We all want to be happy surely? Isn’t it reasonable and completely normal for Christians in the 21st century to want to enjoy the Christian life and find it a source of happiness? Even the United States Declaration of Independence set the nation on the pursuit of happiness above much else, saying..
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Here we see that happiness is not merely a hope for the future of each citizen, but is considered to be a right that is given by God. Well it may certainly be a widespread aspiration among Christians in the West, but it is hardly the experience of most Christians in the world, and throughout history. Indeed the search for personal happiness can reasonably be considered a measure of our immaturity and self-interest rather than a legitimate aspect of the character of the Christian Faith.
The popular idea that Christians should expect and deserve happiness is essentially another feature of the false Gospel of Health and Wealth. A smartly dressed Christian TV preacher who experiences himself the very best of health and wealth may well be able to convince others that they should experience the same. He may even be able to persuade his audience that it is only a lack of faith and financial commitment to his ministry on their part that prevents them enjoying a similar lifestyle. The expectation that we should all be happy is part of this same insidious deception.
In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%–a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America–agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.
What does Joel Osteen, one of the most successful of those who preach this other Gospel, say about the search for happiness?
“Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that word rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that everybody’s going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.” Rather, he explains, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy.
His popular book, Your Best Life Now, opens by saying..
Happy, successful, fulfilled individuals have learned how to live their best lives now. They make the most of the present moment and thereby enhance their future. You can too. No matter where you are or what challenges you are facing, you can enjoy your life right now!
Now perhaps we are thinking that with the use of spiritual ascesis, with a commitment to participation in the sacraments, with a life given over to the service of others, perhaps it is possible to see our lives transformed. But Joel Osteen doesn’t preach such a Gospel. On the contrary, his seven steps to an enjoyable and happy life now read just like a secular self-help programme. His seven steps are:
- Enlarge your vision
- Develop a healthy self-image
- Discover the power of your thoughts and words
- Let go of the past
- Find strength through adversity
- Live to give
- Choose to be happy
And here is an example of what he means by this secular philosophy of material benefit. He begins his first chapter with an anecdote…
I heard a story about a man on vacation in Hawaii with his wife. He was a good man who had achieved a modest measure of success, but he was coasting along, thinking that he’d already reached the limits in his life. One day, a friend was driving the couple around the island, showing them the sights. They stopped to admire a gorgeous house set high on a hill. The property was replete with beautiful palm trees and lush green gardens in a picturesque, peaceful setting with a panoramic view overlooking the ocean.
As the man gazed at the magnificent home, he commented to his wife and friend, “I can’t even imagine living in a place like that”.
Right there, something inside him said, “Don’t worry, you won’t. You will never live in a great place like that”.
Startled at his own thoughts, he asked himself, “What do you mean?”
“As long as you can’t imagine it, as long as you can’t see it, then it is not going to happen for you”. The man correctly realized that his own thoughts and attitudes were condemning him to mediocrity. He determined then and there to start believing better of himself, and believing better of God.
I notice that God is tacked on to the end of this anecdote. But it seems to me to have nothing at all to do with the Christian life, indeed it seems to me to be the antithesis of what we find taught in Scripture, in Patristics and in the authentic Orthodox spirituality. Is mediocrity really to be defined by not aspiring to a large house?
Is success to be achieved by imagining ourselves increasing our material possessions? Such views have a great deal in common with modern secular techniques but if presented as Christian they should be challenged as a deception.
How do we know it is a deception? It is because at this very moment there are Christians in the world with much greater faith in Christ than we have ever experienced who are suffering violence, hunger, poverty and circumstances of great misery. It is shameful indeed to suggest that if only they had more faith, or imagined a better future for themselves, they would find everything transformed. Even in the West in previous generations it was clearly understood by all that life was lived to the fullest as an expression of duty and mutual responsibility, of self-sacrifice and self-less love.
How do we know it is a deception? Because Christ Himself sets the example of a life that was not lived in the search for happiness, and the life he calls His followers to is not one of happiness. The author of Hebrews says..
Heb 12:1-4 As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.Think of what he went through; how he put up with so much hatred from sinners! So do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up. For in your struggle against sin you have not yet had to resist to the point of being killed.
This is hardly a description of the Christian life as occupied with the search for happiness. On the contrary, even those who have suffered are reminded that they have not yet suffered to the point of death.
And Christ Himself commands us all…
Luk 9:23 And he said to them all, “If you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, take up your cross every day, and follow me.
We are to take up our cross every day, not just once. And the cross we take up each day is our denial of self-interest. Far from seeking our own happiness we are to deny that search as being incompatible with the life of Christ. The one who says ‘I want to be happy’ cannot become a Christian. Happiness is not one of the fruits or marks of the Christian life. Here are those characteristics we can ask God to produce in us slowly and with much painful effort by the Holy Spirit…
Gal 5:22-24 But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. There is no law against such things as these. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have put to death their human nature with all its passions and desires.
Do we want to be filled with love? The narrow way of the cross may produce this fruit in us if we are obedient. Do we want to be filled with joy? This is not the same as happiness at all. Happiness is an emotional response to our circumstances. It is rooted in the experience of the world and fluctuates with our situation. Joy is an experience of the Holy Spirit and is the transformation of our experience of even the most difficult circumstances.
Do we want to be filled with peace, patience and all the other fruits of the Spirit? These are the proper objects of the Christian life. But they require a life of self-sacrifice and denial of selfish interests. The person who sets their heart on being happy will always be disappointed or deceived. Disappointed if their lives have any of the shadow of trial and tribulation. Deceived if the experience of health, wealth and happiness is confused with an experience of God.
Gal 6:7-9 Do not deceive yourselves; no one makes a fool of God. You will reap exactly what you plant. If you plant in the field of your natural desires, from it you will gather the harvest of death; if you plant in the field of the Spirit, from the Spirit you will gather the harvest of eternal life. So let us not become tired of doing good; for if we do not give up, the time will come when we will reap the harvest.
Happiness is a fruit of the spirit of this world. Our circumstances change in a moment and we are miserable. If we plant the seed of such worldly desires we will reap only a worldly fruit that will not last to eternity. Happiness is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit. But if we do not cease to make the effort required of us in obedience and service of others, rather than ourselves, then we might hope that in the field of the Spirit, as St Paul writes, those fruits of the Spirit, that peace, joy and patience which the world cannot give, will be found to flourish in this life and for the life to come.
Do not deceive yourselves. If we want to be happy we will be disappointed or deceived. Such a desire suits our Western materialistic and individualistic age, but it is not Christian and it is a Great Delusion.
Now it may be said that the Scriptures speak of us being and becoming happy. The King James Version of the Bible uses the word happy 28 times. But of course the word happy, and other forms such as happiness, are not used in the original texts at all. We can look at a few examples of passages where the word happy is used.
The Queen of Sheba says to King Solomon…
Happy are thy men, and happy are these thy servants, which stand continually before thee, and hear thy wisdom. 2 Chronicles 9:7
The Hebrew word translated as happy is the word eh’sher. In most places where it is used it is translated as blessed in the Old Testament. This word in the Psalms is often translated directly as blessed. In Psalm 1 for instance…
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. Psalms 1:1
Now in neither of these contexts does it seem to me that the word happy or blessed has the sense of our emotional use of the term happiness. In the case of the Queen of Sheba, I would suggest that it means fortunate, and in the example of Psalm 1 I would suggest it means subject to the Divine favour. Certainly in neither case does it seem to me that the word eh’sher refers to someone who has made the seeking after happiness the object of their life and activity.
Those in the court of King Solomon are considered happy because they are able to hear his wisdom, not because they have a big grin, or receive a large salary. Likewise throughout the Psalms these are the object of blessing, of divine favour, not of immediate and material benefit.
Even were we to consider the passage in Psalm 1 which says…
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. Psalms 1:3
to refer in some partial sense to the material circumstances of such a man’s life, we can easily see that such a situation does not come about by imagining things better or having a better opinion of yourself, but by avoiding evil, delighting in the law of the Lord, and meditating on it day and night. We find no such demands on those promised happiness by the teachers of the health and wealth Gospel.
In Proverbs 3:13 we find the King James Version again translating es’sher as happy in the verse…
Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. Proverbs 3:13
But once again I would want this to be understood as referring to being fortunate and to being the object of divine favour, rather than being in a state of emotional happiness or material satisfaction. That this last passage is not to be reduced to modern ideas of happiness can be seen from the fact that recent translations usually choose to translate es’sher as blessed and not happy, so that there is less scope for confusion.
The translation of J.N.Darby says…
Blessed is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.
The Brenton translation of the Septuagint says…
Blessed is the man who has found wisdom, and the mortal who knows prudence.
The Latin Vulgate translation, which could have used the word felix, meaning happy, in this verse and others, chose instead to use the word beatus, which means blessed.
In the Gospels we find that the translators of the King James chose to use the word happy only once, in John 3:17. It says in their translation…
If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. John 13:17
The word translated as happy here is makarios. Makarios appears 50 times in the New Testament but is only translated as happy on 5 occasions.
One useful example is the Beatitudes which says…
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Matthew 5:3-11
This same word makarios is translated as blessed on each occasion here. This seems to me to indicate that makarios is not used to mean emotionally happy, or materially well off. Blessedness means something else. We are not happy when we mourn. We are not happy when we are persecuted. But we may certainly be blessed.
One commentator points out…
The beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act, not subjective feelings, and thus should be translated with the objective “blessed” instead of the subjective “happy.”
St Cyril says of this passage…
Knowledge therefore must lead to action: for then, clothed with perfect confidence in our citizenship in Christ, we shall receive in due season our most plenteous reward. As an instance of this, the Saviour said that whosoever did and taught [His commandments] should be called great in the kingdom of heaven: and that very justly, for what is wanting to such a man to make his goodness perfect? And whensoever a man can show that he can take to himself full credit for good deeds, then surely he will be able to glory in receiving most perfect gifts from God.
What is it that St Cyril understands this blessedness to mean? It is certainly not the acquisition of a large house in Hawaii, rather it is those spiritual and more valuable gifts of being considered great in the kingdom of heaven, and those perfect gifts which the Scriptures speak of elsewhere.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. James 1:17-25
That same word makarios is used here, where St James describes those who will be blessed if they put their faith into practice. And not only put it into practice but toil and labour at it. It is this man who commits himself to the practice of the Christian life who will be blessed, not the one who imagines that he has done the work required and gained the prize. How will this man be blessed? St James says that he will be blessed in the doing. Blessed in the doing of his Christian service. Blessed in the commitment to living out what has been heard with effort and toil.
We can also consider St Cyril’s Commentary on the Beatitudes in St Luke’s Gospel. He says of the passage blessing those who hunger…
We say, therefore, that it is a great and noble thing to hunger and thirst after righteousness: that is, habitually to take part in earnest endeavours after piety:—-for such is the meaning of righteousness:—-as if it were our meat and drink. And inasmuch as we ought to give to this passage also a meaning, in accordance with the foregoing explanations, we say again as follows: The Saviour pronounced those blessed who love a voluntary poverty, to enable them honourably, and without distraction, to practise the apostolic course of life. For it is in plain keeping with the having neither gold nor silver in their purses, nor two coats, to endure also very great hardness in their way of life, and scarcely obtain food for their need. But this is a burdensome thing for those who are suffering poverty and persecutions, and therefore He That knoweth hearts, very suitably does not permit us to be dispirited because of the results of poverty: for He says, that those who hunger now for their piety’s sake towards Him shall be filled: that is, they shall enjoy the intellectual and spiritual blessings that are in store.
This seems an important passage because he speaks about material things in a rather disparaging manner, commending those who are voluntarily poor. More than that, when he speaks of those who are in poverty he does not hold out any prospect of immediate relief by imagining things better or having a higher opinion of ourselves. Rather he encourages us to remain in piety so that we might be filled with intellectual and spiritual blessings.
This does not provide any support for the teachings of Joel Osteen and those who have embraced his Gospel of material benefits. St Cyril commends those who are poor by choice, and encourages those who are poor by their circumstances. In neither case does he offer hope of material comfort.
If we measure our success as Christians by the standards of the world apart from Christ we should not be surprised if we take a wrong route and end up investing in that which will not last. A Christian child has not failed if he or she does not become a Doctor, Engineer or Accountant. A Christian adult has not failed if he or she is not married to a stunning partner, with wonderfully well behaved children, living in the smartest part of town and holidaying abroad several times a year. If we waste the opportunities and abilities God gives us then there is scope for criticism. But what of those who commit themselves to the service of God and others and yet do not appear to follow the career path that others map out for them?
To what extent even within Orthodoxy, has the same confusion and delusion about what success is subverted our understanding of the Christian life.
I often receive emails from desperate young Christians asking that I pray that God will allow them to pass examinations, usually medical ones. Often I tell them that I will pray that God grants them peace and a recollection of that which they have learned in their studies. But many of them are asking for a miracle. Many are asking that God will grant material benefits in return for a contribution of prayer. Many are asking that even if they write down incorrect answers based on half-hearted revision God wil work a wonder so that the examiner passes them with an A grade.
This making God a cosmic vending machine, where we post in some ritual activity and God drops some material benefit into our laps, is not very different at all from Joel Osteen’s imagining things better. Both treat God in a pagan manner, although Osteen tries to avoid being too specific about God at all.
We do not have such a mechanical relationship with God. There is nothing that God needs and nothing that we could give him which would require him to act in any particular manner towards us. We always deserve condemnation and yet we are always the object of mercy, even those who sin most. We cannot bargain with God. Nor can we modify our thinking about ourselves as if that simply changed the nature of our relationship with God.
I know that in some places there are now those who believe that because Christ died for our sins we cannot sin anymore. As far as they are concerned it really does not matter what we do, as long as we believe that Christ died for our sins. Eat, drink and be merry, for when God looks at us he sees only Christ. Such a Gospel has nothing to offer the one seeking Christ since it denies the need for repentance, and considers it to be a “good work” and the one who is repentant as someone who is trying to earn his salvation. No, they say. Pray the sinners prayer and forget all about the issue of sin. In such congregations the only measure left to determine whether we are saved or not is our emotional state. If we are happy, they say, then we are in a good state with Christ and are filled with the Holy Spirit. Losing this sense of happiness becomes a great disaster. I have known of members of this type of group engaging in shouting and screaming, and even throwing the Bible around, to arouse an emotional state, any emotional state, because as far as they are concerned, the measure of faith is the subjective feelings experienced.
This is not so much different from the promise of material goods which Joel Osteen preaches. It is a material Gospel for those who can’t afford to imagine big mansions overlooking the sea. It is no more rooted in the authentic Orthodox spirituality of the Church and the Desert. Those who follow it, seeking exciting emotions all the time, will be led just as much astray.
Nor should we imagine that only sophisticated Western Christians fall for these teachings. Somehow or other I am a member of several Facebook groups that seem entirely populated by African Christians. Entire groups of tens of thousands of people are continually encouraged to say Amen to various bogus prophesies and exclamations demanding miracles from God in 6 hours or 12 hours.
Here is one message from a dear soul…
My heart is full of pains, regrets, and past. It’s very hard for me to kneel down and pray. i don’t even go to church anymore. pls help what must i do? i know the Lord loves me so much and his plans for me is to bring prosperity.
And another from a Pentecostal church…
The Father of our Lord Jesus shall uproot whatsoever He did not plant in your life in the name of Jesus. That poverty, suffering, sickness, disease, name it; be uprooted!
This last quotation shows the historic links between Joel Osteen and his message of positive thinking and the teaching that was prevalent among some groups in my youth, but none I belonged to, known as Name it and Claim it. This teaching essentially suggested that if you really, really wanted something, and named what you want and claimed it in the name of Jesus, then it was yours. You could sit back and wait for God to provide it. If it didn’t arrive then you had not exercised enough faith, so try again. Indeed it was sometimes suggested that the exercise of true faith was linked with giving large donations to various TV preachers. The more you gave, the more faith you had, and the more you should expect God to give you in return.
But none of this, the search for material wealth. The search for exciting emotions. The idea that faith is being confident about what we want. None of this is Christianity.
It might be interesting now to discuss a few passages of Scripture and to reflect on how the spirit of Joel Osteen has infiltrated some aspects of our Orthodoxy, or was perhaps always there as a false understanding of faith and success.
I’m thinking of the miracle of the provision of Manna in the desert which we find in Exodus 16.
I’m thinking of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 where our Lord speaks of Daily Bread.
I’m thinking of the Sermon on the Mount in the rest of Matthew 6 where our Lord speaks of seeking first the Kingdom of God, and all the other things we need (rather than want) will be added to us. Where he speaks of not laying up treasure on earth.
And I’m thinking of the parable of the rich man in Luke 12 who spent his life in accumulating wealth and lost it all in a night when his soul was required of him.
All of these passages might usefully be considered in discussion so that we gain a Scriptural view of where our priorities should be and the relative importance of the big Hawaiian house overlooking the sea.
But perhaps we should also think a little about whether the seeking after wealth, fame and fortune, fast cars and big houses, is not present within our Church culture. Asking why it is there, and what we might do about it.
One thing is clear to me. The seeking after happiness is a delusion. And one we must often ask to be freed from.
To the glory of God and for our salvation. Amen.