It is surely a truism, and not a disputed point of philosophy, that all human beings desire happiness. Even those who promote misery do so to glean some sort of pleasure out of it. Yet the very nature of life in a fallen world makes pursuing happiness akin to pursuing the horizon. To change the image, Joni Eareckson-Tada looked at life, and commented: ‘It’s a fragile house of cards, and we keep praying that nobody bumps the table.’
All too often the table is bumped – by those hostile to us; or even by friends and family; sometimes by circumstances; sometimes we bump it ourselves; and finally God Himself bumps it (although He is sovereign over all bumps, of course). There is a yearning in the human heart that looks for happiness to be normal in this world. We hear that language all the time in our present difficulties. People want it to see restrictions lifted, and to ‘get back to normal’. However, the post-Covid world (if there is one) will still be a world of sin, misery and death, like the pre-Covid world.
There can be a temptation to divorce pleasure from joy, and reject the former while extolling the latter. Something like that can be helpful, but Psalm 16 tells us that in God’s presence there is fullness of joy and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps.16:11). Jesus too spoke of the kingdom of heaven in terms of a great banquet (Luke 14:7-24), even a wedding feast (Matt.22:1-14). There is a place for fasting (Matt.6:16-18; Acts 14:23) – perhaps not Antony’s long-term ideal of five dates a day in the ancient Egyptian desert – but there is also a time for feasting. Self-control is from the Spirit (Gal.5:23), but there is a kind of austerity which is of the world (Col.2:18).
Jesus declares His disciples – those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and who are persecuted – to be blessed (Matt.5:1-12). Some translations fall over themselves to get it wrong. The Jerusalem Bible has ‘How happy’, while the Good News Bible simply has ‘Happy’. The Living Bible is atrocious with ‘Fortunate’ – as if Christian discipleship were just a happy coincidence of life. ‘To be blessed’ means to enjoy the favour of the Lord, no matter what the circumstances of life. It comes from abiding in Christ, as branches abide in the true vine (John 15:11), and so is mentioned as a fruit of the Spirit’s work in the believer (Gal.5:22).
We love the place, O God,
Wherein Thine honour dwells;
The joy of Thine abode
All earthly joy excels.
The Christian knows joy, and can even delight in pleasures, but it is not an inane attempt to ‘keep a smile on your dial all the while’.
Can we live happily in a house of cards? Not by play acting, nor by feeling obliged to be all right all day. The more turned in on ourselves we are, the less happy we will be, and the less happiness we will radiate to others. Charles Simeon maintained that ‘there are but two lessons for the Christian to learn: the one is, to enjoy God in every thing; the other is, to enjoy every thing in God.’
Each of our lives will know trials and tragedies, and bitter experiences of the groaning of this fallen and cursed creation. Yearning for any sort of happiness might seem to be a mockery at any particular time. Yet we can live happily in a house of cards, if we know that the house of cards is just a tent, and we will put on a heavenly dwelling – the resurrection body in the new heaven and new earth (2 Cor.5:1-2). On this earth we are only ever in the second last chapter; there is another one to go for those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Rom.8:28).
With warm regards in Christ,
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes, Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia