Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Happy: How, When, Why?

(This could be November's parish magazine item, I think. It was provoked by this notice of a book http://hadleyrectory.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/god-and-art-of-happiness.html and some silliness on Facebook)

Our society is obsessed with happiness. Facebook is covered in exhortations to be good to oneself and take responsibility for one’s own happiness. Some of us might have said to or about our kids: “As long as you are happy…”

Whether we like it or not, human beings seem to pursue happiness. We do stuff because we want to – because we think it will make us happy. Some of us do that more effectively (or wisely) than others. Some of us actually enjoy a bit of grit or melancholy. There can be a delicious poignancy to a small amount of misery, as our desire to sometimes watch a weepy film shows. The question is not whether to seek happiness but how.

Some people seek happiness in obviously wicked ways. If you can bear it, think for a moment of the child abuser, for example. No doubt the dysfunction is complicated, and more often than not follows on from prior abuse, but seeking some kind of thrill or satisfaction (a species of happiness) is presumably part of it.

If how we seek our happiness is one issue, when we seek it is another. Delayed gratification is a key to happiness. Patience can lead to greater happiness in the long run. And some even believe it is better to travel in hope than to arrive. There can certainly be some pleasure to be had from anticipation. In fact, the idea of that Michelin starred dinner can sometimes be tastier than the reality – or so I’m told, anyway.  

Christians have had something of a conflicted relationship with happiness. Puritanism, for example, has been rather unfairly described as the suspicion that someone somewhere might be enjoying themselves! Some Christians have spoken of joy (good happiness) rather than happiness (bad happiness).

Certainly there is such a thing as duty and sometimes we should do things whether we want to or not. But no one really wants the giver of a bunch of flowers to have gritted teeth. Ideally we should do our duty happily! We should want to do what is right. The magic sweet spot is where duty and delight combine – and the Bible says they not only should but can. God can begin to transform our hearts so that increasingly we love him and want to please him.

According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that most serious of documents, the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. That is meant to be one thing, not two. Glorify God by enjoying him. Delight yourself in the Lord. At his right hand are pleasures forever more. He is the blessed, Happy God, who wants to share his happiness. He overflows with joy. As John Piper, a contemporary American Baptist preacher has put it: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” He wants us to be happy, but rightly so.

So, to recap: granted that we all seek happiness, what does Christianity say about the how and when of it? How: in the love and smile of your heavenly Father. May the joy of the Lord be your strength. When: in part, really now, and increasingly, whatever our outward circumstances, but fully and finally in the glory that is yet to come for all who trust in Christ. There is more. This is not all there is. “Fading is the wordling’s pleasure, all its boasting pomp and show. Solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know”. And the Christian can say why too. For the glory of God, which is not unbridled egotism on his part, but what he deserves. The glory of God is not only our duty but our delight, our highest good. Our happiness, it turns out, is not only desirable but properly considered it is an ethical imperative. Rejoice in the Lord always is a command. Like all God’s other commands, it’s not one that we are always very good at keeping. But we ought to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and this too will be added to us. Ironically, if we pursue happiness we are likely to find that it is always beyond our grasp. But if we go after God, we might very well find that happiness creeps up on us unawares.  

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