WORD FROM THE PASTOR
Happiness in the New Year
“Happy New Year!” is the greeting that typically rings out when the clock hands touch midnight (or, in a digital age, when the numbers reach 12:00) to usher in Jan. 1.
Unfortunately, the happiness we wish one another often tends to be elusive. I once asked a relative of mine if he was happy; and his response was, “I’m on the way.” Most of us would agree with that: we’re on the way, but haven’t arrived. Interestingly, the Declaration of Independence promises us, not happiness itself, but “the pursuit of happiness”. And sometimes happiness runs really fast, and we feel continually outdistanced in the pursuit. Life can sometimes seems like a greyhound race, with us as the hounds and happiness as the mechanical rabbit that stays always out of reach. The one difference: greyhounds retire and get adopted, while our race toward happiness never seems to end.
Ultimately, the only genuine happiness is found in God. “In thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11) He made us in His own image, so that we can live in His friendship and fellowship forever. The Christian diagnosis of unhappiness is well expressed in the great prayer of St. Augustine: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” While we’re chasing the mechanical rabbit, God is chasing us. And true happiness comes, not when we catch the rabbit, but when God catches us and makes us His own.
Time magazine recently published an interesting article on happiness, in which Gregg Easterbrook examines why people today tend to be dissatisfied with life. On the surface, there seems to be no reason for unhappiness: we have more conveniences and affluence than at any other time in history. Yet there is a nagging discontent. Easterbrook points to several reasons for that discontent. I’d like briefly to look at some of his diagnoses for unhappiness, then offer a Christian “prescription” for happiness.
The revolution of satisfied expectations. A generation ago, most Americans lived in small houses, owned at most one car, and sent few of their children to college--but were generally happy, because they looked toward a better future. Now, for many families, the better future has arrived--a larger home, more (and bigger) vehicles, college for the kids. Because we have so much already, we can’t expect much more–so that sense of a better future is gone. “The expectation that each new year will be notably better than the last, once deeply ingrained in the American psyche, is fading,” Easterbrook declares.
For the believer, though, our hope for the future doesn’t fade. Because our hope ultimately doesn’t mean dreaming of more cars in the garage. It means moving toward the wonderful future that God has planned for us--a future of walking with Him every day in this life, and living with Him forever in the next. As 2004 dawns, we rejoice in God’s promise: “I have plans for you...to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Catalog induced anxiety. Easterbrook points out that television lets us glimpse close-up the “lifestyles of the rich and famous”. “People can see, in agonizing detail, all the expensive things they will never possess. This may make what a typical person possesses seem insufficient, even if the person is one of the tens of millions of Americans living, by the standards of history, in unprecedented comfort and freedom.”
Comparing ourselves to others is always risky-- we almost inevitably will end up dissatisfied. (The grass is always greener...) Holy Scripture talks a lot about contentment–about appreciating the things we have: “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 5:8) Someone once said, “The key to life isn’t having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.” The closer we are to God, the closer we are to contentment; as the Psalmist said, “There is nothing upon earth that I desire besides Thee” (Psalm 73:25).
The choice penalty. A Bruce Springsteen character sings about growing up in a place where “they bring you up to do like your daddy did”. But that era is gone–today we have an explosion of choices when it comes to career, where we live, whom we marry. This freedom often leads to terrible self-doubt--did I make the right choice? Should I have chosen another path, another place?
Christians can take wondrous comfort in one of the most beloved verses in the Bible: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). In other words, even if I make a questionable choice, God can bring a blessing out of it. I don’t have to be captive to agonized second-guessing about the path I have chosen through life. Even if I’ve made, from the human point of view, some mistakes, God still can take my lemons and make lemonade.
From material want to meaning want. Even when we have a high standard of living, people still feel an “inner pang on the question of whether their lives have purpose,” Easterbrook says. But “a sense of meaning is much more difficult to acquire than material possessions.”
The Christian message gives our lives a deep sense of purpose: to live with God in a relationship of love in this life and the next. The love of Jesus gives our lives value: we are worth so much to Him that He shed His precious blood for us! Our “meaning want” is filled when we think upon “the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
The Time article is fruitful for New Year’s reflection–because it reminds us that a “Happy New Year” does not consist in more possessions, more prosperity, more choices. These things can bring discontents of their own. No, a “happy new year” is one in which we draw near to God who in Christ has drawn near to us. A happy new year is not one in which we chase the mechanical rabbit of happiness, but one in which we keep our eyes focused upon Jesus Christ, who loves us, who died for us, who lives to pour God’s joy into our lives. He is our happiness.
May you truly have a happy new year! God loves you and so do I!