As a church planter in Rome, I’ve found out that one of my biggest challenges has been how to articulate the gospel meaningfully today. It’s not hard to sketch out the good old Plan of Salvation. But by meaningful articulation I mean showing people how the gospel relates to, challenges, and subverts the whole of their worldview. How it incarnates Christ into people’s late-modern categories of thought so that all of our thinking and all of our lives radiate from a Christ-centered core.
In particular, I have been struck by one special challenge, an area so crucial for the way we live but that surprisingly few Christians are talking about: the concept of happiness. Happiness is a serious, vital theme, especially for pastors and Christian leaders, and not just for the obvious reason that you and I and the people we teach all want to be happy. It is a theme begging Christian reflection because this magnetic word also holds within itself a whole cosmos: our understanding of happiness is our understanding of life. It is a token of our soul, a window into our worldview, the surest sign of what we prize and what we live for. It is people’s individual, alternative gospel.
Yet, does our preaching articulate an understanding of happiness – of the life we’re after – different than the worldview of TV ads and pop magazines? I’m not sure. Both seekers and believers looking for happiness today not only feel spoonfed a dumbed down solution–buy this product, get gorgeous, follow these seven steps–but there seems to be no real Christian alternative. Christians have bought into our consumer societies’ commercial definition of happiness without thinking it through critically, and instead substitute the self-help steps to happiness with Christian terminology. Rough edges are smoothed and spiritual language is sprinkled in, but the approach is still the same self-centered, self-serving approach.
So I went on an experiment. Could there be an alternative Christian understanding of happiness? Could this understanding be not isolated from, but actually spring out of our core beliefs about reality–Jesus is Lord, his cross offers life, to follow Jesus is best of paths? And could this alternative be not just well-meaning but be really happy, happier than any other alternative?
It was a fascinating experiment. I went back to Jesus and to what I felt is his key insight on life–that we gain life when we lose it, when we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him–and the result of that reflection is a book coming out this month called The Paradox of Happiness. In it I challenge people to think about happiness in a distinctively Christian way, and have lives more serene and joyous because they are actually less self-oriented and self-centered. Because they long to contribute, love, and give more than they want to get and buy. It is also a wish that people will be in wonder at the genius of Jesus’ vision of life and that they will be more willing to follow him, even if his path is a cruciform one. In the end, I would love if we–and the people we teach and serve– come to an understanding that makes us less worried about our own happiness and so find ourselves, paradoxically, happier than before.
For pastors and church planters like me, I hope that it also can serve as an encouragement and model on how to engage our culture and deconstruct it with Jesus’ splendorous gospel.
One could call this the ministry of happiness. We don’t find happiness when we try to fulfill our desires—we find it when we stop looking for it and start focusing on serving others. Happiness according to Jesus is generous and unexpected: by letting go, we find; by giving, we receive. Happy are those who share their happiness.