by Sarah Rohde
The day of my spiritual awakening was the day that I saw—and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things.
—Mechtild of Magdeburg
We live in a world that sends us all sorts of messages about what it means to be happy. It usually involves adding something, buying something, or changing something about ourselves or our lives. Our culture markets happiness in many overt and subtle ways, leading us to believe that if we had just a little bit more time, just a little bit more money, or just a little bit more attention, we’d be happy. There’s this perpetual sense that I won’t really be happy until…
In our ongoing quests for happiness, we meet people and hear stories that help us think in new ways about what it means to live well. As part of our Christian tradition, we get to know many stories and characters in the Bible that can inform our understanding and experience of happiness. Here are some examples:
The Rich Fool: Luke 12:13–21
Jesus tells a story about a rich man who spends his time preparing to be happy. One would assume that this man would already be quite content, for he was rich and owned storage bins full of stuff. But then he faced a predicament. His land produced an abundant crop, far more than he had room to store. And rather than giving thanks, or preparing fabulous meals while the produce was fresh, or sharing the abundance with friends and strangers, this man decided to tear down his current storage barns and build even larger ones. Better to preserve the abundance and keep it for a future day than to delight in it now.
It seems like some type of insurance policy for happiness; this man piles his goods and grains inside a silo where they can’t be used or touched or enjoyed, so that someday he’ll be able to “eat, drink, and be merry” (Luke 12:19). Unfortunately, that someday never comes to be. The man’s life ends before he can enjoy that which he’s been preparing to enjoy.
Certainly this story raises questions about the balance between living well now and preparing wisely for our futures. It makes us reconsider what experiences of happiness we miss in the present because we are too concerned about attaining happiness in the future. How do we find a way to live happily now? How can we practice paying attention to all the ways God blesses and gifts us with joy here and now?
This story also pokes a hole in the salvation stories of commercialism and individualism that are so rampant in our culture today. These stories try to convince us that we will become happier once we have more, own more, or put ourselves at the center more. One of the funny things to note about this story is that this man only talks to himself. In verse 17, the man “thought to himself” and in verse 19, the man “speaks to his soul.” There’s no other human being involved in his life or in his visions for the future. It’s all about storing up his own stuff for his own individual happiness and security. What role do relationships and community play in our experiences of happiness?
This “story of the rich fool,” as it’s often called, challenges us to shift our mindsets a bit. Rather than routinely asking ourselves: “What are all the things I could do and change in order to make myself happier?” the gospel frees us to not work so hard to make it happen. Rather than storing up in order to become merry later, the gospel frees us to live abundantly and joyfully now. Because our God is in the business of bringing love and joy to people in the midst of ordinary life, we get to trust that happiness already is. It’s something we get to participate in, to pay attention to, to relish in today more than reserve for tomorrow.
Jesus comes to transform: Luke 4:18–19
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Practicing happiness is not always about staying put! Jesus comes to be with us wherever we are, but Jesus does not usually let us stay where he finds us. Jesus comes to transform the world with love, and Jesus calls us to be transformed, too. Therefore, a life lived in happiness necessarily includes experiences of change and transformation.
Sometimes we find ourselves in jobs, relationships, or situations that inhibit our fullness of life. In these times, something needs to change in order for us to find wholeness again. The God we know in Jesus Christ promises to be with us in our suffering and to lead us through our suffering. Our God gives us the strength and courage to make changes and take risks that open up new doors.
Throughout the gospels, we hear about all kinds of people whose lives are transformed by the living power of God. Lepers are healed; the blind are given sight; the imprisoned are set free; the unwanted are named and chosen. Jesus’ love transforms us, too, and empowers us to name and change whatever inhibits our happiness.
Mary and Martha story: Luke 10: 38–42
In this popular story of sister rivalry, Jesus challenges and turns upside down our ever-striving-to-be-happy mindset. Now, I have to admit, this story bugs me every time I read it. Probably because I am “type A” and I pretty immediately identify with Martha’s work ethic. But, whether type-A or not, we all know we can’t make it in life without working hard. And most have also probably experienced the frustration that comes from having our work unrecognized. So why, in this story, does Jesus affirm Mary’s choice to stop working and sit around? And why does he disparage Martha’s careful attention to her labor?
I don’t think Jesus is altogether bashing the preparation and hospitality of Martha, for he spends much of his time in the rest of Luke’s gospel receiving with gladness the hospitality of others. But Jesus is making Martha aware of the way her service is marked by distractions and worry. Martha goes through her day with a sense of anxiety that conflicts with the growth and expression of authentic faith. By uplifting Mary, Jesus is uplifting a way of being that practices trust and attentiveness—a way of being that conflicts with the fast and busy lives we work so hard to maintain.
There’s this tension between doing and being, between anxious preparations and non-anxious presence, between being Mary and being Martha that still resonates with us today. How can we value pausing and noticing in a world where we’re always supposed to keep going? How might we measure the value of our days less in language of productivity, and more in moments of vitality, relationship, or beauty?
Moses and the burning bush: Exodus 3:1–4
Perhaps this bush was a bush Moses had seen a million times, but this time it looked different when he paused and looked again. I mean, it looked way different. It was on fire! This story might be a little dramatic, but it encourages us to consider how we might see what we already have, and what we already do, as places where God might be being revealed? What beauty might we discover, what love might we receive, by looking twice at what we already think we know? Sometimes happiness isn’t so much about what we are seeking, but about the way in which we are seeing.
The Bible is not the only source of wisdom that helps us discern what it means to be happy. Consider the counsel given to early monastics.
Early monastic wisdom Rather than wandering from place to place, aiming to find a sense of happiness and closeness with God somewhere else, the monks were counseled to “remain in their cells,” for the cell itself promised to teach them all things. There is something about staying put, about dwelling in a space or a home or a routine for awhile. When what we know starts to reveal the unknown; when familiarity starts to bear surprises, we are practicing fuller attentiveness to the present moment. We begin to discover God not elsewhere, but right here, to see the mysteries and complexities and beauty that we would have missed had we been cruising right past.
It seems to me there aren’t any black and white answers to our quest for happiness. What seems sure to me, though, is that God walks with us in our striving and our settling, in our pausing and in our moving, in our joy and in our sorrow. In the words of the Beatitudes, happy are we who get to live in the light of such love.
Sarah Rohde is a student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and is currently serving as an intern at Trinity Lutheran Church in New York City. Sarah enjoys outdoor activities, cooking, and hand-written letters.