Does the Creator promise us life, liberty, and happiness? No. According to the United States of America, we deserve only the right to pursue happiness. And many of us do so inconsistently, even poorly, even in those few categories where some agree what happiness should look like.
Recently, Paul Louis Metzger quoted Augustine of Hippo at length regarding the mistaken pursuits of happiness, offering that “Some of us grieve over not obtaining happiness. Others of us think we have achieved it, but we are deceived. Others of us have the proper object of happiness, but we fail to realize it.” You can read the full quote, and the post in which it appears here. But Augustine describes three categories of those seeking happiness. The tortured seek happiness in what they cannot obtain. The cheated achieve what ultimately proves not to make them happy. And the diseased decline to seek for happiness at all.
But the questions all this raises for me are these: First, can happiness even be sought? And second, if happiness could be sought, how would one go about doing so?
In The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus pronounces the sentence of blessing or happiness over eight categories of persons whom we would hardly identify as happy: the spiritually impoverished, the bereaved, the gentle, those who long for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
The impulse to ask, “Seriously?!” comes from the place that recognizes these pronouncements as being what Metzger labels as “counterintuitive.” Certainly we should question whether any sane person would seek to be in any of these categories. But we would be wise to wonder whether anyone even could seek to do so. Part of being “pure in heart” would be the absence of any striving to purify ourselves, relying instead on the sanctifying (holy-making) work of God through the Holy Spirit. Trying to be peacemakers often prompts us to competitively impose our own sense of peace on others. Simply longing for righteousness necessarily reveals the empty void that remains unfilled.
I consider these issues today from a hospital room. It is one into which I worked very hard to be admitted, even though I am not the patient. The patient and I were nearly barred from it, due to circumstances entirely beyond our control. The reason this applies to our consideration of blessedness, happiness, and The Beatitudes, is that our present location, where my wife is recovering from knee-replacement surgery, is a direct result of taking control of the circumstances. Here is the briefest of explanations.
Over the past eighteen months of watching my wife struggle with the damage and painfully deteriorating effects of a pair of falls, relief has been repeatedly delayed by a variety of factors. Finally, though, the requirements of insurers, employers, and the medical community seemed to have been met. Yesterday, surgery was supposed to be just a couple of hours away. Unfortunately, when the surgical staff began to review the records provided, there were some unanswered questions. Without going into detail, suffice to say that some of the information provided was for the wrong patient, some was simply unreadable due to the grainy quality of the faxes sent, and most importantly there was no mention of an ongoing condition that, since it appeared to be a recent development, resulted in the fateful pronouncement, “No, we can’t do surgery today. You should get dressed and go home, and we’ll see what we can do about rescheduling once we resolve what’s going on with this.”
If you read much of what I write, you know that I believe strongly in patient advocacy. That is, I occasionally practice advocacy on behalf of patients, not that I am patient in my advocacy. Again, to shorten the tale, with the surgical staff unable to elicit a response from the clinicians in our community, I called the lab at the hospital in our area and explained in very direct terms (in keeping with Ephesians 4:29) what records they needed to fax to which number. The information arrived within minutes, it provided the information the surgeon and hospitalist needed, and all this resulted in my wife’s surgery being performed just a few hours later than had been planned.
To misuse Augustine’s categories, I pursued an outcome of which my wife was nearly cheated, during circumstances in which she was emotionally tortured (not least by the multiple errors that compounded the frustrations of previous complications from similar miscommunications), opening questions of just how diseased our system has become despite the interlinked network of electronic medical records that prevent rather than provide greater access and clarity with regard to essential patient information.
More to the point, however, we are happy. Blessed, even. The pain my wife experiences today, and in the coming days, is the pain of recovery, rehabilitation, and physical therapy toward the restoration of abilities she has missed for more than eighteen months. But had the surgery been postponed, or cancelled, or unsuccessful, Jesus says we would still be blessed. And I do believe Him. Even from our narrowly limited perspective, despite our initial feeling of “all this happening for no reason,” we began to see possible reasons, outcomes, and purposes in the tumultuous few hours, and the potential for greater and longer endurance being required.
So, can happiness be pursued? No. Because I did get what my wife and I wanted, yet only after it was nearly yanked away from her. And in the pursuit, I was happy. Why? Well, the better question would be, “How?”
In the midst of all of this, there was the belief that none of this caught God by surprise. He knew where we were. He knew what records needed sent. He knew what the outcome of the day would be. And He had already arranged to have all of it work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). I feel secure in being included in that promise. And that makes me very blessed.