Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Confusion about Happiness

Series on “Real Happiness”, Part 1
Matthew 13:44-46; Matthew 16:24-25
June 1, 2008

Life is a paradox. You can rarely get what you really need or want by aiming directly at it. When my buddy Dave Richardson took me out on his boat on Lake Winnipesaukee, he taught me the fine art of tacking—of going zigzag across the lake to get from dock to dock.

Happiness is like that too. How many people aim right at happiness, but spend their lives unable to dock there? The paradox of happiness is that you can’t reach it aiming for it. Happiness is a byproduct of other things. But maybe I’m getting just a little ahead of myself.

We live in a society obsessed with happiness, but also a society that has no clue what it is or how to get it. And by “society”, I include a lot of Christians. Happy talk is around us and we hear it and we buy into too. As a result, I meet believers every day that haven’t learned the fact that nobody gets happiness without tacking, that nobody gets happiness by aiming straight for it.
Jesus told parables that aren’t specifically about happiness but that give us clues about real happiness. They’re found in Matthew 13:44-46, two parables that make very similar points, paired together:

44 "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

In the first parable, a man accidently discovers a treasure buried in a field that he doesn’t own. This wasn’t as uncommon as you might think. This was a common practice in wartime—to bury your valuables. Sometimes, sadly, everyone who knew where the treasure was died in the war and the property would end up in the hands of people who didn’t know anything about the treasure. So this fellow finds the treasure, leaves it hidden and “in his joy” sells everything to get that field to get that treasure.

In his case, he wasn’t looking for treasure—he just comes across it. So he’s willing to sell everything he had to legally obtain the land and the treasure in it. Some of his friends probably thought he was crazy, throwing away his life to get a piece of ground. What they didn’t know was that there’s treasure there. And if he told his closest friend, he might have said, “Why buy the ground? We can sneak in there in the middle of the night and just take it!” But this man knew that if you try to steal happiness, it won’t stay happiness. He knew that there’s always a price to pay for happiness, and that it’s worth the price.

Now the second parable here is a little different, but makes essentially the same point. This time the merchant is really looking for fine pearls. This isn’t an accidental discovery. And in his pursuit of the perfect pearl, he finds the Mother of All Pearls. He too is willing to liquidate his holdings to get this pearl.

The treasure and the pearl both stand for the same thing stated in different ways. There’s a lot of ways we could express, but let’s just call it Real Life. Included in Real Life is happiness. Often, just like with the treasure, you don’t get Real Life by going straight at it. You discover happiness hidden inside something else. Then you have to pay the price to get happiness.
With the pearl merchant, he knows he’s looking for Real Life, and the main point of that parable is that lose everything to get it. You can’t get happiness without a cost.

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus says? Look at Matthew 16:24-25:

24Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

Real life (and that would include happiness) is a byproduct. Happiness is found is the full-on pursuit of God and His ways (His kingdom rule in your life). Happiness is found by saying no to yourself and saying yes to God. And if you think you can have happiness by going straight at it, think again: “whoever wants to save his life will lose it.”

21st century Americans are obsessed with happiness. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’d be concerned about a person who was obsessed with unhappiness! The problem isn’t that we want happiness; it’s that we don’t know what it is or how to get it.

The modern dictionary definition of happiness is “a sense of pleasurable satisfaction.” This is a radical departure from the way happiness was understood by the Bible and by other ancient thinkers.

Here’s a quote from an 18th century English legal expert that nails the Biblical understanding of happiness:

[God] has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter [happiness] cannot be attained but by observing the former [God’s ‘eternal justice’]; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. (William Blackstone)

In other words, happiness is the byproduct of living by God’s ways. And it’s the only way to happiness. Sounds a lot like, “Seek first the kingdom, and all these things will be given to you.”
What happens when people try to get happiness by taking the shortcut—straight to “pleasurable satisfaction” with the cost? What happens is a kind of emptiness. It’s actually been called the problem of the empty self. When we focus on “pleasurable satisfaction” all on its own, what do we get? Here are four things we get when we try to take the shortcut to happiness:

1. Loneliness. The person who lives for happiness is living for self-interest only. People, spouses, children, even churches are means to an end, and if you’re not experiencing happiness from them, right now, then they’re expendable. Americans are mostly lonely people because we have such a stunted view of community.

2. Childlike thinking and living. We accept that babies act like babies because they’re, well, babies!

But take someone who’s lived his whole life for “pleasurable satisfaction.” Is it any wonder that Hugh Hefner wears a bathrobe all the time? It’s a symbol of irresponsibility. The modern obsession with sex, appearance, body image and consumer goods is the sort-of grown up equivalent of a baby wanting his binky!

I wish I could say that this kind of childish selfishness in the name of happiness only happens with non-believers, but it isn’t so. I don’t know about his personal faith, but when ex-NFL quarterback and ESPN commentator Joe Theismann split from his wife, he allegedly explained why he had an affair this way: “God wants Joe Theismann to be happy.” Hmm. Sounds pretty self-serving to me. And it’s definitely not the Biblical idea of happiness.

3. Narcissism. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the guy who fell in love with his own reflection in the water. Narcissus would be at home in 21st century America. The self is king. Like is all about me! Self-denial is a heresy!

And I’m sad to say, there are plenty of Christians who’ve gotten a Narcissus thing going. They place their self at the center and make evaluate churches and even God Himself around the edge as means to the end of being happy. Does this church fulfill me? If it doesn’t, I can change it just like changing the gym I go to.

Just a side note: now I’m really going to rile you! You know who the number false prophet in the culture when it comes to happiness is? It’s Oprah Winfrey. Day by day she peddles the gospel of self-fulfillment and false happiness with the zeal of an evangelist, and the budget of a small state to spend spreading it!

4. Passive living. Those who seek “pleasurable satisfaction” and think that it’s happiness tend to get pretty passive and expect happiness to come to them. Call it the coach potato lifestyle.

In the last quarter century, this broken view of happiness has rooted itself deeper and deeper into the American soul, and we’re getting poisoned from it.

That’s not just a theological evaluation—we can measure this. Martin Seligman compared the overall rates of depression from 1980 to 2000 to the generation which came before it, and made two startling observations. The first was that the depression rates in that time period shot up by a factor of ten from any previous generation. The second conclusion was that the reason for this depression was that people increasingly weren’t living for any purpose beyond their own so-called happiness.

Jesus says that there is a way to get happiness, and the kind of happiness that’s not just based on the fleeting experience of “pleasurable satisfaction.” We can call that being content, having joy, being blessed. Those are all compatible Biblical terms for being truly happy. Real happiness is a sense of well-being that comes from a profound connection to God and that is expressed in a life of wisdom, freedom and goodness. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

This is so important; I want to give you a series of contrasts between Modern Happiness and Biblical Happiness:
Modern Biblical
An intense feeling A settled tone
Externals Internal
Fleeting Settled
Addictive Liberating

Intense feeling v. settled tone: Modern happiness is like a hard rock concert: BOOM! Biblical happiness has its BOOM moments (there’s nothing wrong with strong feelings!), but it’s not dependant on strong feelings. As a matter of fact, the absence of constant strong feelings is one of the things God uses to grow our faith.

Externals v. Internals: Modern happiness looks at life experiences and says, “What have you done for me lately?” This kind of happiness depends on the last movie, the last hot date, the big game, or for the Christian who gets caught up in this, the last “powerful” experience of worship. Biblical happiness isn’t fixed on externals, but on the inner connection, the abiding connection we have with Jesus.

Fleeting v. Settled: Modern happiness then is always switching on and off based on the last experience you have. That’s why most of modern happiness is really just unhappiness occasionally interrupted by fantasy. Biblical happiness is settled because it is fixed on the most settled one in the universe, the Lord God Almighty. It is settled on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. It is settled, and our response is, “It is well with my soul!”


Addictive v. Liberating: In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the witch is able to manipulate Edmund by offering him a treat called Turkish delight. If you know the story, you know that the time would come when Edmund would actually betray his brother and sisters just for a chance to have some more Turkish delight. For empty hearts, the offer of happiness in a needle, in a bed, in a drink, becomes overpowering. Addiction at its heart is the byproduct of a failure to enjoy real happiness.

Biblical happiness does just the opposite: it takes enslaved people and makes them free. The US Army used to use the slogan, “Be all you can be.” That’s exactly what Jesus does in a life: He enables us to be all that God created us to be, and when we know that, even when we just glimpse it, we begin to experience real happiness.

I am burdened for unhappy people. I am especially burdened for unhappy Christians. I know without asking that there’s a bunch of people here today who’d say, “That’s me. I know God, but to tell the truth, most of the time, I’m not happy.” So I want to take the last few minutes here to pray with you—not just a quick “end of message” prayer, but a short season of prayer.


Father of all joys, my prayer today isn’t that we’ll never experience set-backs and disappointments. We all know that’s something You never ever promised.
My prayer is that we would see in You our deepest and truest joy, and that we would discover the secret of being content.
My prayer is that we would lose our life in Your life, and find real life that way.
My prayer is that we would know that sense of well-being that comes from a profound connection to You.
My prayer is that we would live in happy wisdom, true freedom and simple goodness.
My prayer is that You would deliver us from the evil of small thinking, foolish shortcuts that lead nowhere and lives stunted by settling for fleeting feelings.
Be our joy, Lord Jesus. In Your name, Amen.

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