“It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains, that all people desire to be happy.” -St. Augustine
I’d like to start an series today called “How to Happy” that will run occasionally over the next several months, it’s a series that’s based on a conversation I’ve found myself having over and over with friends and church members and other pastors. And it’s basically all around this one really big idea;
Everyone wants to be happy, very few people actually are.
Why is that? We have more resources, more money, more toys, better living conditions than any generation in the history of humanity.
We’ve got it all, but we don’t have happiness.
I’m doing this as an occasional series, because I’m in the process of reading a lot of St. Augustine who lived a long time ago, and dedicated a lot of his life to asking this specific question: How does a person find happiness, and from what I’ve read so far, all his answers will surprise you.
The Affluenza Disease
I’m writing this post on the Wednesday morning of the Powerball Lottery pick. It’s up to 1.5 Billion dollars and almost everyone I know is talking about. Lots of my friends have a bought a ticket, made bargains with God about what good they would do with the money, and some have even asked me to pray for them to win it.
But I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
In 1978 there was a study done that interviewed 22 different lottery winners and 29 different people who had been paralyzed by tragic accident. And this study found that 6 months after both of these life changing events the paralyzed people (many now quadriplegics!) were happier than the lottery winners!
When Jack Whittaker won $315 million dollars 14 years ago, he thought that his life was set, and that he would be able to sit back and enjoy it. And at first, he did what everyone says their going to do with their winnings. He gave millions to different charities, he started his own foundation. But then when people started stealing from him, when his house was broken into, he began to questions all of his relationships, and he began to become much more protective of what was his.
5 years after he had won over a quarter of a Billion dollars, he told reporters “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”
There are so many stories about this, and I’m sure that almost everyone knows them, but for some reason we ignore it.
On writing this, something like $400 million dollars worth of lottery tickets are being sold a day in the USA, every gas station you go into is filled with people (the clerks I’ve talked to say this is the busiest they’ve ever been), despite the next to impossible chance that you can win, and the near certainty of the destructive nature of what winning would do to your actual life.
We live in a time and culture where it is becoming more and more obvious that our wealth has some extremely negative side effects. From the judge who recognizes that a teen who grew up with excessive privilege had an “affluenza disease” to the rampant rise of heroin use among well to do suburban kids, we should be noticing that the American dream isn’t just not all it’s cracked up to be, it’s deeply cracked.
The Good Life
Jesus says two things that I don’t think Christians believe anymore. And they both have everything to do with your money.
At one point Jesus is approached by a man who is in a tug of war of greed with his brother. They’re fighting over their inheritance and maybe it’s because the guy has heard Jesus talk so much about money, he asks Jesus in front of everyone to talk to his brother about why he should share his money.
I think this is so funny. This guy wants Jesus to preach about generosity…to his brother. As a preacher I get this, most of the time when we hear sermons, we say to ourselves, “I wish my wife/husband/friend could hear this, she’s the one who really needs it.”
But Jesus sees through this guys request and he immediately replies,
“Watch Out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed. a person’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of their possessions.”
The word Jesus uses there is the Greek word “Zoe” It means the life that is true life, the life of joy and peace, the kind of life that everyone is after. And Jesus says that kind of life doesn’t come from having more stuff.
But Jesus uses stronger words than that, When He hears this guys requests, He basically shouts out “Watch Out!” It’s a warning Jesus uses 6 other times in the Gospels, and every other time it’s when He’s warning people about religious false teachers.
I think He’s doing the same thing here. Because that’s how money works, it’s a false teacher. It makes promises it can’t keep, and it sets us on a life trajectory that slowly squeezes the life out of us.
The other thing Jesus says is something I’ll bet everyone in America has heard, it’s become cliche, a truism that we pay homage to in our culture but rarely in our wallets.
Jesus says “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.”
Did you know that the word blessed is really the Greek word for happiness? Does that change this idea for you at all? Does it make better sense of your life experience?
Jesus isn’t just referring to random acts of kindness (but those are great!) Jesus is talking about there are two ways to organize your life, you can organize your life around receiving or you can order your life around generosity. And while everyone thinks happiness comes from getting more and more, according to Jesus happiness comes from giving what you have away.
No less that 3 articles were in the New York Times last year confirming this radical idea. That people who give generously, regularly and sacrificially are much happier people. That giving generously is good for every part of your well-being.
Compare that with the fact that the average American will spend 35% of their life’s income on interest, and currently is at least $10,000 deep in consumer debt.
These are people like you and me, people searching for happiness. And chances are a good percentage of these people believe in Jesus, but apparently don’t believe like Jesus.
Churches make the mistake of throwing Dave Ramsey at this problem, trying to help get people out of debt, but that’s like putting a bandaid on cancer, because the real problem is that we are fighting against our own happiness. We are like a dehydrated person drinking buckets after buckets of Coke.
The real question is Jesus right or not, and only someone who has given his ideas a try can answer that.
So as the dust settles from the Lottery fever this time around, as some person finds themselves with more money than they can imagine, and the rest of us find ourselves with worthless losing tickets, here the question to really wrestle with.
Is the thing that’s missing in your life really a thing? According to Augustine what makes us happy really isn’t a what, it’s a Who.
In Augustine’s words “Jesus is the Bread of Life awaiting our hunger.”
What that means is that God is not fighting against your happiness, God is the very source of your desire for it.
And St. Augustine found this out by dedicating his life to finding out how to happy, and then finding his happiness was really a pathway back to God.
But before we go there, ask yourself this question.
Are you happy?
Don’t you want to be?