WHAT IS HAPPINESS?
Epictetus, the ancient philosopher said, “If a man is unhappy,
this must be his own fault, for God made all men to be happy.
” A Christian writer, St. Bernard, said something similar.
“Nothing can work me damage except myself; the harm that
I sustain I carry about with me, and never am a real sufferer
but by my own fault.” These two men represent the internal
philosophy of happiness. External mean nothing, and need
have no effect upon the happiness of a person, is their view.
External evil is recognized as a reality, but one does not need
to let it penetrate his inner being. Epictetus, for example, said,
“I must die, but must I die sorrowing? I must be put in chains.
Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Can I be
prevented from going with cheerfulness and contentment?
But I will put you in prison. Man, what are you saying? You
may put my body in prison, but my mind not even Zeus himself
can overpower.” Here is a rare example of how even a pagan
slave can, by the power of positive thinking, demonstrate the
human capacity for internal happiness without the externals
usually associated with happiness.
The facts of life and history show that this is possible, but it is
also highly improbable that more than a few rare individuals
can completely ignore the externals of life. The vast majority
of people depend upon externals almost exclusively. They
grasp at things as the only source of satisfaction. People
really believe that more money can bring happiness in spite of
the fact that the suicide rate is higher among the haves than
among the have nots. Abdalrahman the Khalif had thousands
of wives, and millions upon millions of wealth, but this is what
he wrote near the end of his life: “I have now reigned above
50 years in victory or peace. I have been beloved of my
subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies.
Riches and honor, power and pleasure have waited on my call,
nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to
my felicity. In this situation I have diligently numbered the
days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my
lot: They amount to fourteen.”
No amount of externals can guarantee happiness, yet man’s
natural tendency is to search for happiness in that direction.
Menhave a hard time believing that there is any hope of
happiness apart from externals. Aristotle represented the
Greek view when he said that the blessed life was impossible
to the diseased, the poor, and the slave. Samuel Johnson
had a close friend who said that his sister-in-law was really a
happy woman. This made Johnson mad, and he replied like the
brute he could be, “If your sister-in-law is really the contented
being she professes herself, sir, her life gives the lie to every
research to humanity; for she is happy, without health,
without beauty, without money, and without understanding.
” He went away growling, “I tell you the woman is ugly, and
sickly, and foolish and poor, and would it not make a man
hang himself to hear such a creature say she was happy?”
The very idea of being happy without the values so treasured
by his materialistic heart made him angry. It does not seem
fair to the secularist who has struggled for all the externals of
wealth, power, and fame to see people who are happy
who have not made the struggle.
Paul would have made him angry by his words in Phil. 4:11-12.
Paul said, “…For I have learned to be content whatever the
circumstances. 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.” Paul’s happiness was not
dependent upon what happened, or what he had. This means
that Paul’s happiness was internal. Paul did not have control
over the externals of his life, but like everybody else does, he
had control over how he would react to life internally.
If it is only going to be a happy new year for us if we get more
stuff, and all goes well, then we are living on a different level
than Paul was on. This does not mean we should not get
more stuff, and that we should not strive to make all go well.
Paul advised Christians to live peaceably with all men, and to
prevent all the negatives of life that they can. But if this is
your only level of happiness you are too controlled by the
externals, and changes can quickly rob you of your joy in
Christ. We need to see the externals as fringe benefits, and
not the base salary of the Christian life. The foundation is to
be internal and attitudinal rather than external and material.
Jesus and Paul agree here completely. Happiness does not
depend on what happens, but on how you face all that
happens. Jesus is saying in the beatitudes that you can be
happy even if you are experiencing many negative externals.
At this point we need to take a detour off the main road to
deal with the problem that Christians have with reconciling
being happy and miserable at the same time. One of the major
problems the Christian has in the pursuit of happiness is the
sense of failure that comes due to times of depression and
other unhappy feelings. Many feel guilty for not being happy in
the Lord. Their unhappiness is magnified by their guilt. They
say, “I know I should be happy, but I just can’t seem to feel
the joy of the Lord.” The first thing we need to do is clarify the
Christians right to be miserable on a variety of levels.
Jesus wept because of people’s rejection of God’s grace. This
makes it clear that the Christian has every right to be unhappy
over lost people. If a Christian feels guilty about being sad
over this lost world, he is feeling guilty for being Christlike, for
Jesus wept over this same thing.
Jesus also wept over the sorrow of death and the lose of a
loved one. He was very unhappy also with the hypocrisy of the
Pharisees, and the injustice of man to man. He felt rotten
about the way the temple was being used to rip off the poor,
and how widows were being taken advantage of, and their
houses being taken from them. Add up all the unhappy
feelings of Jesus over the fallen nature of man, and you have
a host of legitimate reasons to be unhappy as a Christian. In
fact, it is unchristian if you are never sad and unhappy about
a fallen and lost world.
There are legitimate reasons to be unhappy, and it is folly to
feel guilty for them. We could list all of Paul’s negative
emotions as well, but it is not necessary, for if our Lord had
good reason to be unhappy with much of life, who can be so
presumptuous to expect to live on a higher emotional level
then Him? Anyone who expects to be feeling happy all the time
is trying to live in a world that does not yet exist.
The only way to get there in the present is by insanity and the
loss of touch with reality. Some unhappiness is just part of the
price we pay for living in a fallen world. We have to get it out
of our head that Christian happiness means freedom from all
care. It that is the case, the average cow is happier than the
average Christian. It was because Paul cared so much for the
churches that he went through so many negative emotions of
frustration and anxiety.
What we are dealing with here is a paradox. It is the reality of
being able to be miserable and happy at the same time. Paul
was often miserable over the problems in the church, and yet
he had an inner sense of well being that made him happy. This
means that Christian happiness is not always and emotion.
One might be dominated by the weeping with those who
weep, and so they would feel sad at that point. This does not
rob them of contentment. Paul did not have the same emotion
when he was feasting with his friends as he had when he was
in the dungeon starving and alone. Paul is not saying that one
is just the same as the other. He would have to be a pet rock
to be in such a state.
Paul had all kinds of emotions, just as Jesus did, but his point is
that he had an attitude of contentment within regardless of his
emotions. When he said that Demas had forsaken him he was
feeling bad about it. He was not indifferent to circumstances
and saying its all fine with him regardless of what was
happening. But even when he felt bad about circumstances,
he still had his contentment in Christ which circumstances
could not change. This calls for great discipline to be truly
happy on this level. We get a glimpse into the depth of what it
means to be Christlike by looking at this inner contentment of
Paul. Look at the reasons for why we are so often discontented
1. Selfishness. We want things to be our way and good for us.
When they are not we are discontent. We will all have some
unhappiness because we always want to get our own way.
2. Envy. This makes us discontent because we see the
possessions and gifts of others almost as if they were stolen
from us, and we resent it, and so feel unhappy.
3. Covetousness. We have a strong desire for more than we
now have, and this robs us of the enjoyment of what we do
have. No matter how much we get it is never enough, for there
is so much more to covet. There is always an emptiness that
can never be fully filled because we covet more.
Paul was happy because he did not have to wrestle with these
vices. He had conquered them, and so he was content with his
life. A happy life does depend on our conquering all the
temptations of life that fill us with discontent. This means that
it is hard work to be happy, for you have to die to self and all
that the world appeals to in us.
It is important for us to be aware that almost everything that
people do is because they believe it will lead to happiness. The
Prodigal Son did not take his money and go off to live in the
pleasure of sin with any other motive than the desire to be
happy. Men just do not pursue evil for evil’s sake. Few if any
could care less about pleasing Satan. All they want is
happiness for themselves. Men chose the path that leads to
misery only because they are convinced it leads to happiness.
Sin would have nothing to offer man if it did not hold out the
deceptive offer of happiness.
Satan competes for the souls of men by offering and imitation
of everything God offers for man’s true happiness. From the
start this was the case. The first temptation was an offer of
greater happiness by eating the forbidden fruit. Satan is
constantly trying to under sell God, and he offers to men what
he claims is greater happiness at less cost. What the sinner
fails to think of is that it is God who does the ultimate billing,
and the cost of Satan’s happiness is eternal unhappiness. No
one who really knew the whole story could purchase
temporary happiness at such a cost, but Satan is the master
It is the purpose of the Christian to distinguish between the
false happiness of Satan, and the true happiness of God, and then
demonstrate its superiority in life to enlighten men. This is part
of what being the light of the world means.
A college girl told me that non-Christian kids on campus think
that the Christians are dull and boring. A cab driver said he
didn’t like church conventions coming to town because
Christians come with the Ten Commandments and a ten dollar
bill, and they don’t break either of them. His concept of
happiness was the pleasure of sin and the spending of money.
The Christian cannot please men on that level, but Christians
ought to make it clear that it is a joy to be a Christian. The
world should be impressed with Christian happiness.
When the non-Christian says we are all seeking the same
thing, we should agree, but be able to show him that the
happiness the Christian finds in Christ is of a much better
quality. The problem in doing this is simply that Christians have
not given enough thought to what happiness really is, and so
they are on the same level with the world in their search for it
in many different directions. Man is a complex being, and every
desire, and every different kind of disposition leads to a
different theory of happiness.
The ancient writer Cicero said that in his day there were 20
rival opinions concerning the source of true happiness. Varro
was able to enumerate 280 such opinions. There are probably
more opinions on the way to happiness than on any other
subject, and the problem is that there is some truth to every
one of them. Happiness has a thousand faces to match the
diversity of personalities, gifts, and natures. The poetess
Priscilla Leonard wrote, Happiness is like a crystal, Fair and
exquisite and clear, Broken in a million pieces, Shattered,
scattered far and near, Now and then along life’s pathway, Lo!
Some shining fragments fall; But there are so many pieces, No
one ever finds them all.
You may find a bit of beauty, Or an honest share of wealth,
While another just beside you, Gathers honor, love or health.
Vain to choose or grasp unduly, Broken is the perfect ball;
And there are so many pieces, No one ever finds them all.
Yet the wise as on they journey Treasure every fragment clear,
Fit them as they may together, Imaging the shattered sphere.
Learning ever to be thankful, Though their share of it is small;
For it has so many pieces, No one ever finds them all.
There is no doubt that she has in this poem expounded a basic
truth which the Scriptures support. Being a Christian, and
receiving God’s best, which is salvation through Jesus Christ
does not supply one with every kind of happiness. The Bible
makes it clear that there are different gifts, and different
degrees of talent among Christians.
There is probably no Christian who has ever had everything
that can be had to increase their usefulness and happiness.
If we could be happier with a gain of anything either internal
or external, we are not yet in possession of perfect happiness.
Complete happiness is impossible, therefore, in this life. That
is what heaven is all about. Even Jesus knew sorrow, pain,
and grief in His human life, and, therefore, the Christian goal
for this life is never absolute happiness at any price.
The Christian must recognize the limits of the happiness that
can rightly be theirs in God’s will. Sometimes God’s will requires
us to be unhappy, and this then brings us back to where we
begin, and that is that Christian happiness is basically internal,
and it is in the character of the Christian. Someone said,
“Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of
traveling.” The blessedness Jesus speaks of in the beatitudes
is an internal attitude which completely contradicts the
expected response to the external facts. The directiono f
Christian happiness is within rather than external, but because
many pagans have also found this to be the best source of
happiness, the Christian view cannot be that only.
Therefore, Pascal says, “Happiness is neither without nor
within us, it is in God, both without us and within us.”
This sounds like a circular argument that says it is neither, and
also both. It does say this, but so as to lift the subject of
happiness out of the realm where man is the center to where
God is the center. This is where the Christian view of
happiness becomes distinct. In the pagan view even their
gods are means to human happiness. In the Christian view
happiness for man is not an end in itself, but is a means to the
glory of God. In Christian theology man’s chief end is to glorify
God and enjoy Him forever. Glorifying and enjoying God is
the highest happiness man can attain. Man’s happiness,
therefore, is only uniquely Christian and Christlike when God
receives the glory.
There is never any doubt when you examine the life of Christ
as to who is the center of His life. In His prayer He taught us
to say, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” God was the center of
His life, the source of His power, and the end of all His acts.
We very subtly are lead into a sub-Christian view of life when
we make God a means to fulfilling our own ends. The very
study of, and longing for, happiness can lead us in this
direction, and, therefore, we must ever keep in mind that the
essence of Christian happiness is in making God and His glory
the end of all we are and all we do.
Ernest M. Ligon in The Psychology of Christian Personality says
that many studies have led to the conclusion that integration of
personality is a basic key to good health in all its aspects, and
thus, to the happy life. What is integration? He writes, “Briefly,
integration is the condition of a personality in which all of the
emotional attitudes are harmonious and mutually helpful, thus
permitting all of one’s natural energy to be directed toward
end.” This is Paul’s, “This one thing I do.” It is the life with one
supreme aim and center. Ligon says, “If an individual can
organize his emotional attitudes in such harmony with one
another, that he can direct all of his urges and appetites
about one central purpose, which is always the focus of his
interest and of his attention, we find the peak of efficiency,
and the perfect integration.” When God is that central purpose
we have arrived at the highest happiness life can offer on this
I read of a big cat who saw a little cat chasing his tail and he
asked why? “Because I am seeking happiness, and when I
catch my tail I will be happy.” The big cat said, “I too have
studied happiness and found it to be in my tail. But I have
observed that when I chase it it keeps running away, but
when I go about my business, it just seems to come after me
wherever I go.” The point being, the chasing after happiness
can be futile, but just being faithful to your daily duties can
be fruitful in fulfilling your need for happiness. It is not all out
there somewhere, but it is internal, and comes with the
satisfaction of a meaningful life. Paul was not out chasing
happiness. Paul was doing the best he could to fulfill the
calling of God, and the result was contentment in any state.
He did not always feel delighted, or happy in the sense that
he never wept, felt angry or frustrated, or even depressed.
But he was happy that he was in the right place doing what
God wanted him to do.
Happiness for Paul was in knowing he was a tool available to
God to minister to human need. It was both internal as a
sense of peace and contentment, and external because of the
evidence that he was being used. People were changed,
churches were founded, and the kingdom was expanding. The
externals for Paul were fringe benefits, however, and his basic
happiness was the internal contentment of being in Christ,
and being used of Christ. Someone said, “Happiness is life a
butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it eludes you. But
if you turn your attention to others things, it will come and
softly sit on your shoulder.”
Happiness comes from within.
Our attitudes are the key.
No matter what circumstance,
Some good we can always see.
Try positive attitudes.
They’re so easy to create.
In joy and contentment,
Will be your happy fate.
If you do good to others,
You have made a sure-fire start.
It is almost guaranteed,
To put a smile within your heart.
Catherine Marshall has known the deep sorrows of grief, and
the great unhappiness of life going wrong in so many ways,
but she has known also the joy of success in Christian service.
She writes, “I have observed that when any of us embark on
the pursuit of happiness for ourselves, it eludes us. Often I’ve
asked myself, why? It must be because happiness comes to
us only as a dividend, as a gift given us by God. When we
become absorbed in something demanding and worthwhile
above and beyond ourselves, happiness suddenly becomes
ours as a by-product of the self-giving. That should not be a
startling truth, yet I’m surprised at how few people
understand and accept it. Have too many of us made a god of
happiness? Have we been brainwashed by the magazine and
television ads, featuring happiness?”
She sees most Americans interpreting their right to the pursuit
of happiness to mean the right to grab all the power, money,
and pleasure they can get. This leads to some very non-
Christian methods of being happy. Rights need to be dealt
with right, or they become wrongs. Both Jesus and Paul make
it clear that it is more than a right to be happy, it is a duty. It
is part of our commitment to Christ to overcome all that would
make us unhappy. Jeremy Taylor said, “God threatens terrible
things if we will not be happy.” Robert Louis Stevenson said,
“There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being
happy.” If we listen to Jesus and Paul, and follow their
example we will find happiness and contentment by knowing
God aour heavenly Father, and by being committed to that
which we know is His will for our lives.