Ask people on the street what they want out of life and you are likely to hear many of them say, “I just want to be happy.” With a little digging you could get most of them to tell you what they mean. A rewarding job. Career advancement. A loving spouse. Healthy, successful children. A nice home. Good health.
The specifics of any individual’s list will vary, but most of these lists will have one thing in common. They describe external circumstances. People always and everywhere pursue happiness.
In the contemporary West we are especially likely to believe that the inner conditions associated with happiness—contentment, tranquility and joy—result from achieving some set of external circumstances.
Given this prevailing view of happiness, it is no wonder that so many people find it hard to grasp how a loving God could allow good people to experience so much disappointment, failure, frustration and even heartache. God designed us to pursue happiness. So he must either leave the pursuit of happiness up to us or he doles out happiness capriciously.
God wants us to be happy. Right? If this means that God wants to give us external conditions that will give us our desired internal life, then the answer is “no.” God does not define happiness in this way.
God intends to give us a spiritual life whose peace, joy, integrity and power are so great that it not only endures any set of external circumstances, but transforms them. In other words, God wants to make us heavenly minded. Not so that we can remain indifferent to our circumstances or live with the promise of escaping them.
God seeks to make us heavenly minded so that we can do earthly good in the face of adversity, setbacks, long odds, and heartaches.
A brief passage from Proverbs helps us to see how God intends for our inner lives to define and even transform our outer lives. “A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” (Proverbs 18:14; NIV 1984)
Despite physical illness, our spirit can sustain us. We have all admired people with chronic pain or severe disabilities who keep a positive attitude and continue to make a contribution in lives of others.
Conversely, people who are the picture of health, at the top their career ladder, married to a spouse that turns everyone’s head, and parents to summa cum laude kids can be crying in misery on the inside.
Let me counter this misconception right away with words from St. Paul. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
In other words, the very inner conditions that define happiness for us are not a result of our efforts. Instead, when we rely upon Christ the Holy Spirit produces a fruit within us that does not derive from any external circumstances.
The paradox is that God wills us to be happy and is willing for us to face challenging external circumstances and the emotions they bring along with them. Scripture teaches us again and again that God does not define happiness as contentment produced by favorable circumstances.
Instead, the scriptural view of happiness is a soul relying upon God for the power and the sustenance to face, endure and transform the changes and chances of this life.
(The image above is William Adolphe Bouguereau’s Peace, Love and Happiness found at this link.)