Where do you seek happiness?

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:1-2, NRSV)

Something Augustine of Hippo wrote caught my eye yesterday. I was reading in his book about understanding and teaching the Scriptures. In it, he wrote about the key to our happiness being that we place our hope for happiness in the correct place. Our chief mistake in life is that we seek happiness in the things of this world rather than in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This caught my attention.

I’ve read this before. I’ve heard it before. I’ve even preached and taught this before, but like so many of the really important truths, I had lost sight of it. As we are all prone to do, I had let the world capture my gaze and forgotten what the Psalms and the rest of Scripture speaks of so frequently. I have no good apart from God.

This is more than the simple theological truth that God is the source of all good things. As important as that statement is — and as worthy as it is of deep reflection, this is not what caught my attention.

What matters is not simply whether God is the source of good but whether God is the good for which our entire life aims. Is our life organized around drawing closer to God, finding our joy in God, and finding peace only in God?

For the vast majority of us, the answer is “no.”

Yes, we hope to know the blessing of God. Yes, we turn to God when we fall ill or those we love are in the hospital. Yes, we hope to go to heaven and take pleasure in the life of the church.

But all these fall short of the point.

The purpose of prayer is not a transaction where we get something from God. The purpose of worship is not to feel the warm glow of candlelight on Christmas Eve. The point of all that we do is God. We pray, we worship, we sing, we do the good works, so we might be drawn into the enjoyment of God’s fellowship. To stop short of that is to miss the mark entirely.

In what do you place your hope for happiness? Is it God? Is it something else?

Do we choose happiness?

Dan Dick writes about the way our happiness is our decision.

Among those who self-report contentment, happiness and satisfaction — as well as those identified as happy or content by others — an overwhelming percentage (between 80-90%) report making a conscious decision to be happy, positive, and joyful.  The source of contentment for the truly content is internal, not external — they do not expect the world to bend over backwards to make them happy; true happiness comes from within.

Dick argues in his post that our happiness is a choice. It is up to us. It is something we decide.

Perhaps it is because I’ve been reading John Wesley’s sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, but I found myself wondering how these claims impacted our reading of the beattitudes:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you. (MT 5: 3-12, CEB)

Dick seems to me to be arguing that the order of Jesus’ words are inverted. He argues that if I choose to be happy, if I make a decision to be happy, then I will have peace and joy. I’m not sure Dick would extend this to saying that choosing to be happy makes me humble and merciful, and hungry for righteousness.

But there do seem to be some important theological issues at stake here. Is happiness a choice I make that bears fruit in holy dispositions? Or does cultivating the holy dispositions — mercy, purity of heart, peace, humility, etc. — make me happy? (These questions also are in some tension with my post yesterday about dependence on God.)

I suspect part of the distinction that needs to be made here is the definition of happiness. Dick is using self-reports. Are you happy? Wesley interprets happiness as holiness. He argues that there is no real happiness that is distinct from holiness. I suspect a lot of people in America who self-report as happy would not necessarily embrace a Christian definition of holiness of heart and life as the meaning of happiness. So, these two voices might be talking past each other.

What do you think?