It’s become a joke in my family. I’ll see something I want and say, “If I had that, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” It started almost a decade ago. Our family would shop at Nichols Hardware Store in Purcellville, Virginia which sells a little of everything, including furniture. There was this beautiful and expensive wooden rocking chair. Every time we went into the hardware store, I’d go sit in the rocking chair and say, “If I had this rocking chair, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” My wife bought me the rocking chair for my 40th birthday (appropriate, huh?), but it didn’t really make me the happiest person in the world. My happiness meter went up a tick on my birthday and then went back down to its usual position, between “somewhat satisfied” and “somewhat dissatisfied,” if you were to put it on a Likert scale.
The same thing happened with my job teaching history at the Naval Academy. I said, “If I get this job, I’d be the happiest person in the world!” I got the job. I enjoyed it. But it didn’t make me the happiest person in the world.
Maybe you’re like me. You thought if you get that new thing or that new job or that new relationship you’d be happy. But after getting it and once the newness wore off, you were generally no happier than you were before. That dissatisfaction –that restlessness – we feel inside isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing because it can lead us to what truly satisfies, just like thirst can make us drink and hunger can make us eat.
God has put in each of us a longing to be happy. But getting what we want doesn’t satisfy this longing. Jesus begins his first great sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, with a litany about happiness called the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). The Beatitudes are eight blessings, which appear in a shorter and slightly different form in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 6:17-49). Each Beatitude begins with the formula “blessed are . . .” and then describes the ones who are truly blessed. The word “blessed” can be translated “happy” and often is. The passage teaches the paradoxical and surprising truth that God’s favor is granted to those whom society regards as objects of pity: the hungry, the grieving, the persecuted, and so on.
The words of the Gospel are so familiar to us today, that we often forget how shocking they were when Jesus first spoke them. The hearty working-class folks, the farmers and fishermen, who made up the bulk of Jesus’s audience didn’t lay down their tools and trudge up a mountainside to hear someone tell them to be nice and keep their noses clean. They came to hear a controversial preacher say revolutionary things that turned society’s values on their head.
Jesus had a habit of saying crazy-sounding things such as:
“The first shall be last and the last first.”
“The greatest among you will be your servant.”
“He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
“Love those who hate you and pray for those who despitefully use you.”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus points out that the truly happy people aren’t the up-and-comers but the down-and-outers. Not those who have their religious act together, but those who are spiritually needy. Not those who are always upbeat, the Polyannas of the world, but those who are overcome with sorrow and grief. Not those who have the world by the tail, but those who are usually overlooked and underappreciated. Not those who are self-righteous, but those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not those who exact revenge on their enemies, but those who turn the other cheek. Not those who have an unblemished record of purity, but those who are pure in heart. Not those who have already found peace, but those who strive to make peace.
Luke’s version is even more radical. Jesus says it’s not the rich who are happy, but the poor. Not those who have enough to eat, but those who are hungry. Not those who are laughing, but those who are weeping. Not those who are loved, but those who are despised.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus ends the Beatitudes by saying, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (5:11-12).
Most of us aren’t very good at delayed gratification. We want what we want when we want it. We aren’t very good at patiently enduring hardship for the sake of greater rewards down the road. But that’s exactly what the Christian life is all about.
The ones who are truly happy are the ones who “store up treasures in heaven” rather than on earth (Matt. 6:20). To have that kind of long-term goal, we have to believe that God is good and that he rewards those who humbly accept whatever suffering and adversity life brings them.
When Jesus sat on that grassy hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee and was about to preach his sermon, What do you think he saw as he looked around? He was surrounded by his fellow Galileans – working-class farmers, fishermen, and maybe even a few carpenters like himself. I imagine he saw men with calloused hands and sunburnt faces. Women with calloused hands, their brows furrowed with anxiety. Children pulling on their parents’ sleeves saying they’re hungry. What expression do you think he saw in their faces? I think he saw worry and pain and sorrow. I think he saw sadness in their faces. And that’s why at the beginning of his greatest sermon he chose to talk about true happiness.
He wanted to dispel the myth that they would be happier if they had more money, more food, better clothes, more status, and fewer problems. Jesus knew that happiness doesn’t come from getting things we don’t have but from recognizing and appreciating what we do have, even if what we have is a difficult life.
I wonder how those working-class farmers and fishermen reacted to Jesus’s words about being happy even when your circumstances are unhappy. Did they scoff and dismiss it as pie-in-the-sky rhetoric? Or did they find comfort in his teaching that true happiness doesn’t come from riches and success, which none of them had or could hope for? I think at least some of them found great hope in Jesus’s promise that those who experience pain and suffering can be happy because their reward is coming.
It takes great courage to be happy, especially when faced with difficult circumstances. It’s easy to give into discouragement and despair. My hope and prayer is that we will all set our eyes on God and his kingdom as our ultimate reward. If we do that, we’ll truly be the happiest people in the world.