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The Pursuit of Happiness

September 25, 2012

Recently, I got into a rather large argument with my wife about contentment, happiness, and depression, and how these things are represented in the bible. How can we be content? How can we achieve happiness? How can we prevent ourselves from slipping into depression when our goals aren’t reached? How can we expect the poor and the downtrodden to live happily when they have next to nothing, living in a box, or on the street after being turned away by a shelter that has no rooms to give them? More importantly, how can a person have goals, yet still be content with what they have? And, how can a person steel themselves against the sin of material gain? As it turns out the argument was only an argument because of the differences in our two upbringings and how the word “goals” is used in contemporary society today.

It’s no secret that the world is full of greed, the love of money and material objects. The bible gives us many examples of how this love of money is detrimental to our spiritual health and happiness. Those who lust for more money inevitable fall into spiritual decline. Many of us actually still believe the old phrase that “money buys happiness”. Yet, how many times can we change the channel, open a magazine, or read a newspaper without seeing an article or story about a famous Hollywood couple getting a divorce, sometimes with children caught in the middle. And with that divorce comes a mountain of media attention and possible slander that serves to only exacerbate the situation. And while these two may have the money to drag this divorce and custody issues into a lengthy and most likely public trial, which one of these two is actually happy about going through it?

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Mark 8:36. Money is not permanent. Money doesn’t go with you when you are gone. Money can lose value, become worthless. A man who works hard, goes to college, gets a degree, a great blooming career path, and a large five bedroom home is considered a great man in this society. He builds himself up by the sweat of his brow, asks for no charity, builds his life one step at a time until he’s reached the top, king of the hill! Throughout it all, his teachers, his parents, his peers, cheer him on, tell him how great of a job he’s doing with his life, how wonderful it is to see him succeeding where others fail, how amazing it is to see such commitment, such tenacity, to see him reach for the stars and not come back down until he’s got a handful! As the years pass on and his wealth grows, he surrounds himself with things that make him happy. A large LCD TV hanging on the wall above his marble fireplace, a complete stainless steel kitchen with an island and attached breakfast nook with an amazing view of the ocean, a full basement with all the trimmings, complete with his own game room and exercise area, two brand new cars, one for fun, one practical, both worth more than most peoples homes. It becomes important to him that he loses none of it, so he works even harder, accepting overtime, holiday pay. He spends every day watching the news, listening to hushed conversation in the break room about the middle class suddenly falling into poverty, losing their homes to lay offs or natural disasters, some without the education or opportunity to replace their jobs, or without the money to replace their home. He hears the stories of entire trailer complexes or apartment buildings being evicted because the owners have to sell or foreclose. He doesn’t worry though. His life has been one of privilege, his dad an ivy league partner at a successful law firm, his mother a programmer for IBM. He slacked some in high school, his party days, but his parents paid his way through college, his dad gave him a job at his firm when he graduated. He was set, nothing to worry about. The concerns of the poor were not his concerns. He built his life all on his own, and he would keep it all on his own. If the poor had only gone to college and worked hard instead of sitting around living off welfare and buying booze and cigarettes then they wouldn’t be in that position in the first place. And then, several years later, the CEO of his dad’s firm is sued for misrepresentation in an important case. After the trial, the firm is slandered in the local media, and they lose clients. After a few years, the company downsized to only a handful of partners and attorneys, and moved from their spacious high-rise to a more modest two story location closer to the suburbs. A string of losses by one of their best known partners further cements their public image as incompetent. More clients leave, more lay offs occur. Within another year, the CEO has to sell the company to save what little he has left. To save money, he fires all his employees, sells his stock, and takes off out of town. Even though this man worked hard his whole life, even though he has surrounded himself with all the things he ever wanted, he now stands to lose them all. His reputation from partnership with a slandered law firm follows him, and obtaining a new job proves difficult. His savings start to dry up and he’s forced to sell some of his things. He starts small, a TV here, a piece of furniture there, but eventually, once his mortgage payments were months behind, he’s forced to sell his car, his electronics, and downgrade to a smaller home. Eventually he’s given a job as a public defender, but the pay won’t cover his new house payments. Forced to move again into a smaller area, he has to get rid of even more of his things. The debt begins to pile up in his wake. He moves into a small one bedroom apartment in a shady part of town. After a few months, his remaining car is vandalized, and his apartment robbed. The last of his savings is spent on a used vehicle for work, but his insurance wouldn’t cover all the damages to the vehicle and the dealer is demanding payment on the rest of the loan. Soon his wages are garnished for his unpaid home loans. He watches and reads now, the stories of the poor and downtrodden, living as they are, seeing them on the streets huddled together with their loved ones, and realizing that through his entire life, he never stopped working and gaining to give time to building a family of his own. He had no one to love, no one to love him, no kids to brighten his day. He was completely alone. He turned to alcohol as an answer to numb himself to it, losing his job the day he was too hungover to show up to court. Later, he is evicted from his apartment for failure to pay rent. Suffering from alcohol dependency, he moves into a hotel room with his last paycheck.

Tragic story isn’t it? Of course I could go on, but I don’t really think I need to. And I’m certainly not condemning anyone with this story either. Merely, I am using this as an example to show how quickly material things and money can just disappear and leave you with nothing. And there are many ways this story could have gone. After all, his mother might have been able to help him as she still kept her job, but how much help? Could he move in with her and her dad? He had lost his job too. Could his mother support the both of them? Could her income maintain what she and his father had built together? Probably not. Perhaps his parents would pass on and leave him an inheritance. That is if it isn’t eaten up trying to survive, or from funeral costs that life insurance didn’t cover. And besides, is that REALLY an answer? Waiting for your parents to die to receive a wad of cash that will answer all your problems? “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” – 1 Timothy 6:9-10. It is incredibly easy to fall into the trap of wanting more and more. In fact we are wired that way. It is one of the temptations we must daily face, and it is why the love of money is the root of many of our failings. “And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.” – Mark 4:19. The love of money makes us forget our love of Jesus. Perhaps, then, money is not the answer to happiness. God thinks no less of you for not having a six figure bank account. Money is not important to God. And it shouldn’t be to you. Those with money shouldn’t look down upon those that don’t. And those that don’t should not envy those that do have money.

For how can a rich man look at a poor man and berate him for not going to college and getting a career? Perhaps that man did not have the opportunities of the other growing up. Perhaps his family lived in poverty, perhaps he was homeschooled and couldn’t take advantage of public school scholarships for college. Perhaps his father was an alcoholic, or abusive. Maybe he was assaulted as a child, publicly humiliated. Maybe he turned to alcohol for the answer and became dependent on it. Maybe he couldn’t get the help he needed to get a jump start on life. Maybe he simply made a few bad mistakes that landed him on the street. Who could judge him? The rich man and the poor man will both stand naked before God’s judgement in the end. If they both face the same fate, how can one possibly think themselves better than the other simply because of a fatter wallet?

I spoke earlier about the argument I had with my wife about happiness and goals. She said to me that I needed to be content with what I have. But that it was still ok to set goals. Now, here was the root of my confusion, and I told her so. How can I possibly be content and still have goals? Just the fact that I HAVE goals, means that I’m not happy with what I have. After all, if I was happy with what I have, why would I even need to set goals, why would I want to? My wife was taught that goals were “wants”, not needs. That it was ok to want something, but if you didn’t get it, you need not fret about it. As long as your needs are being met, there is no reason not to be content and happy with your life. I, on the other hand, was taught that goals were basically “needs”. If you set a goal, you stop at nothing to achieve it because you simply aren’t happy with what you have. Therefore, you need those goals met so that you can achieve happiness. You can see where this would lead to a difference in opinion. However, the way she was taught is the proper way of thinking, and exactly what scripture tell us.

Our needs are always being met. “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.” – Matthew 6:31-32. God knows what we need and will provide for us. We need not concern ourselves with our needs. Clothing, shelter, food. God will provide us with all these things. Anything else is a “want” not a “need”. Our love of Jesus is the secret to contentment. Our families, the love of our wives or husbands and our children can bring us endless joy. What else is more important than that? “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” – 1 Timothy 6:7-8. As you can see, nothing can bring us happiness apart from our needs being met. Wanting more will not lead to more happiness. For “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also a vanity.” – Ecclesiastes 5:10. When you love money, then you never have enough. You will never be satisfied with your income. In the end, one verse in scripture sums up contentment perfectly. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – Psalms 23:1. Jesus is your only need. Jesus is your only way to happiness. Under his care, you will want for nothing.

Which will you choose? Jesus or wealth? Jesus is our only path to happiness. And we all want to be happy, that too is wired into us. After the argument with my wife, I came to finally understand her way of thinking and undo the damage my teachers and my mother had done to me while I was growing up. I actually have a relevant quote ready for this post from the movie “Dodgeball”. It was spoken by Vince Vaughn. “I find that if you have a goal, you might not reach it. But if you don’t, then you are never disappointed. And I gotta say, it feels phenomenal.” Taken in context, Mr. Vaughn was referring to laziness and a general sense of completely not caring about much of anything. However, when you watch the movie, we notice that Mr. Vaughn’s character is facing several utility disconnect notices, a takeover and buyout of his gym, a broken down car, and the possible loss of everything that he has. Yet he consistently makes his way through the entire movie under an aura of complete contentment. In a way, his quote sums up scripture, and the proper way of looking at goals. It’s ok to want things. But it isn’t ok to let the pursuit of those things control and ruin your life. Don’t look at goals as needs, or paths to happiness. Look at them as things you would like to achieve or obtain, but be content with what you have. Enjoy it! Enjoy your family!! Enjoy your time at church with Jesus!! Just enjoy life!! It is a gift from God that you even exist! Take advantage of it and rise up to live it!!

Published by Jay McAnally
Copyright © 2012

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