Are you happy? For many people that’s the big question. We live in a society where often the highest value to pursue is happiness. The most significant goal in life, we are told, is the enjoyment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. It’s not a new philosophy – a version of it was formulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus – but modern knowledge and technology offer so many more possibilities for pursuing it than ever before. The pursuit of happiness lies at the heart of much of the advertising industry. If you buy this car, this holiday, this gadget, this cosmetic, this snack, you will be a happier person, maybe even a better person. In Sydney, Australia, there is a ‘Happiness Institute’, whose approach to living is summed up in the slogan ‘Life’s too short not to be happy’. Among the ‘12 things you should start making time for…now!’ are, according to one of the Institute’s blogs, ‘taking better care of yourself’ and ‘Getting lost in playful exploration’. Plenty of good self-help advice about the road to greater happiness.
So why not? Who would willingly choose unhappiness? We’re not masochists, after all. Happiness isn’t to be despised, and yet when it becomes the centre of life, and indeed the driving force of a culture, there will be problems. Some psychologists and sociologists are beginning to sound an alarm about the ‘happiness society’ where the unpleasant aspects of life are denied, disguised, hidden away or ignored. They are suggesting that we are producing generations of people who are increasingly unable to cope with the hard experiences that life will inevitably bring – sadness, loss, disappointment, loneliness, fear. The idolising of happiness has resulted for many in an inability to face, for example, the grief that, sooner or later, will be their lot. They are ill-equipped for what lies ahead. The positive-thinking self-help industry has back-fired and left many with no resources when the hard times hit.
The Christian perspective, on this as on so many issues, is very different from what our culture accepts. In John 16:33 the Lord warns his disciples, ‘In the world you will have tribulation’. The word suggests pressure and crushing – the sensations experienced by those in the midst of trying experiences. The Lord’s disciples are warned that they will face hard times, and the New Testament, as well as Christian experience, demonstrates that Christians face all the ‘ordinary’ difficulties of life that are the lot of every human being and in addition the specific costs of discipleship, the ‘cross bearing’ that Christ speaks of on a number of occasions. The Christian’s perspective on life, far from being a rose-tinted escape from reality as it is often caricatured, is utterly clear-sighted and totally realistic. There is no pious hiding from the hard experiences, if we take Christ’s words seriously.
We are not left there, however. Christ goes on the give us words of hope and encouragement: ‘take heart: I have overcome the world.’ In the cross and the empty tomb the decisive victory has been won by the Saviour over all the forces that hold us in bondage. In union with him by faith we share in that victory which shapes all our thoughts and attitudes, and consequently our actions. The resources have been provided for dealing with the hard experiences that God in his providence sends to his people. We really do have ‘everything we need for life and godliness’ (2 Peter 1:3).
We are exhorted in James 1:2 to ‘count it all joy’ when we face all kinds of trials. Note ‘all joy’, not ‘all happiness’. The difference is significant. Happiness comes and goes. It depends on all kinds of factors both within ourselves and in outward circumstances. Joy, on the other hand, is the product of grace. It has as its focus the purpose of God that is being worked out in our testing experiences as he makes us more like his Son. It can coexist with pain, sorrow, loss, disappointment. The world cannot give joy nor can it take joy away. Happiness is not to be despised, but Christian joy equips us for life as it really is.