The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (United States Declaration of Independence)

Whatever the authors of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they used the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, Americans through the years having so totally embraced the absolute value of the individual over and against society or any institution have come to think of the phrase as a guarantee that each individual should be able to pursue personal pleasure without any constraints whatsoever being placed on them.  That attitude often finds itself at odds with traditional Christian or other religious thinking and occasionally at odds with the law.

Many Americans consider our nation to be a Christian one, but sometimes find traditional Christian attitudes to be in opposition to American values.  Sometimes this has to do with changing values and definitions.  So Roman Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft points out that the understanding of “happiness” has changed greatly through time.  For example the 17th Century “mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian” Blaise Pascal held to what was then the traditional understanding of happiness – a definition closer to what America’s founding fathers had in mind than is the current idea of happiness.   Kreeft writes:

Pascal uses “wretchedness (unhappiness) and “happiness” here in their deep, ancient meanings. There are three important differences:

  1. To us moderns, “happiness” connotes a subjective feeling, not an objective state, like health. To the ancients, happiness was to the soul what health was to the body. The test case is suffering: if happiness is objective, it can include suffering, as in Job and Greek tragedy; if it is merely subjective, then by definition it cannot.
  2. Our word “happiness” comes from the Old English “hap” (chance, luck, fortune: it “happens”). It comes from without and from the material world rather than from within our own souls. It comes from what used to be called “the gifts of Fortune”, who was traditionally pictured as a whore and a cheat (see, for example, BoethiusThe Consolation of Philosophy). Thus happiness is not under our own control – a terrifying and pessimistic conclusion indeed, as it is in Freud.
  3. To us, happiness is present and transitory rather than permanent: a momentary “high” rather than the quality of a whole life, as Aristotle defines it.

Like the ancients, Pascal means by “happiness” (I) a state of real perfection (2) of soul (3) in a complete life, including eternity. Aristotle’s word for this was eudaimonia: the lasting state (-id) of true goodness (eu-) of soul (daimon). That is why Pascal offers religion instead of psychology as the way to happiness; for psychology can make us feel good, but religion can make us be good.

(Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 27)

Many of the Church Fathers and Mothers thought emotions are fleeting and thus not a dependable way for making decisions.  If happiness is merely an emotion, than it too is fleeting and not worth pursuing.  However, if happiness is a state of being, not dependent on our moods or circumstances, then it is a good worth pursuing.  It is happiness as a state of being that helps us understand the martyrs and some of our hymns dedicated to the saints.  For example, the hymn for the Beheading of St. John the Baptist contains the phrase, “Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy...”   One can suffer with joy only when happiness is a state of being rather than a fleeting emotion.

Sell All You Own and Follow Christ

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.

And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”   (Luke 18:18-27)

It is often debated as to  how literally we are to obey some of the Gospel commandments of Christ.  If everyone tried to sell all their belongings and give them away, what would happen?  Well for one thing there would be no one to buy anything since everyone else was also trying to sell everything.  And if everyone gave up everything, all of civil society would soon come to an end as no one would ‘have’ anything.  It wouldn’t take long before poverty set in and then famine and disease as no one was able to do anything because they couldn’t claim ownership of anything.  So it is not too hard to see that Christ’s teachings were not always universal laws that all must obey.  Rather, He was a wisdom teacher and gives to individuals the medicine they need for their own healing and to become fully human.  The teaching to give everything away was aimed at a particular man who seemed to trust that his riches were the sign that God favored him.  In effect Christ tells the man, since God seems to favor you and has given you all these blessings, give them all away – let’s see if you love and trust God the giver of every good and perfect gift or if you really only love your blessings.  Obviously the man loved the blessings more than He loved God and he certainly wasn’t willing to trust God to provide for him if he gave his blessings away.

In the desert fathers, we find a story of one monk who decided to take the teachings of Christ literally:

One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor. (From Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 37)

Anyone person is capable to literally following this teaching of Christ – even to give away the Scriptures to fully keep the commandment.  The monk had already abandoned civil society and moved to the desert to live the harsh life there.  He had given up the comforts of society, but decides to take the teaching to the next level and even give away the scriptures which had taught him how to live.   We do not know what became of this monk, but we do learn that it is possible to follow Christ’s teachings to the limit.  It is not necessary to have an abundance of possessions in order to be a Christian.  The blessings of God are not something to be accumulated, but to be shared with others.

Ambition

The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath.  (Proverbs 11:23)

From the fruit of his mouth a good man eats good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence.  (Proverbs 13:2)

Desire is sometimes presented in spiritual writings as a root cause of humanity’s problems.  Certainly, in Buddhism, desire is the cause of suffering, and in fact in some forms of Buddhism, desire is what brought the world that we know into existence.  Christian Scriptures on the other hand present a far more nuanced view of desire.  There is evil desire and the desire for evil, but there is also good desire as well as the desire for the good.  Desire can motivate us to seek God, to seek that Beauty, Truth and Goodness which is beyond the limits of the self.  Desire, on the other hand, can be nothing more than sinful passion – a selfishness moving one away from God or even against one’s fellow human beings.   Thus desire can lead to love for God and for the good of others, or it can bring us to total self love with a disregard for all others.

If desire becomes strong enough it can motivate us to forgo immediate gratification and instead strive for long term goals.  That we sometimes term ambition and at least at one time was connected to being willing to work hard to achieve a goal.

Ambition: a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.  (online Dictionary)

Today, however, ambition is often viewed more negatively and nefariously as self-serving:

Ambition: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

We are warned in the New Testament about such ambition:

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.   (James 3:16)

Perhaps because of the negative connotation of ambition, I was really struck by the Revised English Bible’s (REB) translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12:

Let it be your ambition to live quietly and attend to your own business; and to work with your hands, as we told you, so that you may command the respect of those outside your own number, and at the same time never be in want.  

By contrast the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates the text this way: “aspire to live quietly…”

I can desire or aspire to live quietly and attend to my own business.  It is easy for me personally as a person who is both an introvert and shy.  But to make it my ambition?  This is a challenge for me and maybe for all of us.  We might hope that somehow things will fall into place and be peaceful, but St. Paul says we are to make it our ambition to live quietly.  There is a seeming contradiction in terms, which is what makes the text stand out so in my mind.  We are to strive to live quietly and peacefully.  My ambition should be to live quietly!   The jarring nature of the phrase is exactly because for us ambition is viewed mostly as a self-serving pursuit of self-glorification.  It is the difference, as I heard someone say, between the explorers who were seeking knowledge about the world as versus the adventurers who are seeking fame and glory for their own name.

But ambition itself is not the sin or the problem.  The issue is what are we ambitious to do?

Our ambition as Christians is to live the values of the peaceable Kingdom.  Our ambition is to be peaceful, meek, patient, poor, humble, gentle, always putting the good of the other ahead of our own wants.

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.     (Acts 4:32-35)

The Sabbath Day: To Rest from our Labors

4th Century Roman Icon Christ Teaching

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.  (Luke 13:10-17)

Jesus answers the legal criticism with the principle, “The sabbath was made for people, not people made for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). In the next chapter, Jesus is infuriated when the Pharisees watch to see whether he will heal on the sabbath (Mk 3:1-5). Jesus defiantly cures a man with a misshapen hand in front of the legal experts, who then plan to destroy Jesus (v. 60) for destroying the sabbath rest. But Jesus actually has honored the sabbath, which is a religious institution meant to honor the completion of God’s creative activity in Genesis, because Jesus has completed God’s creative work upon the man whom Jesus made whole.

Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the Law serves to rehabilitate this symbol of God’s presence among the people. If the symbolic function of the sabbath is to celebrate God’s availability and power, then a sabbath which is a day of healing “works better” than a sabbath which is merely a day of rest from worldly activities. The emphasis is to be placed upon the God who is present through the symbol of the Law, and not upon the material prescriptions of the Law itself. (Marianne Sawicki, The Gospel in History, pp. 52-53)

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)

Naked I Came Into the World

When the same Abba Macarius was in Egypt he found somebody who had a beast of burden carrying off his things. Standing beside the robber as though he were a stranger, he helped him load up the beast then sent him on his way in great hesychia, saying: “‘We brought nothing into this world and it is clear that neither can we carry anything out’ [1 Tim 6.7].

The Lord has given and it has transpired as he willed it to; blessed be the Lord in all things [see Job 1.21].”

(Give me a Word, p. 184-185)

Being A Christian, Yet Living in the World

It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, ‘I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.’ So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I am John, your brother.’ But he replied, ‘John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.’ Then the other begged him saying, ‘It is I.’ However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning.

Then, opening the door, he said to him, ‘You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.’ Then John made a prostration before him saying, ‘Forgive me.’

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 86)

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing.  (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)

 

Where There is No Struggle, There is No Virtue

Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really and faithfulness and love for the Lord. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations.      (John of Kronstadt, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, p. 391)

Christian: Obey Christ

Among Christians no one is unaware that he is under obligation to undertake the whole task. All alike, when they joined Him [Christ] in the beginning, vowed to follow Him through all things, and it was after they had thus bound themselves by those covenant that they underwent the sacred rites [of Baptism].

Since the Saviour’s commands are thus binding on all the faithful and are capable of fulfilment by those who are willing, they are most necessary. Apart from them it is impossible to be united with Christ, otherwise we should be at variance with Him in that which is greatest and noblest, will and purpose. If we share in His blood we must share in His will. We cannot be joined to Him in some ways, and yet be separated from Him in others, neither can we love Him in one way and be hostile to Him in another, not be His children on the one hand and worthy of blame on the other.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 160-161)

When We See Jesus and Say, “Crucify him!”

When they saw Jesus, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”  (John 19:6)

The very sight of Jesus seems to have enraged His enemies.  Just seeing Him standing up front – though in chains, a prisoner, beaten, mocked for His powerlessness – was enough to get the leaders to yell in anger, “Crucify him!”   We might think it was only those people at the time of Christ, His enemies, who would scream such a thing against Jesus.  Yet, there are times when we believers are really shouting those same words.

When we think about the Cross of Christ – the instrument of His execution, but of our salvation – we realize, Christ chose His path, the way of the Cross, for us.  He died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 3:18). He bore on Himself our offenses (1 Peter 2:24).

St. John Chrysostom says Jesus accepted and endured His suffering for a reason:

“He endured all these sufferings, namely, that we might walk in His footsteps…” (COMMENTARY ON ST JOHN THE APOSTLE, p 424)

That we might walk in His footsteps….”  Chrysostom puts before us an even more difficult point – Christ died on the cross for us, for which we are grateful and give thanks to God.  But that is not the end of it.  Christ died on the cross so that we might imitate Him, and die with Him, and walk in His footsteps.  We are to die to self and live with and in Christ.   The way of self-sacrificial love, of co-suffering love is to be our way of life as Christians.  Christ died for our sins, so we don’t have to pay the price for our sins.  However, He died to this world so that we might imitate Him and die to the world with Him.  He died to the world in order that we might imitate Him.  Just consider what the New Testament teaches us:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20)

For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.   (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God.   (1 Peter 4:1-2)

We who have been baptized into Christ and who have chosen to follow Christ, agree to take up our cross and both have Christ live in us and to live the life of Christ.  We agree to lay aside our will, our desires, our passions and to instead live as Christ would have us live – to love as Christ loved us.

So when we fail to love others as Christ loves us, or refuse to forgive others their sins against us and debts to us, or fail to love neighbor or enemy, or decline to show mercy to Christ in the least of His brothers and sister, or won’t give up our grievances and grudges or desire for vengeance, when we allow jealousy and envy to control our emotions, we are in effect denying Christ, and yelling, “Crucify Him!”  Crucify the One who wants me to do these things which are so hard for me to do, which run counter to my passions and emotions and self-preservation.  Crucify the One who wants me to embrace love over self-love, to treat others as better than myself, to put the interest of others ahead of my own self-interest.

As it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

 they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.   (Hebrews 6:6)

When we refuse to do what Christ teaches us, we are like those people long ago who as soon as they saw Christ, screamed, “Crucify Him!”  For we are crucifying Him by denying Him and His commandments.   We should feel that pain, and like the Prodigal come to our senses and return to following Him who loves us and died for us.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”  (Matthew 21:28-31)