Happiness 1: Faith Hope and Love
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
If somebody asked you, “What is the most important thing in life?” there is a good chance you would say “happiness.” That would probably be my first answer. A happy life is something we all hope for, and strive for. As I pondered the notion of happiness, I decided to see what the Bible had to say about it—especially the New Testament.
So I got out my unabridged concordance, which has every single word in the Bible listed in alphabetical order, and includes a list of every occasion—chapter and verse—each word is used. What I discovered was shocking. Jesus never uses the word “happiness” in any of the four gospels. Not only that, the word “happiness” does not make a single appearance in the entire New Testament!
This amazed me. After all, I’m a minister. I’m supposed to be a person who knows what is important and what isn’t, so I quickly turned to all possible variations of the word “happy.” Happy, happiness, happier, happily. All of these words appear in the Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible, especially in Psalms and Proverbs—you know, Happy are those who find wisdom; Happy are those who fear the Lord; Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven. But—I’m glad you’re sitting down—Jesus never uses any variation of the word happy. In fact, in the entire New Testament, happy, happiness, happier, happily, and every other conceivable variation on the word makes not a single appearance! Not one!
Now, my first inclination was to say, “Well, the word “happiness” has simply been translated as “joy.” And it is true that the word “joy” appears 59 times in the New Testament, and on 25 of those occasions that word appears on the lips of Jesus. This was somewhat of a relief to me, since I was beginning to think I had my priorities in life all out of whack.
But as I read over those passages about joy, I realized that when Jesus and the New Testament writers use the word “joy,” they are talking about something more than happiness. They are talking about something extraordinary. This is not your garden variety happiness. When the wise men see the star appearing over the birthplace of Christ, they are, quote, “overwhelmed with joy.” When a sinner repents, Jesus tells us there is “joy in the presence of the angels.” And in 1st Peter we are told that those who believe in Jesus Christ “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”
This is a bit more than what we mean when we talk about happiness. Now, I do not want to downplay the type of joy we read about in the Bible. And I think we have all had experiences that we can only describe as joyous. Maybe it was the first time we saw our newborn child. Maybe it was our wedding day. Maybe it was some moment of self-sacrifice that made us feel so complete, the words have never been coined that could express the feeling. Maybe it was some moment when we experienced the presence of God in our life.
And while those experiences are overwhelming, and glorious, and indescribable, we just can’t go through life feeling that way all the time—or even most of the time. Unbridled joy is a rare and wonderful gift in life, but when we talk about everyday happiness, we are talking about something different. And that is what I want to discuss over the next few weeks—that ordinary yet elusive thing we call happiness.
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I have some ideas on this subject, and I should admit that I am using these sermons to help organize my thinking. My doctoral thesis is going to be based in large part on what it means to be happy, and how preaching plays a role in that. Now you know why I was so dismayed when I couldn’t find the word “happy,” or any of its variations, in the New Testament! I saw my entire doctoral project going down the tubes.
Still, Jesus said he came that we may have life and have it abundantly. I honestly don’t think Jesus wants us walking around with our chins dragging the ground because of all the problems in the world. That doesn’t mean we are to ignore those problems, but the way we live—the way we approach the world, with all its goodness and with all its problems—largely determines whether or not we are happy. And while we can’t be joyfully ecstatic every day, we can arrange our lives in such a way that not only are we ourselves happy, but our happiness rubs off on the people we meet.
Now, if Jesus and the New Testament authors want us to be happy—and I believe they do; and if they understand that we can’t go through life in a state of rapturous bliss—and I think they know that; then why don’t they ever talk about happiness? I think the answer lies in what they do talk about.
Probably the most famous chapter in the Bible is 1st Corinthians 13—the love chapter. If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve probably heard this chapter. It may well be the most powerful chapter in the Bible, with its If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal; and its Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant, and its When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
That short, three-paragraph chapter is filled with enough wisdom and beauty to last a lifetime. And it has the ending of all endings, with Paul’s memorable words: And now, faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these if love.
Faith, hope and love, these three. I decided to open up that unabridged concordance and see what our New Testament friends, silent as they are on the subject of happiness, have to say on these subjects. The word “hope” appears 76 times. The word “love” appears 209 times. And the word “faith” appears 246 times.
Well, it doesn’t take a world-class theologian to figure out that if those New Testament writers want us to be happy, and if, although they don’t specifically mention happiness, they do mention faith, hope and love—531 times—we might fairly assume that these things have a lot to do with happiness.
So that is our starting point, and I’m sure you’re glad we’ve finally arrived at the starting point, since this sermon is now almost half over.
One thing is evident right off the bat. Happiness is not a goal. Happiness is not a destination. Happiness is the route we take, the path we walk. Happiness isn’t the glorious culmination of our journey; it is something that happens to us along the way. Consider faith, hope and love. As we sail through this life, tossed by various storms and thrown off course by unpredictable winds, faith, hope and love are not the places for which we have set sail. They are the ship itself. They are the sails. They are the wind in the sails. It doesn’t matter so much where we are heading. It’s how we get there that matters.
If that sounds a bit too philosophical, consider the people you know and meet, day in and day out. Why is it that one person lives a life filled largely with happiness, while another finds happiness elusive? Why do two people with similar lives—say two attorneys, or two fast food workers—live lives that are almost identical? But for one, a ray of sunshine seems to follow her around everywhere she goes, and for the other, that little dark cloud can always be found hovering a few inches over her head. What’s the difference?
Now, let’s be clear—nobody is happy all the time. When tragedy strikes, as it inevitably does, there is simply no way to be happy. There are tears of joy, and then there are those angst-filled tears that leave us questioning the meaning of life and shaking our fist at the sky, and part of being human is knowing that there is a big difference between those two types of tears.
We all spend our fair share of days in life’s valleys, but still, on our normal days, when things are going according to plan, and life is not blindsiding us with unwanted surprises, some people are generally happy and others are not. What makes the difference?
I think it has a lot to do with faith, hope and love. I’m certain those three things have a lot to do with the type of joy Jesus and Paul talk about, but I think they also play an important role in our general, everyday happiness.
Consider faith. I’m in the business of being around people who struggle with their faith. Sometimes things happen that just aren’t fair. A beloved child is lost to illness. A faithful spouse discovers her partner has fallen in love with somebody else. The doctor gives a prognosis that leaves little room for hope.
Do we struggle with our faith at these times? Of course! We fall on our knees and shake our fists at the sky and scream from the very depths of our souls, “Where are you God? Is this a part of your divine plan, that I suffer so much I wish I had never been born? Do you have any power at all? And if you can’t keep things like this from happening, why in the world should I worship you? I might as well worship my Aunt Susan’s rocking chair—it will do me the same amount of good!”
We have every right for our faith to be shaken at such times. But I have never seen a person recover their happiness without recovering some measure of faith. And it takes time. You don’t stare tragedy squarely in the eye and say, “Well, I’ll just keep my faith and everything will be okay.” Because everything will not be okay. Things happen that change our world forever, and we would give anything to have things back like they were.
But eventually, we surrender to reality. Eventually, we find ourselves beaten to a spiritual pulp and lying helpless on the ground, and then, and then, we find that tiny seed of faith that gives us the strength to get up. This isn’t a lightning flash of glory that streaks across the sky from east to west; this is a tiny candle burning at the furthest limits of our vision. But it is enough. It is enough to make us drag ourselves up, knowing that somehow, someway, things will be alright in the end. Somehow, someway, there is something bigger than me going on here, and in spite of all indications to the contrary, the day will come when I once again smile, and laugh, and take joy in life. It is only when that tiny flicker of faith arises in the darkness that the chance for happiness returns.
When I say that faith is an essential part of happiness, some will say, “I know people who have no faith at all, and who are very happy.” I can honestly say I know of no such people. Oh, I know of people who do not have faith in God and who are happy. But these people definitely have faith! Consider happy atheists. Here are people who believe that life is a sort of cosmic accident, that the only meaning in life is the meaning we create for ourselves. Do these people have faith?
Absolutely! They have a great faith. They have faith that there are no eternal consequences for their actions. They have faith that they are completely free agents in a universe devoid of moral consequences for anything they do. They are convinced that the entirety of their being consists of a material body that somehow developed a high form of consciousness, and that whether they rob a bank or volunteer at the homeless shelter, they hold no responsibility to the universe itself. They believe that beyond the temporary results of their actions in this world, they will one day return to dust, and will in no way be responsible for their actions in this life.
I call that faith! They are betting their souls that there is no immortal soul, no God, no judgment, no Great Spirit, no Karma, no Buddha consciousness; that all religions are mistaken in their basic assumptions about the nature of being. And it is their faith in that belief that allows them to live happy lives. They are in the company of some of the greatest minds in human history—Sartre and Nietzsche, for example; and they stand against other great philosophers—Kierkegaard and Kant, to name a few of the more famous philosophers who thought belief in God is an essential part of human life.
You may remember a couple of bumper stickers I told you about several years ago. At the start of some movie, the camera has a close up shot of a bumper sticker that says, “God is dead—Nietzsche.” The cameral pans back to reveal a second bumper sticker that reads, “Nietzsche is dead—God.” (Sort of makes you think about who gets the last word in all this, doesn’t it!)
We’ve covered faith, so let’s consider hope. Is it possible to be happy without hope? I can’t imagine how. Emily Dickinson wrote, “A great hope fell; you heard no noise; the ruin was within.” When we lose hope, we lose everything. Emily Dickenson knew it, felt it—the loss of all hope is the ruin of a person.
Hope and faith are so closely related, and yet, there is a difference. Hope is what gets us through those times when our faith is shaken. Even when we feel we have lost our faith—even when there is no trace of that tiny candle of faith anywhere in our universe—not even a flicker—it is then that hope echoes in the emptiness.
We sometimes say that things are hopeless—especially at those times when we have lost sight of our faith. But even as we deny the existence of any hope at all, hope is there. It keeps us alive. It gives us a reason to keep breathing as we lie beaten to the ground. It keeps our heart thumping while we wait for that flicker of faith to appear that will give us the courage to pick ourselves up and get back in the game.
We can’t even live without hope, let alone be happy. Paul was right when he said faith, hope and love abide. These are the core elements of life—of real life—of life abundant. But as important as faith and hope are to our happiness, remember Paul’s words: Faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
And that is what I want to talk about next week—the importance of love for a happy life. And I remind you now that Paul, who wrote those marvelous words, was never married. There is no indication that he was ever “in love” with another person. But did he ever know about love! The same can be said of Jesus. Love was the centerpiece of his message, but he clearly was talking about something much more than romantic love.
I leave you with words I have read to you before, the words of Father Zosima in the Brothers Karamazov, written by Dostoevsky, who himself knew something of this love exemplified by Jesus. Dostoevsky’s words: Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
See you next week.