“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
It's true, Jesus taught his followers how to have a happy life. Perhaps one of the most notable places where Jesus did this is in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The famous passage is often referred to as "The Beatitudes." The question is, at least in part, what kind of happiness does Jesus want for you and how do you get it?
Let me get through a little nitty gritty and then I'll get to the good stuff (actually the nitty gritty is what makes it good). The Greek word (μακάριος) translated "blessed" in the beatitudes (you can read the beatitudes in Mt. 5:1-12) has a meaning that is much closer to the word "happiness" or even "flourishing." In other words, Jesus is not pronouncing some kind of divine blessing in this text. The beatitudes are more like proverbial sayings that are talking about general truths or realities. As you read the beatitudes you will also see that they have a eschatological focus. In other words, there is a way of being that leads to happiness and a flourishing life both in the here and now as well as in the life to come. We ought to ask, at least for a moment, how we should understand happiness or flourishing.
Happiness, at least the way Jesus sees it is not the removal of strife, suffering, or even persecution. We see this in the beatitudes themselves. This is especially true in verse 11, "Blessed (Happy or flourishing) are you when (because) people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." Happiness can come as a result of insults, persecution, and lies being told about you? Yes, that is exactly what Jesus is saying. It is counter-cultural to say the least. Culture tells us that we should remove all of those things from our life. We should maximize pleasure and minimize anything that causes displeasure according to the prevailing message of culture and media, but Jesus tells us something very different. Happiness is found in a life of purpose and meaning, not in a life where there is no strife.
The very first beatitude speaks of happiness and flourishing for those who are "poor in spirit." Poverty is the antithesis of the American dream. You might think, "this is talking about poverty of spirit not material poverty." You would be correct, but it is often material poverty that leads to poverty in spirit even though there are other ways to arrive at poverty of spirit. The reason that poverty leads to this state of mind is because those who are poor often have nowhere else to turn except God, - and they know it. The Psalmist speaks of this in Psalm 34:6 and Isaiah the prophet also speaks of this in Isaiah 41:17-18. We are truly rich and we can be truly happy when we realize that the only wealth worth seeking is found in God our Father.
Likewise, when Jesus says "Blessed are those who mourn..." Jesus is saying something that is the antithesis of what culture tells us. Mourning should be avoided...right? Happiness and flourishing are found when we enter into mourning, not when we avoid it. The pastor in Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart." When we come face to face with our own mortality and realize that only in Jesus do we truly find life, happiness and flourishing are soon to follow. We ought to find comfort in that truth even in the midst of mourning. I recently met with some missionary friends who lost their 22 year old son. Their is no comfort this side of eternity that can address that kind of pain; their only comfort is found in Jesus and the reality of eternal life. They will see their son again because he knew Jesus.
The beatitudes are not pronouncing divine blessing, they are talking about a way of living - a way of being in the world that leads to a life well lived - a happy and flourishing life. If you want to be happy and if you want a flourishing life, you will not find it in wealth or by avoiding hurt, sorrow, and suffering. You will find happiness in a life that is well lived in the midst of such things. Re-read the beatitudes and replace the word "blessed" with "happy"; with this in mind, you may find a new meaning and a better way to approach life.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.