This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “Upside Down: Jesus’ Strange Way of Happiness,” coming (Lord willing) in spring 2018.
I just want to be happy; is that too much to ask for? It just so happens that I know exactly what happiness looks like, at least for me: sitting in my La-Z-Boy recliner chair with a large bacon and pepperoni pizza from Domino’s, an entire tray of chocolate chip cookies, endless Netflix binging, and no one to bother me. That’s it—nothing fancy, nothing expensive; just give me that sweet ecstasy of chain store pizza, chocolate, and streaming TV, and go away. That’s all I’m asking. Really, is that too much to ask for?
I’m willing to bet you have a good idea of what will make you happy, too. Maybe it involves, as one of my students informed me, a warm beach and a hot guy. Maybe it’s the freedom and resources to travel wherever you want, whenever you want, and see the world. Maybe you want lots of money, or lots of friends, or lots of cute clothes or cool cars. Maybe there’s just one thing, or person, or experience, that you think would finally break open the vault of happiness. Maybe you even have some noble goal like “world peace” or “a loving family.” Sure, I guess, whatever floats your boat. Good luck with that. While you’re working on world peace, I’ll be over here enjoying my pizza.
Every one of us is chasing happiness. Most of the time it looks civilized and refined, complete with little acceptable sins like gluttony and laziness (guilty!). Other times it looks out of control and dangerous, like sky diving or promiscuity. Occasionally it even looks noble and selfless, like serving in a soup kitchen or playing with your kids. Blaise Pascal, a 17th century philosopher and all-around smarty pants, put it this way:
“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
Yes, everyone seeks happiness- even the person who kills himself. Even suicide, Pascal understood, is a search for something better than what you’ve got now. (If you’re struggling for happiness so deeply that even killing yourself looks good, please talk to someone—I promise you that you’re not going to find the happiness you’re looking for that way).
This desire for happiness is the engine powering all of our decisions. Whether we think we’ve domesticated the desire or given it free rein, each of us is driven by a desperate, cavernous hunger for fulfillment, for satisfaction, for more. Our hearts are bottomless pits, and no matter how many experiences, relationships, or pizzas we toss down there, our hearts are never filled. Nothing is ever quite enough; even the best things aren’t sufficient to lean back and say, “Now I’ve arrived, now I’m complete.”
Of course, we all know that’s true, deep down. I know that the pizza, cookies, and Netflix won’t truly, ultimately satisfy me. Yeah, they’ll be delicious and entertaining, but I know that they’ll leave me fat, gassy, and bored. And yet here I am, sitting in front of the TV again, hoping that this time will scratch that soul-itch that I’ve never been able to reach.
As Albert Einstein allegedly said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” If so, lock me up, and lock the whole rest of the human race up too, because we’re completely bonkers. We keep trying the same old broken paths to happiness, with the same bummed out results. Like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill only to see it roll down over and over again, I keep reaching for the remote, hoping that one of these times I’ll pick up joy. It hasn’t happened yet, and it never will. It turns out the Rolling Stones were right: I can’t get no satisfaction.
It turns out that this universal human problem is one of the main themes of the Bible. Our never-ending quest for fulfillment, and what that has to do with the God who made us, flows through the storyline of the Bible, and culminates in the person of Jesus Christ, who showed up in history claiming to be that God who made us. He spoke unlike anyone ever spoke, with authority and power and gentleness, and did incredible miracles, raising the dead and healing the sick and welcoming the outcasts. And as he went along doing these amazing signs, he spoke of a strange new way of living, a way that seemed upside down and backwards to everyone listening. He claimed that the secret to greatness wasn’t about grabbing all you could, but rather giving it all away. He said that the first would be last and the last would be first. He said significance was defined by servanthood. He said that happiness started not with fullness, but with need.
It was upside-down and backwards and bizarre, and everyone knew it. It was as if spoke with a strange cadence that followed the beat of a previously-unheard drum. Some rejected him as an out-of-touch idealist, others feared him as a revolutionary and lunatic. But others—a precious few—heard the beat of his drum and realized that everything about him pulsated to a rhythm buried deep within their souls. Looking at his life was like looking through a crack in the world, and what they saw on the other side captured their hearts.
This book is all about looking through that crack in the world to the glorious reality on the other side. What we’ll see, if God will be pleased to open our eyes, will turn our lives upside down and inside out. So step up to Jesus’ strange and wonderful words, and look with me.