The Pursuit of Happiness

I read a book recently that said the goal most people have set for themselves and their children is to live the good life. And the good life is defined as a life of happiness. The book goes on to say that a radio talk show host had interviewed hundreds of people over the course of a few years asking the question: “What did your parents want most for you – success, wealth, to be a good person, or happiness?” Eighty-five percent said “happiness.”

Obviously, being happy is a high priority for a majority of people. In fact happiness is so important that our Founding Fathers believed that the pursuit of happiness was a divine right ranked right up there with life and liberty.

Listen to these words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

So, how’s your pursuit for happiness going? Have you found happiness? That probably depends on what you think happiness is. The modern definition of happiness is experiencing pleasurable satisfaction, feeling really good, and being stoked inside. However, when the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, about 240 years ago declaring the pursuit of Happiness an unalienable right, happiness referred to virtue and character. That means happiness involved suffering, endurance, and patience because it’s through suffering, endurance, and patience that one becomes a good person and is able to enjoy life.

That might sound contradictory. How can happiness come out of suffering or enduring hardship or being patient?

To answer that question let’s begin with how Jesus told those who desired to follow Him must live.

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul’” (Matthew 16:24-26 NASU)?

Jesus Christ, the wisest man who ever lived, has revealed to us that the secret to living life as God created us to live it is by denying self.

But this is the exact opposite of what the world tells us. Books, magazines, TV shows, and movies scream at us that the way to enjoy life and get the most out of it is to do indulge in whatever activities our desires lead us to. If it feels good do it. And it anyone even dares suggest that what you’re doing is wrong just quote Matthew 7:1…

“Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1 NASU).

That will shut most people up because they do not know how to properly response those words. So, if you don’t know anything about the Bible just memorize that verse and go on with your happy life.

But for anyone who has made pleasurable satisfaction or feeling really good – the world’s definition of happiness – his goal in life it soon becomes apparent doing whatever you want to do when you want to do it sooner or later gives birth, not to happiness, but to depression, a loss of purpose in life, and brokenness. Why?

The book of Proverbs in the Bible gives us a hint. In it is a verse that says…

“Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, nor are the eyes of man ever satisfied” (Proverbs 27:20 NASU).

Sheol and Abaddon were names for the place of the dead. Sheol was sometimes translated as “grave” or “pit”. It was a place of gloom and darkness and shadows.

The proverb is teaching us that death comes to everyone; no one is exempt and as long as there is life Sheol and Abaddon crave to take that life because it is never satisfied.

And just as Sheol and Abaddon never get full regardless of how many people die, the eye never gets full regardless of how much it sees and the ear never gets full regardless of how much it hears.

What I mean is this: You can look at pornography one day and think you’ll never look at it again because your eye is full – so to speak. But what happens? Your eye seeks it next fix. The appetite of the mind, which the eye feeds, is never satisfied. You can listen to hours of gossip until you’re exhausted and think you will never listen to that again because your ear is full – again, so to speak. But what happens? You find yourself straining to hear the latest dirt someone is saying about others. The appetite of desiring the failure or humiliation of another in an attempt to exalt ourselves is never satisfied.

In 1870 a man named John D. Rockefeller started Standard Oil. That company made him a billionaire. Relatively speaking he was wealthier than Bill Gates. Yet, he was driven to make more and more money. In an interview Rockefeller once was asked how many more dollars he needed before he was satisfied. He then answered…

“Just one more dollar”.

But John D. Rockefeller is not unique. Three thousand years before he was born there was a man who was not only as rich as he was, but he had a lot more power. That man was King Solomon, the man who wrote the Proverb we just read.

Materially speaking there was nothing Solomon couldn’t buy. For him money was literally no obstacle. And being a king he had power over the lives of his subjects; nobody told him “no”. He lived in wealth and luxury. If he wanted something he simply got it. But he wasn’t a happy man. We know that because he wrote a book of the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes.

Listen to some of what he says in this book.

“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8 ESV).

That sounds a lot like the verse from Proverbs we quoted earlier doesn’t it? But that shouldn’t be surprising. You see King Solomon wrote both Ecclesiastes and most of Proverbs.

Solomon goes on to express his lack of happiness in spite of being unimaginably wealthy and very powerful.

“All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 NASU).

When Solomon said…

“All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 2:10 NASU)…

he wasn’t kidding. This man had 700 wives and 300 concubines (legal mistresses). He allowed himself to drown in pleasure, yet he wasn’t happy. If nothing else this reveals that engaging in sex outside of God’s design for marriage – which is between one man and one woman – doesn’t satisfy the longing with our hearts for intimacy. Listen to some more of what Solomon said…

“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10 ESV).

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them” (Eccl 6:1-2 ESV).

Solomon, the richest man who ever lived, a man who indulged every desire his body or mind craved in his pursuit for happiness didn’t find it. Why? Because he believed owning things and to be free to indulge any desire his body or mind had was the path to happiness. What he discovered was such a life lead to depression and emptiness.

Living for pleasurable satisfaction, living to feel really good, or living to be stoked inside – the world’s definition of happiness – requires us to take our eyes off of others and put them on us and keep them there. But when we do that we become empty, shallow people with dried-up souls that live in perpetual pity-parties where we blame others for our lot in life. In other words…

“When we make happiness the goal of our life we live as victims rather than overcomers.

But why does this happen? Listen again to these words of Jesus…

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul’” (Matthew 16:24-26 NASU)?

As human beings created in the image of God we are wired for more than happiness as the world defines happiness. We are created by God to honor Him by becoming spiritually mature members of the Kingdom of Heaven. We do this by seeking His Kingdom first before all things and that begins by taking our eyes off of ourselves and living for a purpose greater than ourselves.

The Apostle Paul spoke of those who refused to follow this teaching of Jesus. He said…

“For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19 NASU).

Did you get that? When we refuse to die to self and live primarily to satisfy the desires of our bodies and minds – pursuing happiness as defined by this fallen world – we have made our fleshly appetites our “god”. Our desires and appetites and emotions no longer serve us, but rather have become our master.

Desires and appetites and emotions make great servants, but terrible masters.

Jesus tells us in John 10:10…

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV).

I like the way the Amplified Bible puts this…
“I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows)” (John 10:10 AMP).

And how does one take hold of this abundant life? Obey the words of the One who came to give you this abundant life. Let’s repeat:

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul’” (Matthew 16:24-26 NASU)?

There’s an episode of the old “Twilight Zone” TV series entitled, “A Nice Place to Visit”. I encourage everyone listening to or reading this sermon to watch it because it speaks what I have been saying about the pursuit of happiness loudly and clearly.
The gist of the show is this: A man is gunned down and killed by the police while attempting to flee from them, just having robbed a business. But in the next scene this “dead” man, lying on the ground, wakes up and a man dressed all in white is standing beside him. As it turns out this robber had been killed and the man in white was there to show him to his new living quarters.

These quarters are lavishly furnished with expensive furniture, decorations, and a closet full of expensive clothes. But that’s just the beginning of the pleasures he is not just freely given, but encouraged to indulge himself in by the man dressed in white.

Soon, some women join him in his apartment. He said he now knows he’s in Heaven. Shortly after that he goes to a casino accompanied by the women, driving a brand new and very expensive car. Gambling was something that brought him happiness when he was alive.

While in the casino he can’t lose. No matter what type of gambling he engages in – roulette wheel, blackjack, slot machine – he wins – every time. He is having the time of his life, gambling and winning while the women surround him, watching him.

He returns to his living quarters a happy man. But something is beginning to cast a dark shadow over him. His happiness is beginning to fade. All of a sudden a pool table appears in his living quarters. He is ecstatic to have a new game to play. He excitedly rakes the balls, places the cue ball on the opposite end of the table, pulls back the cue stick and strikes the cue ball. The cue ball hits the other balls and every one of them – every one – goes into a pocket; one hit, fifteen balls go down. It’s a shot every pool player on earth dreams about. But not this guy, not this guy who was living in the lap of luxury, not this guy whose every desire – except one – would be fulfilled instantly. Instead of being thrilled with his miraculous pool shot, he broke the cue stick. Why? Because the one thing, the one desire that the man in white couldn’t (wouldn’t) fulfill was to let this thief fail – at anything.

The thief began to realize that having every pleasure fulfilled and instant success a certainty didn’t make him happy.

When he came to that realization, along with the realization that this was Heaven and this lifestyle would go on for all eternity, he told the man dressed in white he thought a mistake had been made. He had been questioning more and more how a person of his evil character could have gotten into Heaven at all and came to the conclusion that he didn’t really belong in Heaven; he belonged in “the other place”. Hearing this the man dressed in white sternly looked at the thief and said…

“Heaven? What makes you think this is Heaven? This is the other place.” And he began to laugh a diabolical laugh that became louder and louder as the thief realized no mistake had been made and that an eternity of “happiness” lay before him. He was right where he belonged.

While we may have an unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness as we read in the Declaration of Independence we discover that that pursuit is only successful when we lay down our lives for others. You see…

“Happiness doesn’t come from looking in the mirror; it comes when we put down the mirror and see Jesus.

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