The Pursuit of Happiness
When you think of “happiness,” what comes to mind? My pastor recently preached through the book of Philippians and contrasted joy and happiness this way: Happiness is fleeting, transitory, and based on circumstances. Joy, on the other hand, remains-despite our circumstances-if it rests on a deep confidence in God’s unfailing love (see Romans 8:31-39). Conclusion: Joy is good, but happiness? Not so good.
Given this, you can understand my struggle with the “pursuit of happiness” made famous by the authors of the Declaration of Independence. For me this phrase has carried hedonistic baggage. It smacks of self-gratification, or in the words of Francis Schaeffer, “personal peace and prosperity.” What exactly did Jefferson, Adams and Franklin have in mind when they penned these famous words?
James Madison gives us a clue in his Federalist Paper No. 62. “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” Given my preconceptions about happiness, I frankly find this statement stunning. Why did Madison place such as high value on happiness and the role of the government in fostering it?
Help recently came from Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who equates the happiness that the American founders had in mind with “. . . deep satisfactions . . . the kind of things we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done.”
To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.
There aren’t many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent? That qualifies. A good marriage? That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend? That qualifies.
If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith.
Now stop and think about these four institutions in the light of a biblical view of humanity, and it all starts to makes sense. The triune God created us for relationship – first with Himself (“faith”), and then with others (“family and community”). God is a creative, working God. As His image-bearers, we find deep satisfaction in discovering and fulfilling that unique life-calling He has given us (“vocation”).
Take inventory of your life for a moment. How healthy and robust are these key relationships? Pursue these relationships, because your happiness-your deep satisfaction-depends upon it!
-Scott D. Allen
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