Go a New Direction
Some years ago, on a 99 degree September day in San Antonio, Texas, a 10-month-old baby girl got locked, accidentally, in a parked car by her aunt. Frantically the mother and the aunt ran around the car in near hysteria while a neighbor tried to pry the lock with a clothes hanger. By the time Fred Arriola, a wrecker driver, happened upon the scene, the child was turning purple and was beginning to foam at her mouth. It had become a life-or-death situation. Fred grabbed a hammer and smashed the back window of the car to set her free. Rather than being heralded as a hero, though, Fred was criticized. He explained, “The lady was mad at me because I broke the window. I just thought, What’s more important—the baby or the window?”
Sometimes we get mixed up over what truly matters. Sometimes a mom and an aunt worry more about the pristine appearance of a car than the life of a child. And sometimes we worry more about our status in the world and our happiness than with the health and life of our soul.
The people of Jesus’ day faced the same confusion over priorities in life, so Jesus presented His disciples with a correcting view of life. In a nutshell, at the opening to what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives to His disciples not a list of things that might make a person happy but a description of things that will lead to a fulfilling life.
Dr. Donald Hagner points out, “Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t seem very interested in happiness. English translations hardly employ the words ‘happy’ or ‘happiness.’ A perfectly good Greek word, eudaimonia, meaning ‘happiness,’ was available but is not used by a single New Testament writer. Another Greek word, one that seems indispensable to the description of Hollywood happiness is hedone, ‘pleasure.’ This word occurs in the New Testament only a few times, always negatively. Luke 8:14, for example, refers to seeds that are ‘choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.’ Happiness, in the sense that it is usually understood, apparently seems from the New Testament perspective to be altogether too much of a preoccupation with the self.
“The Bible has another vocabulary, a more elevated one, for words such as ‘blessedness’ and ‘joy.’ While in the Old Testament blessedness is sometimes related to material matters, in the main it designates as blessed the person who knows and fears God, who considers the poor, and does justice and righteousness. Blessedness is for the most part directed away from the self. Blessedness is the product of what God has done and our participation in that.”
Jesus calls us to something higher than the pursuit of happiness because the pursuit of happiness does not actually lead to happiness. Tim Keller comments, “On January 7, 2007, the New York Times Magazine ran an interesting article called ‘Happiness 101.’ It described positive psychology, a branch of psychology that seeks to take a scientific, empirical approach to what makes people happy. Researchers in this field have found that if you focus on doing and getting things that give you pleasure, it does not lead to happiness but produces what one researcher has dubbed ‘the hedonic treadmill.’ You become addicted to pleasure, and your need for the pleasure fix keeps growing: You have to do more and more. You’re never satisfied, never really happy.” (King’s Cross, p. 149)
For this reason, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount not with a list of things that will make a person happy but with a description of things that pull us toward faith and compassion and humility and goodness:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…. Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake….”