I recently watched a television show where one of the characters talked to a friend about her daughter. Though concerned that her daughter’s fiancÃ© wasn’t a man of integrity, she conceded, “I just want her to be happy.”
Desiring happiness, whether in our life or in the life of another, seems like a worthy desire. We nod our head: Yes, of course, we should all want happiness in life. After all, it’s the American way. It’s our right stamped upon our nation’s founding documents. But upon further examination, it’s a concerning statement. In the case of the television show, it kept a mother from speaking the truth to her daughter. While that was just a fictional situation, it’s also a ruling standard in our lives today.
The Pursuit of Happiness
In our culture, happiness is the highest goal in life. We pursue it at all costs through relationships, wealth, fame, and success. We make sacrifices to achieve it. We give up our time and money in its pursuit. And when happiness wanes, we start to question our involvement in things that don’t make us happy. We consider moving on when relationships get hard or when jobs are no longer rewarding. We ask ourselves questions like, “How can I be happy when I hate my job? Or “How can I be happy when my marriage is hard?” Or “How can I be happy when parenthood isn’t what I expected?”
To be clear, when I use the word happiness, I mean the often-fleeting feeling that comes through achievements, experiences, and positive moments. It’s the feeling you get when everyone sings “Happy Birthday,” or when our favored team wins the final, or when we finally purchase that dream home. It’s the pleasure found in a much-needed vacation or the satisfaction of time spent with good friends. It’s a good feeling, one we want to keep. And while experiencing such happiness isn’t a bad thing, it’s not the ultimate thing, despite what our culture would have us believe. It’s not even our highest aim in life.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The happiness we labor so hard to achieve pales in comparison to the deep and profound joy found in God. This is where the problem with the pursuit of happiness lies. When we look for it apart from God, we seek a false substitute–one that’s temporary and fleeting. It wears off once we return home from our vacation, or our marriage reaches a difficult season, or our job isn’t as fulfilling as it once was.
We were created to know God and be known by him. We were made to love, worship, and glorify our maker. We were made to be in relationship with the one who made us–to live for him, to seek his glory, to make his name famous. We were made to enjoy God, to relish the joy that comes from being his child. “Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God,” said St. Augustine, and this is why our pursuit of happiness is unfulfilling and temporary. We chase after happiness in things that don’t last rather than find it in the source of everlasting joy.
We’d rather make mud pies than enjoy a trip to the sea.
More than Happiness
The Bible doesn’t teach us that the pursuit of happiness is the highest goal in life. In fact, things we might view as antithetical to happiness, the Bible describes as good and necessary. David says, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps. 119:71). Three times Paul pleaded with God to remove pain in his life, but God decided it was better for him to suffer with weakness (2 Cor. 12). Our savior didn’t pursue happiness in his own life. He was the suffering servant, one who gave up his very life so that others might live: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). And contrary to the American Dream, Jesus didn’t even have a home to call his own (Matt. 8:20).
God has an eternal perspective for our lives. He cares more about our holiness than our temporary happiness. He’s in the business of transforming lives, in making all things new. He’s readying us for eternity with Him. To that end, God uses the challenges we face in life to sanctify and transform us. He uses our hardships and trials to purify us, to strip away our sin. In the life of Paul, God used many trials to help him learn to depend upon God and not upon himself (2 Cor. 1:9). In our lives too, God uses our disappointments and troubles to teach and train us. Times of unhappiness then become an opportunity for us to ask, “What might God want me to learn through this situation? What areas of my life might God want to change and transform? How can I depend upon God in this situation, rather than on myself? How can I grow in my understanding of God’s grace in this moment?”
This is why James could tell his readers to find joy in their trials. Not because those trials were good in themselves, but because of what God would do through them:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
We need an eternal perspective in our lives, too. We need to look for the good work God is doing in our lives, even in our unhappiness.
The feeling of happiness comes and goes with our circumstances. And sometimes, its pursuit can keep us from the joy that comes from seeing God transform us into who we were made to be. Let us instead find lasting joy in being known by God.