To my knowledge, last week was the first time an atheist accepted a blessing from me. It wasn’t my usual blessing in the name of the Trinity, and it wasn’t particularly prayerful given our lack of shared belief. I simply said, “May God use you as a vessel of love and grace in your daily life and work.” Or something like that. It was heartfelt, but as an atheist, he wasn’t actually interested in receiving a blessing. He was interested in my experience of giving one.
This man was an expert on happiness, specifically happiness at work. He said that people who are only focused on amassing, attaining and achieving are too inward looking to be happy. (I agreed.) In contrast, I was serving others rather than myself, which creates happiness in my life. Then he asked to take a picture of me standing next to my sign. Maybe I’ll show up in his next presentation. (Actually, I turned up in this blog post, "I Got Blessed in NYC.")
This happiness expert is right. I am happy in my work, and offering prayers on the street is almost always a highlight of my week. But for Christians, happiness is more of a by-product than a goal. We model our lives after Jesus and we take up our cross. That’s the reason we serve others. It’s true that serving makes us feel good; quite often that feeling means we’re getting closer to God in the process. But sometimes it’s not about the good feeling at all. Sometimes God asks us to serve until it hurts.
I believe it was Mother Theresa who said that eventually, you go so deep into service and solidarity with those who are suffering, that you go beyond the pain it causes you. At that point, the only thing left is love. This is what she did for the impoverished in the slums of Calcutta. This is what God did for us all in Jesus Christ. This kind of love trumps happiness any day.
Nevertheless, we all want to be happy, and that’s perfectly fine. Happiness involves making time to do things we enjoy, which is a matter of spiritual health. It also involves gratitude and contentment, as well as meaningful work and connection with other people. But pursuing happiness is not the same thing as pursuing God. Pursuing happiness is a never ending journey that requires us to continually manage our circumstances to get what we want. Pursuing God, however, is like coming home to rest, for God is always pursuing us.