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Yesterday’s post featured a sermon on happiness by the Revd Louis Pernot of l’Eglise Reformée de l’Etoile, near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  If you have not already read that entry, its content will be relevant to this post.

Pastor Pernot gave another sermon on the subject in May 2011, ‘The tyranny of happiness’, in which he discusses other aspects of this much sought-after ideal, which many of us consider a state of being.  At a time when not only our family and friends but also experts and politicians want us to be happy, it is important to understand what Scripture says with regard to this topic.

Pastor Pernot takes as his texts Matthew 16:21-25:

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

 21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter,  “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus

 24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

and Matthew 7:12-14:

The Golden Rule

 12“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

 13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Emphases in the excerpts below are mine.

We live in a society in search of happiness at all costs, one which elevates it as an ideal. Many believe that this is because, today, our contemporaries no longer believe in salvation, in eternity, but rather in living life in the here and now: we must be happy, we must have Heaven right now on Earth.  This is dangerous and certainly makes many people unhappy.

It’s dangerous because if we have to be happy and radiant, beautiful and in good health, then there is no place in our society for the poor, the depressed, the fat, the ugly, or those who suffer or are unhappy. This pressure for us to be constantly shining all the time brings with it depression, often treated through immoderate self-medication or drugs as we search for this highly sought after happiness.

The problem is that theologians are certainly complicit in this outlook.  In fact, it is the norm to say in church that the objective of the Gospel is happiness, that faith will fill us with joy and lighten our burdens.

Without a doubt, faith gives us a degree of happiness, and there is joy in service according to the Gospel, however, I believe there is something not only dangerous, but false, in these affirmations.

It is certainly false in that our goal in life is not to be happy [but] to do what we were put here to do, to fulfil our mission in life — whether that makes us happy is immaterial

Wanting to be happy is a temptation from Satan; searching for happiness is always the wrong direction [to take]; the danger is that it turns the subject back to us and our own egotism. The goal [for the Christian], according to the Gospel, is not to chase happiness but to ‘lay down his life for his friends’ [John 15:13].

There is something else dangerous about this thinking [quest for happiness] which is the notion that the Gospel — faith — adds an extra obligation for us: if faith brings happiness and I’m not happy, then I’m guilty [of not fulfilling this obligation] — a sign that I lack faith.

We say all too often that a Christian must be happy. We criticise Christians who have a dour demeanour or a look of concentration when they communicate with others.  Why must we always have a radiant smile when we communicate with others?  …

Being happy isn’t an obligation.  We do what we can.  We don’t have to be happy in order to lead a good life; to be good Christians; to have faith, love and hope

Besides, there are unhappy Christians. And we need to realise at what point our habitual discourse on the happiness God brings us can be destructive and make them feel guilty …

When we present happiness as being God’s grace, as a goal of the Gospel, we end up making unhappy people feel twice as bad …

The Gospel is about welcoming everyone, even those who are unhappy.  The Bible doesn’t say that God will make unhappy people happy but rather that the unhappy will not be abandoned (Psalm 9:18):

For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.

… The aim of the Gospel is not for us to find ourselves in a happy situation but to keep on the move, engaging with life … It’s not a question of consuming happiness and taking advantage of life’s opportunities but rather one of giving happiness to others.  The Christian life is measured less by what we submit to or consume, but by what we give and what we do.

The danger with happiness as we understand it today is to think it is a state in which we would hope to live.  And can we be happy if we are mourning, poor, persecuted or hungry? No, but we can go on living, keep moving forward, following a road that will take us somewhere. 

And this is what life is about … this road won’t be strewn with rose petals of happiness, it is likely to be hard and stony:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

And I believe this is how we can find happiness. We find it when we aren’t looking for it.  Wanting to search for it, presenting it as a desired ideal, is bound to make us unhappy. Happiness is no longer worrying about finding it or being self-centred, [it’s about] wanting to give.

But God doesn’t abandon us, because we have the promises of the Gospel: first, God gives us peace … peace, not happiness … And then, love: I know there is a God who loves me.  And finally, grace: my life might not be perfect and I might not be the way I should be, but God has already assured me of life — I am accepted, I am loved and saved

In God, I am free, I am loved, I am saved, and I am free of all subservience, from all tyranny, even that of obligatory happiness. I am who I am and God loves me.  And such as I am, I can still be a light in this world.

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