Too often serious-minded Christians speak of the Christian life by emphasizing its negative aspects, speaking exclusively of the things one must not do or the disciplines one should undertake if one wishes to advance in the faith. Although this type of instruction is necessary, it is likely to discourage those young in the faith who are seeking joy and happiness rather than discipline and toil.
The reason for this is that the joy of a life in Christ is so very difficult to describe, whereas the steps that must be taken to achieve it are far easier to explain. The very real but indescribable joy of the Christian life is what all people yearn for, whether they know it or not. A fundamental tenet of our country is that we are endowed by our Creator with an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, and this is good and true. Sadly, most people pursue it without ever finding it because they look in the wrong places.
Augustine wrote a book that discusses what it is that makes people truly happy. Interestingly, he did not write this towards the end of his life as a reflection, but at the beginning of his life as a new Christian. In the few months between his conversion experience and the time he was received into the Church, he wrote The Happy Life, his first book. Therein he states that “nobody is happy without possessing what he desires and not everyone who has what he wants is happy.” In this way, Augustine equates happiness with the accumulation of possessions—a very modern formula that would be endorsed by anyone on Madison Avenue. But then he notes that for some people, having what they want will not bring happiness. This, he states, is partly because along with the possessions comes fear—fear that the possessions will be taken away or fear that they will decay or fear that they will change with age. He also notes that those who desire bad things will not be happy either. Thus, he argues that only those who desire and possess good, eternal things will be truly happy. That is, only those who possess God will find true happiness.
The righteousness and peace and joy that the Apostle Paul wrote of to the Romans are characteristics of the kingdom of God. To the extent that we long for things that rust and that the moth can destroy, we will not find happiness. To the extent that we long for things that pollute our souls, we will not find joy. However, to the extent that the kingdom of God is within us and we are able to set aside all earthly cares, we will know true happiness.
The joy and contentment that come from a life that possesses God—a life filled with love itself—are difficult to describe to someone outside the faith. It is like trying to describe a rainbow to a blind man. And as we mature, the depth of that joy grows as more and more of our lives are filled with God. Perhaps that is why Augustine didn’t write De Beata Vita at the end of his life: it ceased to be theory and became something that could not be captured on paper.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“Indescribable Happiness” first appeared in the April 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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