Pursuing individual happiness will never make you happy.
Personal happiness is often the byproduct of holiness – but it is never the goal. [Tweet This]
Before everyone freaks out, let me explain what I mean.
The process of becoming holy, or to put it another way, the process of becoming what you were created to be, will often (although not always) bring about personal happiness. There is great joy in fulfilling your purpose, in using your gifts, and in being transformed into the image and likeness of our eldest brother and Lord Jesus Christ.
But, and I kid you not, holiness is also an incredibly difficult process. I know, I know, now you’re asking yourself, “How does this guy know?! Are you trying to tell me that you’re holy?!” And my answer is, “No – not especially. But I am trying.”
Here’s the thing. When it comes to my claim that holiness is a difficult process, you don’t have to take my word for it. We can look at what Jesus Himself had to say. We could even call it:
The Massively Un-Popular Sayings of Christ
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”1
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”2
“Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; …For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”3
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”4
“But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”5
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”6
“He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”7
“But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”8
““If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”9
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”10
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”11
You know, basically just, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”12
And really, that just scratches the surface. (In fact, if you have your own favorite massively un-popular saying of Christ, or “MUPSOC” for short, feel free to add it in the comments section below!)
And this brings me back to my original point. If you are trying to attain happiness through the usual means – money, popularity, positions of influence and power, relationships with family and friends, sex, food, possessions – well, “Truly, you have received your reward in full!”13
We should be clear – these things may bring you happiness in the short term while a life of holiness may not. And, according to Christ, that’s the gospel truth. It would seem that holiness is far more about obedience, sacrifice, and selflessness, than it is about pursuing our own personal happiness. So maybe we should re-state the statement above as:
Pursuing individual happiness will never make you Truly happy – just temporarily happy.
I was listening to Catholic Answers the other day and a woman called in to ask a question about what constitutes a valid marriage. Her question revolved around the fact that due to a disability she would be unable to complete the marital act, but would still very much like to participate in the sacrament of marriage. She was dumbfounded by the Church’s stance that a marriage must be consummated in order to be valid. She couldn’t understand why the Church would prevent her from experiencing the happiness of a marriage relationship along with whatever other forms of sexual pleasure may be available to her and her spouse aside from actual intercourse.
The apologist calmly and sympathetically explained the Church’s position that human sexuality is never merely about personal sexual gratification, but rather about the complete giving of the man and the woman to each other in a way that is both unitive and open to the procreative purpose of the sexual act (I discuss the purpose of human sexuality at length in a post titled Homosexual, Heterosexual, or just plain Human?). In other words both marriage and sex have a purpose which is much larger than individual happiness. According to Scripture marriage also represents a reality that is much larger than an individual relationship – namely that of Christ and His Church.14
It is precisely because marriage is representative of Christ’s relationship with His Church that it is so essential that the two become one flesh and are able to fully give of themselves to each other – the image must reflect the greater reality. This is not to say that an unmarried couple cannot live together chastely as “brother and sister” enjoying a loving relationship, a shared home, and common goals, but this wouldn’t be marriage.
The woman on the phone was very upset that the Church would deny her right to marriage and happiness. I empathized with her feelings, but I disagreed with her position.
A Reality Check
We don’t have a right to happiness. Or marriage. Or children. Or a home. Or wealth. Or health. The Sacraments don’t exist to make us happy, but rather to help us to conform ourselves to the very image and nature of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”15 And again, lest you think that I am being unnecessarily harsh, I would refer you to the massively un-popular sayings of Christ above.
We are not called to happiness but to holiness; and I’m sorry, but Victoria Osteen is just plain wrong when she claims that, “When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God…we’re doing it for ourselves. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy, that’s the thing that give Him the greatest joy.”
Our happiness is not what gives God the greatest pleasure. Our obedience is. Even when it’s hard. Even when it doesn’t make us happy. We are called to become the very creatures that we were created to be, and then to become something more – actual sons and daughters of God. Partakers in Christ’s divine life and glory. We are called to happiness and to joy superabundant – but not necessarily the happiness offered by this life. Rather we are being called to our true home, a new life, and an unutterable joy.
Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.
The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord abides for ever.”
That word is the good news which was preached to you.16
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