Does Faith Make Us Happy?

Pastor's Desk

Pastor’s Desk

Recently, I watched a documentary about the World Database of Happiness. This is an institution of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. It was founded by a sociologist and aims to document the state of happiness in the general population in now over 135 nations on this planet.
Check it out for yourself! There you will find such interesting results as Mexico having higher happiness levels than the United States or Germany.

As Christians we have a hunch that a blessed life and a happy life are not always the same. The Bible has a word for “prosperity” but not for “happiness”. In worship, we ask for God’s blessing, but not necessarily that God may make us happy. Likewise, the rise of Christianity 2,000 years ago did not happen because the Apostles promised happiness in this world, but because God’s love became tangible in their preaching, caring and healing.

Nevertheless, Christians also want to be happy. For this, we can refer to the Bible even if none of its books focuses on happiness per se. But from its beginning with the creation story in Genesis, the biblical tradition has always been holistic, including both heaven and earth. Thus God gave his first blessing to the animal kingdom of this world (Genesis 1:22) and not to the angels and other residents of the world to come. From this perspective, the desire of Christians to be happy is legitimate when it refers to a positive state in this life.

Yet like everybody else we Christians, too, realize that this desire is not always fulfilled, and oftentimes not to a satisfying degree. This is our human condition, and we do not have to look at the disenfranchised parts of humanity to see this truth. Look around in our own church family!

Young adults may feel tethered by their dependence on parents when they really yearn for independence. Middle aged people may wake to the realization that there are a lot of things they wanted to accomplish in their life time, but the tracks are set and time is limited. How can I live with the things I cannot change anymore? And older folks oftentimes suffer from increasing and sometimes outright brutal physical limitations. How frustrating it must be when the spirit is willing, but the body, including its brain, begins to lose reliability! How exasperating when one must anticipate someday to be forced from the mainstream of life.

In all these questions, it is important to remember our status before God. We have been blessed. But what do we mean when we use this phrase? And in reverse, when and how have we been a blessing to others?

Pondering these things we realize blessings are bestowed and not created by ourselves. The original giver is God, but following God’s will we can pass on the blessings we have received and become a blessing to others.

Happiness by contrast is something people feel they can pursue with or without God. Sometimes, we feel that happiness is the result of what we do. If we exaggerate this, the pursuit of happiness comes at the cost of peace. Believing that we will be happier the more we achieve, we first lose our inner peace. If we continue ruthlessly in this vein, our pursuit will also cost us the peace with those who suffer the consequences of our activities. Eventually, the suffering will include nature and the environment. Urban sprawl, pollution and the greenhouse effect are typical consequences.

The very short Psalm 133 provides a very different picture:

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

As we enter the month of February and the beginning season of Lent, I wish us moments to more clearly differentiate what it means to be blessed and to be happy.

About Rev. Dr. Hartmut Kramer-Mills

Hartmut Kramer-Mills, a native of Jena, Germany, began his theological education at Heidelberg University. After the Middle Exam in 1986 he received a scholarship from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches for McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. He graduated from McCormick with a Master of Divinity in 1988. He graduated from Marburg University in Germany with the Ecclesiastical Exam in 1990, and received a Dr. theol. from Greifswald University, Germany, in 1997. From 1990 to 1991 he was vicar at St. Wenzel in Naumburg, Germany. He was ordained minister of word and sacrament in 1993 through the Protestant Church of the Church Province of Saxony. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant pastor in Stoessen, Goerschen, and Rathewitz, Germany. At the same time he was lecturer for Church History at Erfurt College in Germany. From 1999 to 2000 he served the Spotswood Reformed Church in New Jersey as interim pastor. Since 2000 he and his wife serve the First Reformed Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey, as co-pastors.
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