What exactly is happiness? Is it the same thing as ‘godliness with contentment’? I don’t think so. Neither is it the same thing as joy, at least not the joy that Galatians says is part of the fruit of the Spirit. John Lennon ominously and famously said ‘happiness is a warm gun’ but of course he was being his usual sarcastic self. Why exactly would the Founding Fathers put our then fledgling nation on a quest for happiness? And believe it or not, Americans in huge numbers have been on that quest for that elusive goal ever since then. Divorces happen because ‘I’m not happy any more in this marriage’. Friendships end because ‘it doesn’t make me happy any more’. Sheryl Crow famously sang ‘if it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad’? Happiness seems to be associated with certain positive things happening to someone’s life, some positive set of circumstances that produce something one longs for, with happiness being the emotion one has when such things happen– for example, when one’s favorite team wins a championship. But just as circumstances come and go, happiness as the by-product of certain events is likewise fleeting. In any case, we cannot control all the circumstances that happen in our lives, so there is no ‘how to’ guide that can guarantee one ends up like that fish in Finding Nemo who keeps saying to himself ‘go to a happy place’. Places in themselves don’t necessarily produce happiness. I’ve been to my favorite beach a myriad of times, and sometimes happiness happens and produces a smile on my face, and sometimes not. I’ve come to the conclusion that happiness is not something to quest for in life. It is ephemeral and fleeting at best.
John Wesley had a different idea about a life quest— he called us to pursue holiness, not happiness. Holiness is a good and godly thing to pursue. It involves becoming the best person one can be. It involves having a positive relationship with the Almighty, and yes it involves godliness with contentment about one’s lot in life. If happiness also shows up, it’s a bonus, not a life goal. Listen for a moment to how Paul describes his life in Philippians—
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…. I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can endure all this through him who gives me strength.”
Notice first that Paul commands us to rejoice in the Lord ‘in all circumstances’. Not for all circumstances, but in all circumstances. Happiness is related to circumstances, rejoicing in the Lord is a decision of the will, to praise one’s Maker, and is not determined by circumstances. Another key is the end of vs. 5 where Paul is not talking about the temporal closeness of the Second Coming. He is paraphrasing the Psalm which talks about the Lord being spatially near to those who pray to him. As it turns out, and as prayer makes clear, we are not the captains of our own fates. God is. Hence the need to put our petitions to God and leave the results in God’s hands. Paul insists that if we will live life that way, God’s peace, a sense of well-being will keep our hearts and minds where they ought to be. But then Paul, towards the end of his life says he has learned something through all his trials and tribulations, and yes triumphs. He has learned the secret of how to be content in all circumstances, whether they are positive or negative. Unfortunately, Phil. 4.13, the so-called superman verse, has been badly translated for aeons. It is not about our individual ability to ‘climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow until we find our dream’. It is NOT saying we can do anything and everything so long as God is strengthening us. No…..it is talking about our ability to endure, and persevere even the worst of circumstance through the strength God provides. And frankly that is much more important than the pursuit of happiness. As it turns out, instead of listening to our Founding Fathers, Americans and others should have been listening to our Heavenly Father.