Bait and switch: the sad truth about happiness

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. – Matthew 6:19-21

Because happiness isn’t what the world around us says it is! Don’t we get that by now? And pleasure is a cheap and inadequate substitute for joy… hasn’t that been our experience, time and again?

narrowgateAs always, my Wednesday evening men’s small group meeting was inspiring, encouraging, fun, and instructive. This week we talked about “happiness,” what the concept means, and how we experience it.

It turns out that happiness is best understood as an indirect or secondary consequence of something else, something meaningful. When happiness is an end in itself we seldom experience what we’re looking for, and even when we do, the quality is paper thin. The equation looks something like this: If we choose happiness over meaning we end up with neither, but when we pursue meaning ahead of happiness we tend to experience both. 

The guys shared some great personal stories, we looked at some insightful scripture, and we talked a lot about the general “lostness” evident all around us. There is a huge emphasis on “individualism” in this culture; we’re exhorted to set our priorities, to make choices, and to buy stuff based on the idea that certain things will make us happy and that we owe it to ourselves to indulge.

“It’s a very egocentric point of view,” one man said. “It’s all about living to make myself happy…”

He’s right. We have created a world where personal prosperity is the highest value – and much of religion has climbed right on board. Prosperity and happiness are valued as ends to themselves, and the word “blessed” has been coopted to cover both.

My friend Ray put it best when he said that we are a society where joy has been traded in for pleasure.

So we make decisions – some big ones but mostly scores of small ones every day – that are driven by the experience (or more commonly the promise) of pleasure in the moment, and all the time we chip away at our joy until there is nothing left other than a vaguely defined yearning for “something more.”

“We get caught up in happiness as a goal,” another man said, “and we forget to be aware of the beauty of the journey itself.”

Interestingly, the deepest joy, the most sustainable pleasure, and the consequent experience of satisfaction, is always found when we are serving others. When we give of ourselves; when we work for the highest good and greatest happiness of those around us; when we take the focus away from me-me-me; when we live in a manner that is consistently focused on giving rather than getting – then we experience a quality of joy that isn’t even in the realm of dreaming for those who live for their own happiness.

Jesus was very clear on this: We are called to be servants; the Kingdom of God is all about putting others first; blessed are the poor in spirit; if you want to understand what it is to be rich, give it all away; if you really value life, then give it away…

Jesus looked at [the Rich Young Ruler] and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. – Mark 10:21-22

Here’s the good news; “laying up treasure in heaven” isn’t about pie in the sky when we die. Jesus pointed out over and over again that the Kingdom of God is here and now! The point is that we can be truly rich, over-the-top cup running over, deeply connected to joy – and we can have all of that right now!

Because happiness isn’t what the world around us says it is! Don’t we get that by now? And pleasure is a cheap and inadequate substitute for joy… hasn’t that been our experience, time and again?

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Dear God (and this is a very real and heartfelt prayer), please continue to teach us your ways, and direct us in the paths of right living. Lord Jesus, walk beside us as we make the constant choice to live into your truth rather than simply talk about it. Holy Spirit, fill us with light and life, and grant us the strength to follow through. Even though we know the way, we so often wander from the path. Amen.

– In love, and because of love – DEREK

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