Viewpoint: Does God Want Us to Be Happy?

How American believers allowed themselves everyday joy

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If you are interested in God's position on human happiness, please proceed to Chapter 12 of Luke, where Jesus seems to take a slap at Ecclesiastes. The author of the earlier book, a seen-it-all, done-it-all type attuned to life's brevity, famously observed, "Man hath no better thing ... than to eat, and to drink and to be merry" in the time "God giveth him under the sun." Jesus, in a parable, puts these very words in the mouth of a man who reaps an unexpected bumper crop, plans bigger barns to hold it and anticipates a kind of Miami retirement: "And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou has much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry." But then Jesus lowers the boom: "God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be?" The message: happiness in this life is--emphatically--beside the point.

Anthropologists will tell you that religion is a mirror held up to humanity, and as such must accommodate as many definitions of happiness as we can imagine. Transcendence or material gain? Contentment or ecstasy? Individual or social joy? All are addressed somewhere, perhaps most broadly in classic Hindu scripture, which spoke of a "calculus of bliss" and parsed four ascending human "aims": worldly pleasure, power, righteousness and transcendence. But in Western Christianity the question has often been framed more narrowly: whether God wants us to savor this life or whether its only true joys are the anticipation of heaven and obedience to his sometimes inscrutable will.

Don't recall the debate? It was a doozy while it lasted, especially since Jesus was not obviously consistent on the topic. (Matthew's Beatitudes see joy almost entirely in the future tense, but Johnpromises a this-worldly "whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do.") Discussion was especially intense in U.S. Protestantism from the 18th to the early 20th century. Says E. Brooks Holifield, author of Theology in America: "The issue that emerged is whether God's primary end for human existence is God's own glory, or human happiness." Religious liberals thought the two were alike. Conservatives wondered, If God rules the world and bad things happen to good people, then his happiness clearly diverges from ours--and why should he endorse our ill-informed and oft-depraved ideas of joy? Extremists in this camp remarked that the most unhappy thing they could imagine was to be damned eternally. What if God, for his own reasons, made this seemingly outlandish demand? True happiness, they concluded, would lie in glorifying him through obedience.

That outlook did not prevail, as you may have noticed. In the U.S., happified by Enlightenment ideas and the bounty of the frontier, optimism and belief in self-determination have almost almost always trumped theology. Calvinism, from which the hard line sprang, ceded influence to Episcopalianism, Lutheranism, Pentecostalism, Catholicism and non-Christian faiths, each sunnier in a different way. Today the Protestant extreme lies in the opposite direction. For example, Prosperity Gospel preachers explicitly link God's grace to worldly fortune (and entice donors using Jesus' promise in Mark that those who give up their possessions for him will receive them back a hundredfold "in this present age").

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