The French observer of American society Alexis de Tocqueville recorded his astonishment at the typical American’s “futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes him.” He wrote that in the 1830’s. Has much changed since then?
Though social scientists tell us that, in general, most people seem to be relatively content, there are too many signs that we are failing in our quest for happiness. Anxiety, depression, anger, and suicide are widespread. And our insatiable appetite to have more and consume more betrays a fundamental discontentment with the lot we have in life. Perhaps Henry David Thoreau was right: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
And our quest for happiness has failed despite the fact we’ve made earthly bliss our chief purpose in life. Darrin McMahon, an historian of happiness, writes that in the early 19th century, “earthly happiness was emerging as the idol of idols, the locus and meaning in modern life, the source of human aspiration, the purpose of existence, the why and wherefore.” In other words, in our secular society, happiness is our god.
But happiness is elusive. The more we devote ourselves to finding it, the less of it we possess. What is the answer?
The solution is to replace the quest for happiness for something different, something nobler and more transcendent. Rather than seeking after earthly happiness, we should pursue holiness. This means first of all seeking redemption by faith in Jesus Christ, coming to him that our sins may be forgiven and that we may be counted righteous in him. It also means, by faith and by God’s enabling grace, living a life of repentance, humility, service, and self-sacrifice.
It’s only as we seek Christ – for the sake of his salvation – that we discover the source of true happiness. The Bible’s usual word for happiness is joy. Joy is a gift of God’s grace; according to Galatians 5:22 it is a fruit of the Spirit. We can never find true and lasting happiness apart from God – rather, we humbly receive it from Christ as his gift.
This joy can be ours in all circumstances. And it endures forever. The joy of Christ we experience in this life is often mixed with sorrow and grief. But the joy of heaven that awaits us will be perfect, and ever-growing.
Do you long for joy? To find it, stop pursuing it. Rather, seek Christ and his righteousness. And he will fill your heart with a happiness far greater than all the delights and pleasures this world offers.
”I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices…” (Psalm 16:9)
Soli Deo Gloria!