Happiness. Everyone wants to be happy, right? I certainly do. After all, the right to the “pursuit of happiness” is written right into the U.S. Declaration of Independence!
And pursue it we do. Why else do we throw so much money at toys, at amusement, at sex, at experiences ranging from helicopter skiing to dog sledding? Why spend so much time constructing miniature railroad worlds, building enormous Lego landmarks, or inscribing the names of 168 countries and regions on a single grain of rice? Because it makes us happy, of course. At least for a while.
But of course, happiness doesn’t last. It’s sort of like the weather—it’s here today, but it’s changed tomorrow. And if you try to hang onto it, it just melts away. Chasing it doesn’t work very well either—we think we know what’s going to make us happy, and in fact maybe we get it and it does work for a while—but then the magic disappears and we’re searching again. That sucks.
That’s because happiness is largely based on circumstances. Since everything in our lives changes, our level of happiness changes too. Contentment is related to happiness, but it’s less changeable, and more based on our personal attitudes. A person can be content even in circumstances which most other people would call unhappy.
Contentment is what we call the feeling of having enough—of being peaceful and at rest in our circumstances, even though they may not be as good as we’d like them to be. In the Bible, Paul wrote that “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13). Paul had what anybody would call an adventurous life—shipwrecked several times, constantly traveling, opposed, stoned, thrown into prison—and yet he had this contentment. You could say, he was happy—even in really bad circumstances. It was enough for him, and his mind was at rest. That’s real contentment.
Our modern world doesn’t really promote contentment. In fact, all of our advertising seem to have the goal of stirring up discontent—making people unhappy with themselves, with their circumstances and what they have, so that they will buy more of whatever the advertiser is selling. And how often we fall for it! This might be why so many people tell us to unplug for a while—turn off the TV, lose the phone, get away from the computer and the tablet—and just breathe. Nobody can buy their way to contentment.
And then there’s joy. Most of us know joy—that flash of delight that goes way deeper than ordinary happiness, that says something truly amazing and awesome has happened, something that changes everything for us. For me that flash of joy came when they told me I was pregnant after years of trying. For other people it might come when they get a new job, when they propose marriage and the other person says “yes,” when they finally graduate from years of study, when they make a great discovery… “this changes everything,” is what joy says. “Life is wonderful forever.”
And joy, like contentment, can be lasting. I remember the joy I had when I went into physical therapy and they discovered one leg was shorter than another. An insert in my shoe, and BAM! I was walking without pain for the first time in many years. It’s been months, and every so often I still get a goofy smile, because hey! I can walk! My cubicle mates are probably starting to think I’m nuts. “Yeah, yeah, you can walk… so what?” So what—I CAN WALK! IT DOESN’T HURT! THIS IS TOTALLY AWESOME! (Okay, I’ll restrain myself now.) But this is joy. This changes everything. And it does.
In the same way I look at my baby, now sixteen years old and a cranky teenager, and I smile… because he exists! I have a son! He’s awesome! (well, most of the time) His existence gives me joy, and that joy lasts—even when I’m angry with him or unhappy about some other issue in the family. Still, deep down, there is that joy. He exists, and this changes everything.
For Christians, there is another source of even more reliable joy, and that is Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is God himself, who chose to become a human being because he saw the mess our world was in, and we needed help. He loved human beings. He couldn’t hold back. So he lived among us, served, suffered, and died, because that was the only way he could defeat the power of evil and death in this world. And then he rose from the dead—not some sort of ghost or zombie, but really alive again—like everybody’s most desperate wish fulfilled. He promises that he will raise us from the dead too, some day, giving eternal life to all who trust in him. And in the meantime we can trust him and have him, with us every day, loving us, guiding us, showing us the way we should go and helping when we get ourselves into a mess….
This is joy for Christians, and it goes on, running deep in our spirits, even under whatever sadness or trouble or grief is blanketing us at the moment. That current of joy is down deep at the bottom, because we have Jesus, and no one can take him away from us, not even death. This changes everything.