Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey.
Happiness may be one of the most misunderstood and maligned virtues of our time.
Happiness is, on one hand, exalted as the supreme goal of existence. There is great pressure to be happy. If you are not happy, your life is not worth living and you must be doing something wrong. Shopping, traveling, and self-help are popular solutions to this problem. There are many paths to happiness and though every path is not right for every person there is certainly one for you and you should keep searching until you find it. If you find yourself still unhappy after about– oh, say, 50 years, or maybe just 50 minutes, you probably need professional help. Of course, sex, drugs, and rock and roll are always available to you. Whichever path you choose, your happiness depends on you, is fully within your control, and it is your responsibility to procure it.
On the other hand, our churches rarely have much to say about happiness because happiness completely misses the point. Life is about faithfulness, maturity, service, and perhaps “joy” (the more respectable cousin of happiness). Happiness is simply a fleeting distraction that holds no lasting value. Life is a test requiring great perseverance. God certainly isn’t interested in our happiness because God is much too serious for that. God wants us to grow up and if we aren’t happy, well, so be it. We are at least wise, mature, and orthodox. We have inherited our Puritan ancestors’ fear that if we encourage happiness we tacitly promote the licentious sex, drugs, and rock and roll mentioned earlier.
The pendulum swings back and forth causing so much confusion that even a sweet, Southern girl may resort to swearing in sheer frustration. Both perspectives are distortions of something inherently good. As distortions they are unlivable. Happiness is either pie in the sky, always just out of reach, or it is the dangerous enemy of mature faith, and as such, is illegitimate. We live either as slaves to the seduction of happiness, or as martyrs in the rejection of it.
What would a livable and faithful pursuit of happiness look like? It might begin with knowing that God is happy. Maybe God even desires our happiness. The Biblical story bears witness to this time and again. God apparently creates from sheer delight, reveling in divine artistry and calling creation good. God sees that Adam is lonely and provides a partner, presumably for their mutual help and happiness. Even the law and 10 great rules are given in an effort to preserve happiness in community. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 claim happiness and the dignity of human life without denying the pain and suffering we experience. What if we deeply trusted the goodness and extravagance of a God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment?” (I Timothy 6:17)
If true happiness is rooted in the very nature of God, and God is Love, then we also know happiness involves the giving and receiving of love. Have you noticed, when your heart is filled with love, the craving for “too much” of everything else relents? Or, when you share true presence with your children, their behavior improves? How different would our experience of sex be if the focus was less on seduction and need-gratification, and more about mutual, loving self-offering? Overeating might lose it’s appeal if we were satisfied with enough love every day. Can human love satisfy our every need? No. To seek sufficient love solely from human relationships only changes the focus of the addiction. God is the bottomless source of love. But we grossly underestimate our power to love and sow happiness.
My mom has cooked dinner for my dad repeatedly in their 40-year marriage. I have never once heard my dad complain that the corn is tough or the chicken bland. He simply sits down and relishes whatever she makes. My mother offers him happiness in the meal and he offers her happiness in his response. What if we each decide to cook-up love in the best way we can and then pull up a chair and relish the love-offering of others? I think we might find ourselves transformed into people of deep and abiding happiness.
An ancient hymn, thought to be one of the earliest songs of the Christian church, imagines Jesus as the Phos Hilaron—the “Happy Light.” Legend says it was composed by an old man on his way to being martyred. The executioner’s arm was paralyzed until the elderly bishop had finished his song. May this be true for all of us—may we be given as many days as we need to fully sing our song of love and may true happiness be the result.
Kate Coffey is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program for which she now serves as adjunct staff. She lives and writes in South Carolina.