What do we want? I mean really really want.
A caramel latte? A jalapeño cheese bagel with extra cream cheese? A nice filet of blackened Mahi Mahi with garlic mashed potatoes? How about a Bourne marathon? Or taking in a midnight showing of Civil War tonight? How about a day at Disneyland with the family, or a night of fine dining and live jazz? International travel? A cruise to Alaska? Ten seconds of silence?
We might see these things as sweet and transitory, like cotton candy, but I think that many of us actually try to wrap our entire lives around them, hoping to maximize these short thrills, stringing them together into one long and blissful existence.
Isn’t this how most of us imagine heaven? No tears. No work. An endless summer. Enjoying a stress-free life with friends and family? Secretly, we hope there will be some thrills there as well. If we can’t have the perks of marriage, we should at least be able to fly to other planets or have unlimited Star Wars sequels.
You may protest. You’re not that shallow. You don’t live for thrills.
Maybe not. But what do you live for? Others? There is a gross shortage of Mother Theresa’s in this world. People marvel at someone that would sell everything and live in the gutter to serve thousands of starving strangers. It’s unnatural, extreme and a little confusing.
Though we all believe that serving others is noble and rewarding (nobody likes a Scrooge), charity is something we do on the side. In secular culture it’s called “giving back,” which means we have our feet under us, so we’re reaching out to others, sort of like putting on your own oxygen mask then the child next to you. In Church culture, we give our 10 percent, and keep the other 90.
If we’re honest with our emotions, examining our daily choices, most of us don’t live to see others succeed. We live to see ourselves succeed. We’re Americans. The Pursuit of Happiness is a cultural obligation. And to earn our success, we’re willing to suffer years of hard work, stress, isolation and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. We are determined.
But what happens when we get there? We have our degrees, we land our dream job and we start to work. In many cases, once the job settles in, we start to complain. The hours are long, the stress is high, the people are hard to work with, and the paycheck is never enough. Weekends start to look better and better. Vacations are everything.
So what do we do when we are spending more hours frowning than smiling? We work harder to earn a higher degree to find a job where we have more control, more hours, better vacations and retirement prospects, and the ability to maximize the pleasure of our free time—large house with a pool, a fun car with a killer sound system, season passes to sporting events and theme parks, the ability to eat anywhere anytime, and the prospect of exotic vacations and unique experiences. Basically, we’re in a position to open up more time and opportunity to string our short thrills into a moment-by-moment existence.
Celebrities and CEO’s. These are our American heroes. They “made it.” But how many of these people are genuinely happy? How often do we see the physical and relational toll that their success demands?
In high school I spent a month working in an Egyptian orphanage. I was shocked at all the smiles and laughter. These kids were poor. They didn’t have parents. Where were all the tears and the begging? In my twenties, I spent a week in Uganda. Huts and trees. And very happy people.
Despite the obvious truth, we still believe that we’ll be happy if we only had the right job, or married the right person, or had the right friends, or could maintain our health, or . . . something. We strain for those missing pieces, or try to fix the pieces we have, assuming that this or that thing will put a lasting smile back on our faces.
But despite all our wealth and opportunities, the West is chock-full of miserable, unsatisfied, jealous, fearful, irritable complainers, the exact opposite of what we should expect in our Land of Opportunity.
Yeah, this is a theological blog, so here comes my theological solution. But let’s get the top-of-the-head, tip-of-the-tongue assumption out of the way. I’m not going to say that God wants every believer to deny all earthly pleasures and commit themselves to the work of God in order to inherit a heavenly bliss in the afterlife. This concept, though vaguely Scriptural, makes it sound like God is asking his people to be temporarily miserable, denying all the fun that they could have, so they can get some work done for him and be rewarded with a stellar retirement program.
Do you see how this presentation continues to appeal to a Western mentality? We have not truly embraced the person and program of God. We’re still paying our dues in the hope of a blissful existence, but one that keeps a smile on God’s face rather than a concerned, compassionate frown.
The Bible actually presents a solution to happiness that should fill both this life and the next. But it seems to defy every human instinct. God’s solution looks like a paradox.
In John 15:11 Jesus tells his disciples, “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” [NLT] So what did he tell them? That he was leaving. That they were expected to keep his commandments while he was gone. That they had a lot of work to do. That others would hate them and persecute them and probably kill them. Thanks for the pick-me-up, Jesus!
In the Beatitudes, he offers a similar paradox. The Greek word, makarios, which is often translated as blessed, actually means happy or content. This is the kind of happy that we all want, not some “joy deep down in our hearts” that Christians often claim with deep down frowns on their faces.
On the surface, the Beatitudes seem like a collection of contradictions—happy are the poor in spirit, the mourners, people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, meek people, persecuted people. Yes, he mentions a reward in heaven, but he does not exclude the joys of this present existence.
The key to this passage is not to take each phrase in isolation, like fortune cookie wisdom, but to take them as a progression, moving from a state of spiritual poverty to spiritual wealth, becoming a persecuted peacemaker, like Christ.
Persecution doesn’t sound too appealing. But if you work through the progression carefully, you’ll discover that happiness is not about gaining more and more pleasurable experiences, but settling more and more into the kind of relationship with God that we were always designed to have.
The passage I mentioned in John 15 comes directly after a discourse about vines and branches. If the branch is content being a branch, he will find that all of his needs are cared for and that leaves and fruit will be produced naturally without much effort. If the branch is determined to be the vine, he will instinctively strain to produce fruit and never experience it.
Since Eden, human misery has stemmed from a self-oriented, self-indulgent existence. Funny how a bite of fruit could stifle our fruitfulness, making human branches feel desperate and needy on a level that is barely recognized and persistently unsatisfied.
The Beatitudes help us to recognize that that solution to our mutual unhappiness is to yield ourselves to the absolute control of our personal trainer, the Holy Spirit, the one that Christ gave to put a saddle on our stubborn souls. It may be difficult at first, especially as he works to pry our Scrooge-like fingers off the American Dream. But as we learn about what it means to be truly human on a spiritual level, we will learn what it means to have a constant feast in our souls and a transcendent smile on our faces.
Do you know why people in third world countries can be happy while millionaires can be miserable? There’s nothing spiritual about it. Simple lives, simple pleasures. The people I met enjoyed their friends and soccer and a steady, predictable existence. They weren’t thinking about college or careers because it wasn’t even on the radar. They weren’t slogging from weekend to weekend. Every day was about the same, and that stable, social, simple existence gave them a sense of joy and freedom that our society rarely understands or promotes.
We can find this kind of freedom without moving to Africa. We just need to let the Spirit put the saddle on, suffer through the uncomfortable transition, and experience the joy of surrendering our lives to an all-loving, all-powerful Creator who knows us better than we know ourselves.