THAT WE MAY BE REASONABLY HAPPY IN THIS LIFE, AND SUPREMELY HAPPY WITH YOU FOREVER IN THE NEXT
“I have come that they might have life abundantly.”
“All men seek happiness. This is without exception.”
In the beginning of his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes that he’d long fancied writing a book about an English yachtsman who had the glorious dream of sailing from England to discover new islands in the South Seas. Not being very adept at navigating, however, he sails around for quite some time and ends up landing in Wales where he plants a British flag.
The modern search for happiness is much the same. By all accounts, we appear to want happiness very much. We’re willing to invest ourselves in all manner of endeavors to get there, but we’re so poor at navigating that we end up back at the same place we left some months earlier.
The pursuit of happiness is endowed by our Creator, as our Declaration of Independence rightly puts it. Do an internet search about happiness and you will likely be overwhelmed by the results of how people are engaging in this pursuit. You’ll find articles by reputable authors in well-known journals that will promise happiness if you exercise more, eat better, sleep more soundly, have better sex, burn candles, save money, worship in this way, etc. And most all of the suggestions work, for a while.
People have a tendency to find something that makes them happy for two minutes to two months, but as a permanent, ongoing state, the pursuit often seems without a final destination. I’ve known unhappy people who complain about the previous pastors of churches to which I’ve been called and tell me how thrilled they are that I have arrived. Sometimes, it doesn’t take six months for them to decide that I too am a major disappointment. Most of us have an expensive but idle exercise machine somewhere in our homes that now serves as a clothes hanger. Our bookshelves sag under the weight of self-help and happiness books. Our histories are littered with relationships that ended up being more hormonal than enduringly satisfying.
We all want happiness, but we’re very poor at finding it.
Thomas Couture took three years to complete the painting Romans During the Decadence that hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This massive painting (approximately 25 feet by 15 feet) depicts a couple dozen Roman revelers engaged in an orgy. They’re obviously wealthy, for the get-together is in a columned room with ornate statues, fine marble flooring, and comfortable furnishings. In the center is a lovely woman in repose. She is still clothed, though her robe hangs provocatively off her right shoulder. Most arresting, however, is her face. She has the exhausted vacant eyes of someone who is totally bored. Even the statues that recall the great figures of Roman history appear to be scowling at the debauchery before them.
Aquinas said there are four common substitutes for God: wealth, power, pleasure, and fame. The painting depicts people who have all four in abundance, but the woman in the middle clearly renders the verdict on whether these excesses have brought real and lasting happiness. The answer, as always, is a sad “no.”
What Couture explored on canvas, Johann von Goethe explored on paper. He took nearly 60 years to complete his classic about Faust, a scholar and alchemist who believes he has exhausted all knowledge. In despair that even his great learning has not brought him lasting satisfaction, he’s about to commit suicide when Mephistopheles, the devil, offers him a bargain. He will serve Faust for 24 years, making every whim possible, in exchange for his soul. The real crux of the wager is that he will deliver to Faust a sublime moment of wondrous transcendence in which Faust would hope to abide forever. So desirous is he of this moment of pure happiness that Faust accepts the offer and forfeits his soul.
Some of the greatest men and women who have ever lived have been exploring this same theme of our never-ending search for happiness. Yet, with all of this warning, assurance, inspiration, and direction, we’re still like teenagers standing in front of an open refrigerator convinced that something in there has to fill us up. We just can’t find it.
I do not believe the God who created us to yearn for happiness would make too hard a bargain for us to attain it. The very good news is that we don’t have to make a deal with the devil. The Prayer contains eternal and accessible principles that enable us to be reasonably happy now, and eternally happy with God forever. And that’s the destination we’re all really looking for.