The World Happiness Report that was released recently places Finland at the first place and Iceland and Denmark on second and third spot. Israel is at number nine, much above Canada, America and U K at numbers 15,16 & 17. Apparently it is not the wealth, education level of the people or any other material possessions that can provide comforts but not happiness. But what is the basic difference in people of various places for being happy despite their difficult situations while others suffer grief in the heart.
Afghanistan has been ranked the lowest at 146, which is understandable, seeing the hardships and limited freedom for a few. Israelites as a people face most difficult circumstances due to almost daily threat to life yet are ranked at number 9 above Canada and America. July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence of the US has three basic components, the unalienable rights to ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. This is based on the fact that God has given these rights to all human beings and the government must protect these. It was presumed by the founding fathers that happiness must be and can be pursued.
Another idea about happiness is that it is difficult to find and one may just stumble upon it somehow. On the other hand, happiness, as per Jewish belief, is a choice we make in our lives and it is an attitude of life that we decide and we do not stumble upon it. The three Festivals prescribed by the LORD God in the Scripture are such festive occasions when people would join together to rejoice, worship and celebrate in Jerusalem. Apostle Paul’s advice to the believers is ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). This Epistle of the Apostle mentions joy more than 15 times. Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher, says, ‘people who are very happy, especially those happy in the Lord are not apt to give offense or take offense’. Minds of such people are so focused on higher things that the distractions of earthly trouble do not easily affect them. It is not about an attitude of positive thinking but faith that God is in total control and we rejoice in Him. This is not a suggestion but a command for all believers to rejoice.
Happiness occurs when we decide to shift our focus on counting the blessings in our lives despite all the challenges and struggles on the way. The same command is again repeated in the Scripture, ‘Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). This is what God desires from us for He being the loving God wants all to live filled with His love. Once we start looking at what we have and be happy about it, there is always more than one reason to be happy. But we want to look for happiness in what we do not have, more money, a bigger house, a better job and all else. Since we can always have more, we can never be fully satisfied and happy.
There is a very strange command from God, it is about confessing before the LORD after removing ‘the holy tithe from my house, and also have given them to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow according to all your commandments’ and that I have not forgotten them (Deuteronomy 26:12-15). After this confession is the prayer seeking blessings from God on the people and the land ‘just as You swore to our fathers’. This confession is about joyfully thanking God through the offerings and then seeking more blessings. There is the story of a king who had many servants to attend to his kingdom and personal work, with each individual rejoicing at serving the king and being close to him. But there is one person who cleans up the palace and removes all the dirt and filth. Should he focus on the filth and be unhappy and depressed or focus on the fact of being close to the king to serve him by keeping the premises clean?
When we confess our sins as led by the Holy Spirit in the process of sanctification do we focus on the past and cry or look forward to today and seek God’s hand of blessing and empowerment towards a better day? Can anyone guess how many treasures are hidden and laid up under the earth, so how can we estimate what God has stored up for each of us in our souls. God revealed Himself to Moses from the Burning Bush as ‘I AM WHO I AM’ for His being is in the present while the past and future are open before Him as present only. Almost at the end of His sermon on the mount, Lord Jesus taught us to live in the present by not worrying about tomorrow, ‘for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble’ (Matthew 6:34). Societies that learn to live in the present by being satisfied in what they have are always satisfied and happy, ready to face each day as it comes, while consumerist ones seek their happiness in their possessions and are always stressed.
How can we progress without focusing on our desires? There is a joke that God first offered the Torah to all other nations but they refused because of something or the other that they could not adhere to. God finally asked the Jews and they wanted to know what it cost them. When God said it is for free, they asked for two of them and that is why God wrote the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone. When the two tablets are placed side by side, there are two ways to read these, from top to bottom from 1 to 10 and from side to side as 1 &6; 2&7, and so on to 5&10. In this horizontal way of reading then it will be read as ‘I am the LORD your God/ You shall not murder; You shall have no other God/ You shall not commit adultery. The first and the sixth would then connect the value of life of another human being with the Creator Himself for the world was created by God for a holy and moral purpose. People who have suffered great tragedies in their lives turn towards God with a deeper faith for to have faith in man resulted in all those evil deeds, be they by the Nazis or Emperor Nero in Rome.
Evil and cruelty happens when God is separated from human morality and it is determined by mankind where all is permitted. Without God good or evil is individualistic and for some killing of men, women and children is no more evil than killing a rat, for it will all be only a difference of opinion and faith. In like manner when the sixth is delinked to the first, then murder of anyone who does not subscribe to your view of God is religious. Faith that does not include the intrinsic value of each life, even your enemies, has detached itself from ‘I am the LORD your God’. The sixth commandment is sustainable only when linked directly to the first. Lord Jesus’ prayer to God the Father seeking forgiveness for those who crucified Him, is His identity with the Father, of all of His creation (Luke 23:34). It is only with this that one can understand the two greatest commandments as told by our Lord, to love God and the neighbor equally, for then we are assured that the same God who has given the neighbor will bless me or I am to use His gifts for others also for I am only a caretaker (Matthew 22:36-40).
The forgiveness that we seek from God for our sins or the debts that we created to be paid to the devil for our redemption can only come through, once we understand that God cannot be separated from His creation (Matthew 6:12). It is then that we see the great love of God, revealed in His Son as man crucified, for God does not ‘have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die’ for He desires that they turn from their ways and live. Solomon’s advice is that nothing is better for man to rejoice, ‘and do good in their lives’ (Ecclesiastes 3:12). Apostle Paul had suffered greatly for preaching the Gospel at the hands of Jews, Gentiles and the Romans alike but he could still rejoice in the Lord for he could ‘do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:12-13).
Generally the belief is ‘a little more and I will be happy’ but then the source of our joy is worldly. But each of us being a spirit with a soul living in a body cannot be satisfied with material things. These comforts provided by science and technology, make life easy but not joyful.
Reasons for lack of joy in most people – First, comparison with others –God knows each individual even before he/she was placed in the mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5). King David recognized God’s hand in everything in his life saying, ‘Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed, and in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them’ (Psalm 139:16). God placed each individual in a family and place with a detailed plan and it is not by accident. When we compare our situation with others, we seek joy in their state without knowing what problems they are facing. I have my own life journey and God has given me certain strengths to navigate that route successfully and focusing on strengths multiplies them while wrong focus on weaknesses pulls one backward into discontent.
Second, Attitude of life – When we focus on weaknesses only, we become complainers and all efforts get directed at receiving some next big thing, and then this yearning for more will continue. Not being thankful for what God has given, is doubting His will for us. There is the story of a Jew walking to the Temple for afternoon prayers in the sun and a person on a horse passed by, making him complain at this unfairness of God. When he reached the Temple he found to his shame a person without legs thanking God for the privilege of coming into His house to worship Him.
Third, playing safe – Most people in their sixties regret not having stepped forward to fulfill the dream that seemed risky but in hindsight seems so easy and within reach. In Lystra, the Jews who opposed Apostle Paul incited a mob that stoned him and dragged him out of the city ‘supposing him to be dead’ (Acts 14:19-21). ‘However, when the disciples gathered around him, he rose up and went into the city’ to carry on with his work. The Apostle, chosen for suffering by the Lord, listed out the setbacks and sufferings that he faced, yet carried on with his ministry (2 Corinthians 11:25 -28). He could rejoice in his sufferings and say, ‘if I am being poured out as a drink offering for your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all’ (Philippians 2:17). Drink offering accompanies the main offering, which is Lord Jesus, and the Apostle was happy to join in His sufferings. How can there be growth in life if one is not willing to move forward in faith in the One who has chosen us? Most people keep waiting for the right time that never comes, for now is the right time.
Four, seeking wrong treasures – King David was the youngest son of Jesse and not considered worthy to be called to meet Prophet Samuel but he could say, ‘Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart’ (Psalm 37:4). But did he desire to be king of Israel or fight Goliath? He moved on in faith in the LORD with the singular aim of finding joy in Him alone. He declared the reason for facing the giant, ‘I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied’ (1 Samuel 17:45). His joy was in the LORD and he could not allow the words of Goliath remain unchallenged. David gathered all leaders of Israel and told them about his desire to ‘build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and for the footstool of our God, and had made preparations to build it’ (1 Chronicles 28:2-3 & 11-12). But since God stopped him for he was a ‘man of war and have shed blood’, it did not discourage him. All the plans that he had received by the Holy Spirit, he gave to Solomon his son.
A Jew before going to sleep thanks God for all the blessings of the day and then puts his soul in God’s care till he wakes up next morning. Lord Jesus’ prayed His last prayer on the cross, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit’ and then ‘He breathed His last’ (Luke 23:46). A Jew on awakening, before leaving the bed, says the prayer called ‘modeh ani’ as ‘I give You thanks, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me. Your faithfulness is great’. The first words of the risen Lord to Mary Magdalene were, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God’ (John 20:17). The Son of God must first thank the Father for completion of the mission and then only join others in their happiness. Despite all the turmoil all around them, the Jews find their happiness, ‘simcha’, in their Creator thereby depending on Him to be with them everywhere.
Key to real joy – King David declares that ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly’ (Psalm 1:1). But the Hebrew word used is not ‘barak’ meaning blessed but ‘ashar or esher’ meaning happy and joyful. This verse then means ‘happy and joyful is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked’. It is about moving in the right direction despite all the temptations and trials from the forces of evil and darkness. Temptation is to inculcate a desire to have something that you do not and should not have. It is like Eve wanting to eat of the only tree, while all other fruit trees laden with various fruits were right there. God desires us to seek happiness, joy and pleasure and it can only be found in doing something that we do not have to hide.
The psalmist rightly identified the source of fullness of joy in God’s presence and eternal pleasures at His right hand, the place of power and authority (Psalm 16:11). God desires this for us, for pleasure is the real indicator of the real intrinsic value of someone in your life, for you treasure that. David has urged us to ‘delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart’ (Psalm 34:17). But the condition of receiving an answer to prayers is ‘the desires of your heart’, as to what are we craving for and the reason for it.
The wisest man, King Solomon, says, ‘A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken’ (Proverbs 15:13). We think we smile when we are happy but the reverse is the truth, for a smile lifts your mood, lowers stress, boosts your immune system and even prolongs life. When we smile at our children or wife, they feel encouraged and do better bringing more joy into their and your life. Be intentional and smile more often and create the atmosphere around you that energizes you and others. Do not try and stumble on happiness, seek and find it in the LORD by thanking Him for all that you have and rejoicing.
But does God desire us to be happy? – God is love and love is happiness and David recalled, ‘in Your (Lord) presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore’ (Psalm 16:11). God the Holy Spirit dwells in us and in His presence we must rejoice. The Sermon on the Mount is about being blessed and the Greek word used here is ‘makarios’ which means ‘happy, blessed, to be envied’. This word describes a believer in an ‘enviable and fortunate position from receiving God’s provisions of grace and favor’.
Solomon then tells us of the only source of happiness, ‘God gives wisdom and knowledge and happiness to a man who is good in His sight’ (Ecclesiastes 2:26). Only that person can be good in God’s sight who seeks Him earnestly. Since our pleasure is in His Divine presence, naturally we treasure Him more than anything else. If sinful desires give us pleasure then it is a problem of our treasure for what we love is wrong. Then our fight of faith is our fight for delight or believing God’s promises versus lies of the devil, our fallen nature and the world. When we fight for the right type of joy, we reap it hundredfold for then God as a loving Father steps right into our life to multiply our joy in Him. I must not seek nor settle for anything less!
‘Pursuit of Happiness’, a movie by actor Will Smith is about determination and diligently following the dream despite all the difficulties and hardships in the way. Our victory is already assured in Lord Jesus, our Redeemer, and we have to continue the fight to cross the finish line after Him. This we do by living in and for the present, without thinking about what is past and what we may face tomorrow.