God and the pursuit of happiness

January 31st, 2023

We all want to be happy. And yet, if you dedicate your life to pursuing happiness, you’ll never be happy. This may seem like a contradiction to you. But prophets and theologians, philosophers and priests have been saying it for ages. Recently I heard a story that reminded me just how true their words have been.

Flying home from a business trip, a friend of mine overheard a conversation from the seats directly behind him. A man said something like, “My life is over. I’m nobody. I’m completely irrelevant.” The theme continued for much of the flight, despite a woman’s voice repeatedly offering reassurance that this simply wasn’t so.

As the plane emptied out, my friend got a glimpse of his fellow passenger. It was a seasoned, widely respected, high-level political appointee. As a result of a recent election, his current position would be coming to an end.

My friend was stunned by the man’s reaction. He hadn’t merely lost a job. A job that a person with his credentials and connections could be quickly replaced. His sense of self-worth seemed to have been utterly shattered.

As I listened to my friend tell this story, my heart went out to this unnamed guy. You see, I think I may understand where he was coming from.

Like many people, I had once interpreted the pursuit of happiness as a challenge to transform myself into somebody worthy of respect and affection. If I failed, I wasn’t just a loser. I was a contemptible nobody. 

To make matters worse, I was starting from what I perceived to be a significant deficit. We were working class. My divorced single mother was a grocery cashier who lived with her parents. She and my grandparents were immigrants with sketchy English skills. What I would learn years later is that no level of achievement would free me from the shame that repeatedly threatened to overtake me.

Some people dream of becoming billionaires or presidents, rock stars, big-time athletes, or media celebrities. They strive to accumulate the wealth, wield the power, or win the admiration that will finally bring their soul to rest. Until then, life is a ceaseless striving to be something we aren’t yet. To arrive. The problem is that you never really arrive so long as you believe that being lovable is something to strive for and achieve: 

  • Even when you’re a billionaire, there’s somebody with a few billion more. 
  • You can’t be everybody’s favorite president or always draw the biggest crowds, and eventually you’ll be out of office anyway. 
  • All sports records get surpassed. 
  • Even the most popular television shows are at the mercy of the current season’s ratings. 

If you spend your life trying to ensure your significance and assure yourself of your own worth through your accomplishments, the feeling of self-worth will always elude you. You will become addicted to striving, fear being found out as a fraud, resent being unappreciated, and continue to strike out at others to soothe your own misery. I think Jesus was getting at something like this when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). I take “poor in spirit” to mean that we are able to see an achievement-based sense of self-worth for the illusion that is. 

Somebody poor in spirit can write because writing is what you seem made to do. Publishing, getting good reviews, making the best-seller lists is beside the point. People poor in spirit don’t write, construct buildings, assume public office, or throw a ball to make themselves somebody. They lose themselves in something they seem to have been made to do. They don’t need to compete or compare themselves to others. They don’t spend enough time in front of the mirror to indulge in self-loathing. They shed a false and probably toxic image of themselves in order to become their true selves. They change their mind about themselves. And some of them do so by changing their mind about who God is. God is the one who loves because that’s who God is. They are God’s beloved—God’s blessed—no matter what.


This essay is adapted from A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth. Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. Since Lent is just around the corner (Feb. 22), you may be looking for a group or individual study. You can get a copy of the book through MinistryMatters right now!

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