The world presents happiness as the ultimate good, and the pursuit of happiness as the ultimate human right. Philosophers extol happiness as the greatest virtue, and a famous and powerful nation was founded to serve its attainment.1 Yet experience shows us that direct pursuit of happiness leaves an aftertaste of misery.
We can all see the self-destructive forces of the vain pursuit of happiness in lives of drug-fuelled, sex-saturated actors and entertainers. We can all see the sheer emptiness of soul that inhabits the corner offices of the faceless and soulless international corporations that pursue unbridled access to money, wealth and power. But even the personal aim to “be our best,” “realise our dreams” or “change the world” gives but a few years of optimism, ultimately leading to challenging crises about the meaning and purpose of life.
Unrestrained pursuit of ambition, self-fulfilment, money, fame, sex or power has already been tried—over and over. Never has it resulted in anything anyone ever calls, “lasting happiness.” Although this is the highest good the world presents us, its inglorious outcome shouldn’t come as any great surprise.
After all, it’s a story that’s been tried many, many times before. Scripture even contains an entire book exploring the meaninglessness in life for a person who truly “had it all.” This man had scientific knowledge, technical skill, wisdom, wealth, power, unlimited pleasure and unrestrained sexual license … and discovered that life without limits degenerates into utter meaninglessness.
So the wisdom of the world is proven by experience to be foolishness. Each generation comes with fresh idealism thinking that they finally will be the ones to “crack the code”—they’ve seen the mistakes of their parents and know the anti-dote. Yet each attempt ultimately results in disillusioning failure. The direct pursuit of happiness results in rare moments of fleeting self-satisfaction at best; and in utter, meaningless despair at worst.
And never has the pursuit of happiness even hoped to attain to the heights of joy. For while happiness fleetingly slips through one’s fingers, joy is a siren song emerging from a purified heart. The journey to lasting joy is most indirect.
What Jesus showed us
What Solomon attempted to gain by direct attack, Jesus gained through a seemingly roundabout path. While Solomon burdened some to magnify his glory, Jesus laid aside His glory to unburden many. While Solomon served his own pleasure, Jesus obeyed the will of Another. While Solomon indulged every pleasure of the heart, Jesus endured the cross and despised its shame.
Jesus shows us the path to Joy. He found Joy on the other side of the cross. Jesus found Joy on the other side of suffering and shame. Yet Jesus despised this shame and found Joy in the faithful embrace of the Father of all.
Jesus is the “the author and perfecter of faith, Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus mapped out the path. He perfected it. He showed us how to travel it together with Him. For the place of Joy is discovered on the other side of godly sorrow.
The path of repentance
While Jesus endured public shame, humiliation and a tortured death; He calls us to a path of repentance. For we have all fallen short of the glory God intended for us.
Our nature is disordered. We were intended for stability in the face of a storm, yet all we can manage is to ping-pong between greed and fear. We each contribute our own share of sin-sickness to the world. We have our own fears, greed, envies, petty jealousies, hatreds and sense of being wronged. It’s like environmental pollution: we breathe in contamination; and breathe out our own pollution.
God calls us to experience the pain, suffering and humiliation that comes from admitting our sin-sickness. He calls us to lay aside our demand that the world treat us fairly. To be emptied of our false desires and to realise they were mere fleeting fantasies whose origin was not of our choosing anyway. Godly repentance brings godly sorrow that inevitably leads us to repentance.
The joy-creating sorrow
Godly sorrow is a bright sadness that brings with it a healing flame that purifies and fuses together the broken pieces of our soul.
God appoints tools for our repentance. He appoints worship that brings us face-to-face with Himself; for when we see Him as He is, then we are grieved at how we are. He appoints penitential services that we may be convicted of our inherent unworthiness. He appoints the Mystery of Baptism to cleanse, purify and re-birth us. He appoints the Mystery of Chrismation that we may be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. He appoints the Mystery of Holy Repentance, that we may be certain God has heard our confession and forgiven our great and many sins. He appoints the Mystery of Holy Unction for the healing of soul and body. And He appoints the Great and Terrible Mystery of Holy Eucharist for the purifying fire of God to enflame us, reuniting us with Himself.
Christ’s Journey to Joy was found the other side of the cross. Our Journey to Joy is found by retracing Christ’s steps in the bright joy-creating sorrow of repentance. Our Journey is found through willing participation in the Mysteries of the Church. It is found through navigating the lenten trial and arriving at the beginning of Holy Week shorn of our pretensions, shorn of our follies, shorn of our many and fleeting hopes and dreams; instead being confronted by the holiness of God. The pretension of who we thought we were is crushed, yet we also know that Christ walked this path because He loves each one of us uniquely.
Christ is the true Lover of Mankind, and He wants to set us free from everything that enslaves us. Christ wants to set us free from our passions: our feeble wants, hopes and desires. Christ wants to set us free from the advancement of sin in our lives. He wants to set us free from our guilty conscience. He wants to set us free from the fear of death. He wants to bring us into the glory of the Kingdom of God, which has been prepared for us, is awaiting us, and and is ready to welcome us in as true-born heirs of the King of Kings.
Enter into the Church and wash away your sins. For here there is a hospital and not a court of law. Do not be ashamed again to enter the Church, be ashamed when you sin, but not when you repent.
— St. John Chrysostom
Join us as we all-together pursue the Journey to Joy.
Congregation of The Good Shepherd Orthodox Church, Clayton, Melbourne
1. It is important to note we are addressing the “pursuit of happiness” in the sense most currently understood today. The framers of the American Declaration of Independence did not actually mean what people take that phrase to mean today. To learn what the framers meant by this phrase, see The Meaning of “THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS”.