Behold, not the philosophers, but only people who like to argue, state that all are happy who live according to their will. This, of course, is not true, for to wish what is not fitting is the worst of wretchedness. But it is not so deplorable to fail of attaining what we desire as it is to wish to attain what is not proper. For greater evil is brought about through one’s wicked will than happiness through fortune.
—From Cicero’s Hortensius
Ever since Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words, Americans have held a special place for the “pursuit of happiness.” In recent times we have seen this pursuit of become a right to happiness in most any form, and a right from anything that gets in the way. For example, we want to have the right to free speech when it applies to our talk (be it ridden with obscenities, blasphemy, or treason) and the right not to hear speech that is critical of our vices (or, as they are often called, our “orientations”). We also want to have the right to kill ourselves or our unborn children if our happiness is in jeopardy.
Our happiness is the primary determinant of our lifestyles. Observe how many of our non-working hours are built around forms of entertainment. And even work, for some, is a pursuit of self-gratification when it is done at the expense of one’s family.
Unfortunately, the church today reflects these values as well. I am reminded of a commentary written by a famous television preacher a few years ago on Matthew 5:1–12 entitled The Be Happy Attitudes. This focus on happiness is, I fear, missing the point of the Christian life. True, we are called to rejoice always, but we also are told to take up our crosses. The happiness of the Christian cannot come through the fulfillment of every desire. Perhaps this is why Cicero’s Hortensius is so often quoted by St. Augustine in his book De Beata Vita (The Happy Life).
In his last published work C. S. Lewis wrote of this problem. It appeared shortly after his death in an essay in The Saturday Evening Post entitled “We have no ‘Right to Happiness’”:
Though the “right to happiness” is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal impulse, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will—one dare not even add “unfortunately”—be swept away.
As Christians, we give up the right to happiness and in its place we gain true joy. We have joy because we love God and obey him. True happiness will come to us because of this joy, not because we have two-car garages. Jesus promised each of us an abundant life, not a good sexual partner. Happiness only will be ours when we desire and follow after God—but if we demand it on our own terms, I fear Lewis’s prophecy will come true.
“As Christians, we give up the right to happiness and in its place we gain true joy. We have joy because we love God and obey him.”
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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