The Paradox of Happiness: Seeking and Resisting
Amish Farm, Aroostook County, Maine
Sometimes we resist change, often for good reasons or for reasons that not everyone understands. Other times we embrace and aggressively exploit innovations, “advances,” and different ideas with delight. Discoveries intrigue, and technologies lure. However, time changes “things” for all of us; generations come and go with different ways and tools for dealing with life.
What drives us to think or do, or not think or not do, what we think or don’t think or do or do not do? The answers lie buried somewhere within the complexities of our natures, our varied personalities which are formed by heredity, experiences, and personal motivations which may arise from needs, desires, and beliefs. But the substrata for how we approach life is the search for happiness. We strive for an internal calmness, a sense of peace and wholeness, and a socially acceptable self image. We want to feel good about who we are and what we do. We want to be happy! So, we make life about us. We create our own images from what we think we deserve and who we should be. In that process, we easily forget that we are intended to be images of God.
Perceptions of how to achieve a good life may differ, but we often try by seeking success, garnering wealth, attaining power, achieving acclaim, expressing our intellects, displaying our talents, finding acceptance, developing comforting, encouraging relationships, and doing good things. We hope our values will bring us peace, joy, and contentment.
Achieving and accumulating do have temporary emotional highs and social benefits. We proudly accept the accolades and adulation and enjoy the glory and good feelings which our efforts bring. Often God is not found in the credits! However, King Solomon, a man of enormous wealth, considerable intellect, wonderful advantages and opportunities, grand hobbies, worldly pleasures, and benevolent work, concluded that all his life’s works added up to nothing but vanity without God in the mix. (Ecclesiastes) Myriads of other successful men and women testify to the self-buoying but transitory and eventual meaninglessness of human glory and honors. When our attempts don’t satisfy, despair, depression, anxiety, addictions and rebellious, self destructive behaviors rob us of the peace we desperately seek.
If those statements are true, they draw us back to the age old question raised and answered by the prophet Micah: “O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8) That very much sounds like Jesus’ summary of the meaning of the moral code of loving God with all one’s being and one’s neighbor as one’s self.
As relational beings, our joy resides in loving relationships- never in achievements and accumulations alone. Deep satisfaction is a function of a relationship with God first and then with others. One stated purposes for Jesus’ incarnation is to make life a joyful possibility. (John 15:11) He showed up to heal our broken relationship with God, to redeem and restore us, and to show us the path of deeply spiritual, sustainable, God-given blessedness despite the fact that his list of happy people is counterintuitive and countercultural: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. (Matthew 5) Those are scarcely the “happy” people or attitudes we would naturally seek or counsel others to seek.
However, If we dissect Jesus’ self-effacing, happiness criteria, they focus on repentance, sacrifice, self denial and love which is without self absorption or self benefit. He knew and modeled the deep joy of seeking and obeyed God’s purposes for his life. He loved others with the ultimate love even while suffering the worst misunderstandings, rejections, mockeries, and cruelty mankind could conger up. Within those tough circumstances and with that purposefulness, he could say that if we believe him and follow his teachings “… you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:10-11)
Those thoughts reorient us away from ourselves to God, away from self-reliance to dependence upon what God has done and does to give us peace and hope, away from urgent and frenetic self promotions to satisfaction with God’s love and care and perfect guidance, and away from self-righteous arrogance to a humble, believing faith which lives God’s grace. In the words of the Psalmist: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” ( Psalm 16:11) Happiness is the gift of knowing God.“Whoever gives thought to the (scripture) will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:20) Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4) Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
Shakespeare’s Macbeth said life is but a shadow! Philosophers, writers, and poets of all generations lament that same lament about the brevity of life and the elusive search for meaning. King David once prayed, “We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.” (1 Chronicles 29:15 (NLT2) (The long ,complex genealogical records chronicled in those Bible books of history vividly convey that truth!)
We all seek purpose, hope and joy within our life’s short timespan. For many, life is not only brief but is unhappy! We assume that achieving happiness is our struggle to win, but Scripture teaches that seeking and relying upon God, His merciful, saving grace, His transforming power, and His good purposes for our characters will change our thoughts and attitudes and lead to inner peace.
Not all who seek fulfillment and happiness will agree. We may resist God, but if we miss Him, we will have missed life’s deepest meaning and ultimate hope! God “satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things” (Psalm 107:9)