lift the subject of happiness out of the realm where man is the center to where God is the center. This is where the Christian view of happiness becomes distinct. In the pagan view even their gods are means to human happiness. In the Christian view happiness for man is not an end in itself, but is a means to the glory of God. In Christian theology man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Glorifying and enjoying God is the highest happiness man can attain. Man's happiness, therefore, is only uniquely Christian and Christlike when God receives the glory.
There is never any doubt when you examine the life of Christ as to who is the center of His life. In His prayer He taught us to say, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done." God was the center of His life, the source of His power, and the end of all His acts. We very subtly are lead into a sub-Christian view of life when we make God a means to fulfilling our own ends. The very study of, and longing for, happiness can lead us in this direction, and, therefore, we must ever keep in mind that the essence of Christian happiness is in making God and His glory the end of all we are and all we do.
Ernest M. Ligon in The Psychology of Christian Personality says that many studies have led to the conclusion that integration of personality is a basic key to good health in all its aspects, and thus, to the happy life. What is integration? He writes, "Briefly, integration is the condition of a personality in which all of te emotional attitudes are harmonious and mutually helpful, thus permitting all of one's natural energy to be directed toward one end." This is Paul's, "This one thing I do." It is the life with one supreme aim and center. Ligon says, "If an individual can organize his emotional attitudes in such harmony with one another, that he can direct all of his urges and appetites about one central purpose, which is always the focus of his interest and of his attention, we find the peak of efficiency, and the perfect integration." When God is that central purpose we have arrived at the highest happiness life can offer on this earth.
I read of a big cat who saw a little cat chasing his tail and he asked why? "Because I am seeking happiness, and when I catch my tail I will be happy." The big cat said, "I too have studied happiness and found it to be in my tail. But I have observed that when I chase it it keeps running away, but when I go about my business, it just seems to come after me wherever I go." The point being, the chasing after happiness can be futile, but just being faithful to your daily duties can be fruitful in fulfilling your need for happiness. It is not all out there somewhere, but it is internal, and comes with the satisfaction of a meaningful life. Paul was not out chasing happiness. Paul was doing the best he could to fulfill the calling of God, and the result was contentment in any state. He did not always feel delighted, or happy in the sense that he never wept, felt angry or frustrated, or even depressed. But he was happy that he was in the right place doing what God wanted him to do.
Happiness for Paul was in knowing he was a tool available to God to minister to human need. It was both internal as a sense of peace and contentment, and external because of the evidence that he was being used. People were changed, churches were founded, and the kingdom was expanding. The externals for Paul were fringe benefits, however, and his basic happiness was the internal contentment of being in Christ, and being used of Christ. Someone said, "Happiness is life a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it eludes you. But if you turn your attention to others things, it will come and softly sit on your shoulder."
Happiness comes from within.
Our attitudes are the key.
No matter what circumstance,
Some good we can always see.
Try positive attitudes.
They're so easy to create.
In joy and contentment,
Will be your happy fate.
If you do good to others,
You have made a sure-fire start.
It is almost guaranteed,
To put a smile within your heart.
Catherine Marshall has known the deep sorrows of grief, and the great unhappiness of life going wrong in so many ways, but she has known also the joy of success in Christian service. She writes, "I have observed that when any of us embark on the pursuit of happiness for ourselves, it eludes us. Often I've asked myself, why? It must be because happiness comes to us only as a dividend, as a gift given us by God. When we become absorbed in something demanding and worthwhile above and beyond ourselves, happiness suddenly becomes ours as a by-product of the self-giving. That should not be a startling truth, yet I'm surprised at how few people understand and accept it. Have too many of us made a god of happiness? Have we been brainwashed by the magazine and television ads, featuring happiness?"
She sees most Americans interpreting their right to the pursuit of happiness to mean the right to grab all the power, money, and pleasure they can get. This leads to some very non-Christian methods of being happy. Rights need to be dealt with right, or they become wrongs. Both Jesus and Paul make it clear that it is more than a right to be happy, it is a duty. It is part of our commitment to Christ to overcome all that would make us unhappy. Jeremy Taylor said, "God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy." Robert Louis Stevenson said, "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy." If we listen to Jesus and Paul, and follow their example we will find happiness and contentment by knowing God as our heavenly Father, and by being committed to that which we know is His will for our lives.