The Right to be Happy
by Paul Hazelden


It is a strange omission, but the Bible does not tell us how to be happy. I don't know if you have noticed this, but I have looked and just can't find it.

The chief preoccupation of the human race is just not talked about in there. Don't you consider that strange? The best selling book in the world does not address our greatest concern. I think part of the problem is that we seriously misunderstand the whole idea of happiness.

1.   Misunderstanding Happiness

People think of happiness as something they have a right to, and as something they should aim for. But when you come to consider the question, it becomes clear that neither of these ideas is true.

1a.   Not a Right

Firstly, we have no right to be happy. Some people object when I say this. After all, doesn't God want the best for me? Doesn't He want me to be happy?

Of course, the answer is yes: God wants you to be happy. But that does not mean you will always be happy. God wants you to be holy, but that does not mean you are always holy - does it? Sadly, we live in a world in which God's will is not always done. That is why we need to pray "Thy Will be done".

We have no right to be happy. The good news is that Jesus calls us to a life in which, most of the time, we will be happy. But we have to choose to follow Him. We have to live the life He offers and calls us to - we cannot get the happiness He plans for us any other way. The life He calls us to is difficult and costly, but true happiness cannot be gained any other way. Happiness is not a right, it is a calling, or, to be more precise, it is the outcome of following a calling.

1b.   Not an Objective

Secondly, and even more confusingly, happiness is not something we can aim for.

Note that I am not saying that we should not aim for it. That is the sort of thing you hear from many books and preachers, and it is horribly misleading. You hear people say that we have to deny the flesh, put aside our own desires, put ourselves last, and so on. Jesus was wonderfully life-affirming. Much of what passes as Christianity is terribly life-denying. Jesus came so that we might have life in all its abundance - the best life possible. That is what the gospel message is all about!

But part of the essence of happiness is that you cannot get it by seeking it. Happiness is not an objective, it is a by-product. You can only get it if you aim for something else.

Most of the world today is aiming for happiness, heading down the road they believe will take them there. And the the part of the church not telling everyone they have to 'mortify the flesh' is with them all the way. We seem determined to go to extremes one way or the other: either it is a sin to enjoy yourself, or it is God's will that we live a life of self-centred self-indulgence.

2.   A Common Problem

I chose this subject because it is one of the strong themes that unites the problems of the people we work with at the Crisis Centre and the problems we face in the church.

We meet a lot of unhappy people at the Crisis Centre. In fact, there are a lot of unhappy people everywhere - the ones we meet are just more honest (about this subject, anyway!) than most.

When I worked in a proper office, most of the people seemed happy and content. When I started leading a church, most of the members seemed reasonably happy. But little by little, I discovered the truth: most people are pretty unhappy most of the time. But there is nothing they can do, so they put on a brave face.

And sooner or later, for many people, the brave face crumbles and their life disintegrates.

I constantly hear this story: my life is miserable. It is nasty, painful and unpleasant. I can find no pleasure or satisfaction in the things I do. That is why I need to drink or take drugs - to escape from this misery. I have to take drugs because I am unhappy. I have to drink in order to cope with my life.

The image we often use is that of people falling over a cliff. Imagine a village at the top of a cliff. Every now and then, someone will go too close to the edge and fall over. They will end up in a broken heap at the foot of the cliff, unable to help themselves and unable to get back up the cliff. They need someone to be there for them, to help pick them up, to help their wounds to heal, and to help them on the long and difficult journey up the slippery slope back towards normal society.

Many people around us, who seem on the outside to be happy and successful, are in reality clinging by their fingertips to the edge of the cliff. They only need one jolt, or to weaken for one moment, and they will disappear over the side.

It will come as a complete surprise to most of their work colleagues, friends, and often to many family members: they seemed to be 'holding it together' so successfully. But you just don't know how much effort it takes for someone to hold it together - not unless there is both a depth of relationship and a serious level of honesty. In our superficial society, these things are rare.

3.   Following Jesus

Jesus shows us the way to happiness through self-sacrifice, the way to life through receiving His death.

But it is not the way of death or self-sacrifice that will bring us happiness. What matters is whether we are prepared to follow Jesus - to take His mission upon our shoulders, to live in the way He lived. To embrace the poor, the sick and the outcast, to destroy the works of the Devil, and to bring the Kingdom of God into a living reality on this earth.

To follow Him down that path will bring us true happiness that will never fail, because it is the happiness of being in the centre of God's purpose for our lives and for all creation.

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Copyright © 2002, 2008 Paul Hazelden was last updated 2 January 2008
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