A life devoted to the pursuit of happiness ends in sorrow.
Maybe this sounds pessimistic or cynical or even unpatriotic. After all, the Declaration of Independence frames our freedom precisely in terms of our inherent right to pursue happiness.
Let me be clear. We desire happiness by God’s own design. Happiness is a good that God himself wants us to enjoy. But happiness is a by-product of our chief end: righteousness.
As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33) Happiness results from our pursuit of the kingdom of God. Not the other way around.
If we seek righteousness, happiness will follow. If we seek happiness, we will inevitably sacrifice righteousness and unwittingly forfeit happiness.
By now you’re probably thinking that this all hinges on what I mean by “happiness” and just what “seeking the kingdom of God” means.
Let’s start with happiness.
Great minds have written volumes defining happiness. So let me admit from the outset that Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas provide the kind of thorough discussion of happiness that would satisfy scholarly curiosity.
In this space I’ll just provide a simple working definition. Happiness is the good life.
While happiness may include pleasure or contentment or comfort, it is not identical to any of these feelings. In fact, we may sometimes be quite happy in the face of discomfort or in the midst of struggle.
Happiness is a combination of virtuous character, material comforts, supportive relationships, rewarding leisure and meaningful work.
God wants us to be happy. And yet, we run off the rails when we make the pursuit of happiness our highest goal. I’ll explain why after saying a word about seeking the Kingdom of God, since God created us to pursue this goal above all others.
Seeking the Kingdom of God is not principally about going to heaven when we die. Simply put, the Kingdom of God is where God reigns. Followers of Jesus seek to allow God to reign in their everyday lives, in their families and in their communities.
I don’t have in mind here simply following a set of rules. Instead, it seems to me that Jesus teaches us that God has a vision for how his people will live together and how his creation will hang together.
Seeking the Kingdom of God involves accepting God’s gracious vision as our own and getting in step with his redeeming work.
Yes, this does involve following the moral law. But it does not allow for a merely external adherence to a set of rules.
We have to get into the spirit of the thing or else we’ll be susceptible to bouts of resentment toward God on the one hand and contempt and condescension toward other people whom we consider morally suspect on the other hand.
God wants us to be in right relationship with him because this is the only way for us to know the joy and fulfillment and contentment he designed us to embody. Happiness is a result of right relationship with God.
If we pursue that relationship as the first priority, happiness may follow.
In order to seek righteousness, I might have to tell a truth that makes me uncomfortable, refuse to participate in an activity that would make me wealthy or powerful or popular, or give away my time and my money on someone other than myself.
This may seem contrary to happiness, but in fact it leads to self-respect, dignity, self-control, and peace.
By contrast, if we pursue happiness as our primary goal we will sacrifice righteousness at some point or other. Why would I sacrifice career advancement just to tell someone an unflattering truth about myself?
If comfort and possessions and a position of influence are my chief aim, truth and self-sacrifice are negotiable. If they serve my happiness, I’ll use them. Otherwise, forget it. My pursuit of happiness would trump my pursuit of righteousness.
And here’s the irony. The pursuit of happiness undermines happiness.
Pursuing happiness slips into chasing things that can be consumed and then pass away. The things and positions that supposedly make us happy are fleeting, and our ability to get and keep them is always vulnerable to the changes and chances of this life.
We can find ourselves perpetually asking, “Are we there yet? Are we happy yet?” We’re always trying to find something we don’t have or fighting to keep the thing we might lose.
Seeking the Kingdom of God turns all of this upside down. We surrender to the one who is seeking us. He seeks us relentlessly so that we can know the love we are meant to have and to enjoy the fullness of life for which we were created.
(Image from digitalmornblog.com)