Everyone longs for happiness, but few possess it. The pursuit of it is universal and timeless. Generations ago, the writers of the United States Declaration of Independence recognized that longing. In it they wrote that every man is endued by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, one of which is the pursuit of happiness.
For most people, however, happiness is elusive. To make it even more elusive, many Christians have been told that holiness and happiness just don't go together. That's because in the church, there has been an emphasis placed on Jesus as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
Isaiah 53:5 says,
"But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."
However, that is not the whole story. The same Bible that says Jesus suffered also says He was anointed with the oil of gladness above everyone else and that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
"Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows" (Heb. 1:9).
"Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength" (Neh. 8:10).
No joy - no strength. This is one of the reasons we have a lot of weak Christians.
So, is true happiness obtainable? And if so, how do we get it?
First, let me say there are many scriptures that command us to rejoice and be glad (Ps. 32:11, 40:16, 68:3, 70:4, to list a few). Some specifically command rejoicing in the midst of trouble (Ps. 34:1, Matt. 5:12, and John 16:33). The people of Israel were even punished because they didn't serve the Lord with joyfulness and gladness of heart for the abundance of all the things the Lord had done.
"Because thou servedst not the LORD thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee" (Deut. 28:47-48).
So, if joy was a command and people were punished for not rejoicing, then happiness is something we can control. Otherwise, the Lord would have been unjust in commanding us to do it.
Today people think happiness is a result, instead of a choice. They believe that if they didn't have any problems and if they had an abundance of good things, happiness would be the inevitable result. That's not true.
Happiness isn't a state of being; it's a state of mind. A person can be happy when everyone and everything around them is in turmoil. They can be content no matter what the financial or physical conditions might be. True happiness and contentment isn't dependent upon circumstances.
Take Paul as an example. The Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philippians while he was in prison in Rome. He had been in prison for two years in Israel, one year in transit to Rome and an undisclosed amount of time in Rome. He was facing possible execution.
Yet, his letter to the Philippians is the happiest letter of any he wrote. He mentioned rejoicing seventeen times in this short letter. How could this be? What was Paul's secret? The book of Philippians gives us the keys Paul used to obtain such success.
In Philippians 4:11 Paul said,
"I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content."
Notice that contentment is something the Apostle Paul learned. It didn't come naturally or without effort. None of us came out of the womb reading and writing; we had to learn through years of effort. Likewise, contentment, which is a major component of happiness, has to be learned. It doesn't come on us like a seizure, and we don't catch it like a cold. It is an acquired trait.
How do we acquire happiness? First, we need to deal with what's on the inside. Most people take a different approach. They want to deal with the outside. They pray for their problems to be solved and that only good things and good people will come their way. Let me give you a clue: That ain't going to happen!
As long as we are in this world, we will have problems (John 16:33). And if we are living for God, we will have persecutions (2 Tim. 3:12). If you never bump into the devil, it's because you're going in the same direction. When you turn around and start swimming upstream, you will always encounter resistance. People and circumstance might start working against you.
You can't always control what goes on outside, but you can totally control what goes on inside when faced with that resistance. When you understand that, you will have discovered one of the greatest keys to happiness. In addition, you will be on your way to eliminating grief in your life.
I have written a little booklet called Self-Centeredness: The Root of All Grief. It shows how selfishness really is at the root of all our grief. I know that's a hard pill to swallow for many. But that's because we live in a society that has learned to blame circumstances and other people, rather than taking personal responsibility.
For example, Proverbs 13:10 makes it very clear that the way others treat us is not the root of contentions; it's our pride:
"Only by pride cometh contention: but with the well advised is wisdom."
If we weren't so in love with ourselves, so prideful and self-centered, we wouldn't be so sensitive to all the things that rub self the wrong way. It really comes down to our love of self.
One of the most liberating things in the world is to love someone else more than your self. And when the one you love more is God, you will rejoice when He is glorified, even if that happens through your suffering.
That's what Paul did. In Philippians, chapter 1, the Apostle Paul was trying to comfort the Philippians. These were special people to Paul, and he was special to them. In Philippians 4:15-16, Paul said the Philippians were the only church that ever gave to him after he left their area. They did this not only once, but they did it twice and would have partnered with him more if they had known where he was.
He wanted to assure them that everything was all right with him. How did he do that? He told them that all his suffering had furthered the kingdom of God.
In Philippians 1:12-18 Paul says,
"But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places; And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice."
That says volumes! Paul loved God and the furtherance of His kingdom more than he loved himself. If the kingdom of God was better off because of Paul's imprisonment, then it was all worth it. What a great attitude. We would do well to adopt it.
When God and others are more important to you than yourself, then you are well on your way to happiness. But if you are all wrapped up in yourself, you make a very small package. And therein lies the number one obstacle to contentment and happiness.
Most people are addicted to self like addicts are to drugs. They are never satisfied. And this self-centered dissatisfaction is Satan's greatest open door for temptation. He used self-interest to temp Adam and Eve, even though they lived in a perfect world without a single problem.
"But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:3-5).
Even Jesus' disciples weren't satisfied with Him. Despite all they had seen Him do, they still wanted more outward proof of who He was.
"Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us" (John 14:8).
We can never truly satisfy self. We just have to deny it. We have to die to self and place God and others ahead of self. That's easier said than done, but once we die to ourselves, happiness is just around the corner.
Second, we need to deal with what's outside, our circumstances. Paul gave great insight into how to do that in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, which says,
"For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal."
Paul said his affliction was only light. He didn't say that because he didn't have problems. You can read a list of his "light afflictions" in 2 Corinthians 11:23-30. The list includes beatings with whips and rods, prison, shipwreck, hunger and thirst because of his mission work, and many more. So, how can we speak about our heavy load when Paul called all his problems, which were much worse than anything we have suffered, just light afflictions?
You see, it's not your problems that are the problem; it's the way you see your problems and the value you place on them that makes them a problem. Paul said all his afflictions were but for a moment. That was saying they were short-lived compared to eternity. Paul put everything into the perspective of eternity.
Regardless of how bad things are in this life, we have such a wonderful eternity promised to each of us that all our troubles pale in comparison.
Romans 8:18 says,
"For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."
Our future is so bright, we have to squint to look at it. All the sufferings of this life are short and insignificant compared to eternity and all the pleasures the Lord has in store for us. Keeping this in mind will shrink our problems down to a manageable size.
Paul also said in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that he didn't look at the temporary things of earth but that he was focused on the eternal things of heaven. If we are only looking for happiness in this life, then we are going to be miserable (1 Cor. 15:19). Our true happiness lies in Jesus and our future with Him. If we are in faith, we can have joy unspeakable and full of glory now, in this life (1 Pet. 1:8). It's our anchor in eternity that keeps our hearts from being troubled (John 14:1-3).
There are many other important truths that the Apostle Paul revealed about happiness. In my five-part series entitled How to Be Happy, I teach these truths which are also keys to happiness. I believe this is absolutely essential for every Christian to understand.