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? 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 nature of the Christian Faith.
Jesus said to them all, “If you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, take up your cross every day, and follow me”. Luke 9:23 | The Delusion of Happiness
The popular idea that Christians should expect and deserve happiness is no more than the false Gospel of Health and Wealth. A smartly dressed Christian TV preacher who himself experiences 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 from 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% 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…
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.
The Delusion of Happiness | Deception
God is tacked on to the end of this anecdote. But it has nothing at all to do with the Christian life, indeed it is 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 selfless 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…
…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…
Luke 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…
Galatians 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.
The Delusion of Happiness | Transformation
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 shadows of trial and tribulation. Deceived if the experience of health, wealth and happiness is confused with an experience of God.
Galatians 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.
By: Father Peter Farrington | A priest of St Mary and Saint Cyril Coptic Orthodox Church in Liverpool. United Kingdom ~ Diocese of the Midlands.
Delivered to you by COPTICNN™ | Coptic News Network on 2020-11-18 from Liverpool, England
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