Why True Happiness is so Hard to Find
Happiness research and the science of happiness has apparent growing influence. Behavioral scientist Paul Dolan hit the headlines with controversial pronouncements on whether family and happiness go together. He defines and measures happiness in terms of “experiences of pleasure and purpose over time”. He says this is “the final arbiter of the rightness of what you do” not “moral judgements based on ill-conceived ideas about what is right and wrong”. It’s no great surprise since in a fallen world feeling good is frequently divorced from doing good. Temptation seeks to maximise “the pleasures of sin” which last only for “a season” (Hebrews 11:25). But true happiness is both objective and moral because it is God-centred. This is what makes it so hard to find; we look for it in the wrong place and in the wrong way.
Everyone seeks happiness. But true and objective happiness can only be found in God not subjective pleasure divorced from God. Our purpose is to glorify God in all things and He is also to be our highest enjoyment. Older writers thought a lot about this subject. Thomas Watson says, “It is not every good that makes man blessed, but it must be the supreme good, and that is God”. William Ames also sums up the objective and moral nature of happiness particularly well. “What chiefly and finally ought to be striven for is not happiness which has to do with our own pleasure, but goodness which looks to God’s glory”.
This is obvious when we consider the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 He pronounces many conditions to be happy which are not connected with the sort of pleasure and purpose most people seek. Those 8 rules of happiness go entirely against the grain. In John 13:15-17 Christ is explaining the example He has given in washing the disciples feet. He teaches them about true humility and love in serving one another. The very succinct promise contained in John 13:17 makes obedience fundamental to true happiness. He makes it clear that He is not content with a bare speculative knowledge about humble obedience. We must “know these things” or be sufficiently informed of our duty in relation to them. But we are only blessed and “happy” if we “do them”. True happiness is hard to find because we look for it in the wrong way. Humbling ourselves and putting what we know into practice is hard. George Hutcheson draws out the implications of John 13:17 in the following updated extract.
1. Ignorance is Not Bliss
Christ does not approve of blind ignorance in His people, whatever their practice or life may be. He requires them to base their practice on sound and solid knowledge of His will. He requires that they know these things, and then do them. People can remain very slow to understand when much effort has been taken to instill knowledge of our duty. This may be through weakness or carelessness or being influenced by sinful inclination and earthly mindedness.
Christ’s emphasis on “if” you know these things, presupposes that knowledge must go before practice. But it may also imply some doubt as to whether they were capable of understanding this teaching. They were so carried away with earthly dreams of the Messiah’s kingdom that they could not understand clear predictions of His sufferings (Luke 18:31-34). It would be no wonder if their sinful rivalry also hid this teaching (about humility and mutual service) from themselves.
2. Knowledge Alone Will Not Lead to Happiness
The Lord does not approves of those who are content with mere knowledge and speculation in matters of religion. It is His will that when we know our duty, we put it into practice. Our practice then proves the sincerity and soundness of our knowledge. If we know these things and do them then we prove that we really do know them (see James 1:22-25).
In particular, the Lord requires the practice of humility. This is the test of whether we are genuine. It is not what mere knowledge we have of this teaching–though it may be appealing to contemplate it. The test is how we put it into practice in particular demanding situations. This is because it is more distasteful and trying to do this compared with merely contemplating the truth. Christ requires that practice follows on from knowledge in this particular matter.
This teaching about humility and mutual accommodation is very comprehensive. It contains many duties in itself which are required in a variety of situations and demanding circumstances.· Therefore Christ speak of what is understood by washing one another’s feet (John 13:14) as things (plural). We must know these things, and do them.
3. Obedience and Humility Contain Happiness
Although our obedience and practice deserves nothing, it still contains a blessing in itself. It is the way to such rich blessedness, that it compensate for all loss and disadvantage. This is Christ’s encouragement, we are happy if we do these things.
Although the humble person who accommodates themselves to serve others might seem to lose much in the world by doing so; blessedness makes up any loss. Attaining the practice of humility is blessedness in itself. It hides a person from many storms and much discontentment that sweep others away. It is said that we are happy if we do these things.
4. Lack of Obedience Leads to Misery
Proud people are so far from blessedness, that they are under a curse; especially if they know their duty and will not do it. This statement necessarily implies the opposite reality. If you know these things and do not do them, you are not blessed but cursed because it is a sinful omission (see James 4:17; Psalm 119:21).
The Lord Jesus Christ turns many of our ideas about happiness upside down. Happiness lies more in seeking to please God and others than in pursuing moments of pleasure for ourselves. There is a simplicity in His teaching; it is not so much hard to grasp as hard to practice. The great challenge to us is whether we are prepared to humble and deny ourselves to follow His counsel.
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