The pursuit of happiness

Photo by Nixx Studio on Unsplash

NOT LONG AGO I WAS TALKING with a young adult about a choice that faced me. When I told him I was not sure what I was going to decide, he responded, “Well, just remember — you have to be happy.”

Happiness jumps out in the Declaration of Independence: We have been endowed by our Creator with the right to pursue it. A church-rattling 2005 study interviewed more than 3,000 teens from various religious traditions, to discover what they believe about God, the church and faith. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton chronicle the results in their book, “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.”

This book is best known for the identification of a new faith which has colonized Christianity: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which holds that a creating god exists who wants people to be nice, but who is not largely involved with our lives except when we need a problem solved. Most teenagers in America hold this faith, and lest we adults become too smug, teens learn it (of course) from their parents and their churches. Teens are moralistic therapeutic deists because they are surrounded by adult moralistic therapeutic deists.

An often-overlooked aspect of the study is the importance of various theological concepts. The researchers kept track of how many times certain topics came up in their interviews. The number one “religious” subject? Being happy. In fact, students mentioned becoming happy twice as often as they did sin; 20 times more often than salvation; 30 times more often than the Trinity; 40 times more often than grace; and 50 times more often than justice or holiness! The idea of being happy is, according to the research, the most important goal of life.

The only problem is that becoming happy is far from the most important goal of a full-bodied expression of the Christian faith. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances make it clear that our most important goal is to be his disciples who join God’s mission to the world by witnessing in word and deed.

Joining God’s mission may or may not make us happy. I’m not sure Paul’s time in prison or Peter’s upside-down crucifixion or Steven’s stoning made any of them happy. Yet they were Jesus’ disciples, joining in his mission as they witnessed in word and deed.

An antidote to the pursuit of happiness is an unapologetic focus on Jesus. He fully embraced the road to the cross, but it is hard to imagine that Calvary made him happy (at least in the way we think about happiness). The whipping, the stripping, the mocking, the nailing — Jesus could not have had a smile on his face while he endured these trials.

And yet he endured them. The more we focus on Jesus and on becoming like him, the more we realize the implications of joining his mission on what we pursue as most important in life. The church is most faithful, and most countercultural, when our sermons, our small group lessons, our social justice advocacy and our lives relentlessly look to Jesus as the perfecter of our faith.

The Declaration of Independence tells us that we have been endowed by our Creator with the inalienable right to pursue happiness. But rather than focusing on our rights, the Bible concentrates on our grateful response to God’s grace. In thanks for what God has done for us, we pursue not happiness, but prioritizing Jesus even more than our closest human relationships; not pleasure, but the same self-emptying mind that is in Christ Jesus; and not contentment, but taking up our cross and following Jesus.