Response: March 2015 Issue

A Spirituality Called Happiness

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount counters happiness as a market-driven product.

A Spirituality Called Happiness
Stacey Outwater signals her happiness during an annual youth camp sponsored by the Nome Community Center.

This Bible study appeared in the March 2015 issue of response magazine. To order back copies of this issue, please visit our e-store.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

-Matthew 5:1-11

Seated on an unnamed mountain, Jesus delivers his state-of-the-happiness address to a crowd of emotionally hungry and spiritually thirsty people. Seated on the slope of this unnamed mountain, the disciples and the crowd eagerly cluster around to listen. Jesus opens his speech with a positive note that captures the attention of his listeners then and now:

Blessed are you, if…
Happy are you, if…
You are favored, if…

Imagine these opening words—blessed, happy and favored—rolled into one awe-inspiring phrase in any language. Using this word repetitively, Jesus talks about terrestrial happiness in light of the reign of God.

Defining happiness

When we listen to the entire Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses another repetitive phrase: "You have heard it said…but I say to you." Let us pause and consider this repeated phrase. Take a few minutes to answer these questions:

  • "What images of happiness are promoted by media? Identify and describe a few.
  • "How would you define happiness individually?
  • "How would you define happiness collectively?

Our consumerist culture usually defines happiness in individualistic terms. Consequently, we often become captives to an advertisement-driven, media- blessed definition of happiness. Collectively, Gross National Product (GDP) has often been used as an index to measure the well-being of a society. In recent years, societies have begun to focus on happiness as a key factor, beyond mere GDP, to assess the well-being of a society. Basic needs such as shelter, security, safety, food, health and housing have been factored in to assess a community. Some countries have added new criteria—social cohesion, trust among different groups of people, trust in public institutions, a sense of belonging to a community—to gauge the level of happiness in their respective nations.

When Jesus says, "But I say to you," he urges us to wear a new pair of lenses to see another dimension, a missing factor, a revolutionary index. He invites us to see happiness rooted in the virtues of living in light of the realm of God here on earth.

The realm of God

In fact, the Sermon on the Mount unveils a key purpose of Jesus on earth. According to John Wesley, to "bless" people and to make them "happy" was the "great business" for which Jesus came into the world. To offer abundant life, human flourishing, is God's vocation. Jesus communicates his message of blessedness or happiness with such clarity, simplicity and forthrightness that it can be disarming to the listeners. The original Greek word, used for blessed is makarios; it combines the nuances of blessedness, happiness and favor into one word. Mr. Wesley uses the words happy and blessed interchangeably when he interprets the Sermon on the Mount. For Jesus, communicating happiness in word and deed is participating in the life of God and being partakers of the kingdom of God. Whether seated on a mountain (Matthew 5:1-48) or on a level place (Luke 6: 17-26), be it a balcony or plain, the view of happiness, the secret of happiness, is the same with Jesus. As children of God, we are invited to discern that happiness is godliness, and we can experience it by living into God's kingdom, which is already "here but not yet."

Jesus' happiness index is wholly based on God's invitation to live the way we were created to be—if only we could grasp it, embrace it and experience it in our contexts. The measure of happiness is the listeners' willingness to see themselves as humans created in God's image and who are continually being formed into inhabitants of God's kingdom here on earth. This is the kingdom for which we are enjoined by Jesus to pray daily: "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven."

A few years ago, as part of United Methodist Women staff offering Bible women training in the Philippines, when I said, "The kingdom of God is a vision for an alternative world," one of the participants, a deaconess, corrected me saying, "It is the original world created by God!" Often someone has to jog our memory back to the original vision, the original world, and God's dream for us, lest we forget. Jesus jogged the collective memory of the listeners with an invitation to a way of life in accordance with the way we were created to live.

Jesus' happiness index

In an African catechism, the presiding elder would ask a new convert a rhetorical question: "Why did God make you?" After a brief pause, the elder would give the answer: "Well, God thought you just might like it." To know and remember one's core identity in God is fundamental to faith formation. Jesus' "happiness index" is the measure of our willingness to see the image of God in each other, as humans created by God, in order to witness to God's kingdom being birthed in our midst. Following Jesus is an identity forming journey, being and becoming bearers of happiness.

The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to commit ourselves to use Jesus' "happiness index" as a spiritual identity marker in a culture that sells happiness as a market-driven product and advertisement-supported business. Jesus invites us to be living signs and symbols of the kingdom of God. Surprisingly enough, the agents who bring about this realm of blessedness are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who long for justice, the merciful, the pure at heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted faithful. An unlikely assortment of people! But these are the people who see the discrepancy between the way we are created to experience happiness and the forces that are bent upon destroying God's dream for us. These are the very people who are determined to live, be co-workers with God and resist all that denies God's purpose of abundant life, human flourishing for all (John 10: 10). Let's pause for a moment to consider:

  • What are the chokepoints that block us and others from accessing God's realm of happiness here on earth?
  • What are some of the characteristics of the agents of the reign of God who have addressed these obstacles and systems that prevent us from being partakers with God now?

Transformed by happiness

Mahatma Gandhi, a close friend of E. Stanley Jones, Methodist missionary to India, once said, "The message of Jesus as I understand it … is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole. … If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, 'Oh, yes, I am a Christian.'" However, with disappointment Mr. Gandhi went on to say, "What passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount." Mr. Gandhi's faith impulse to shape the movement of nonviolence came from the Sermon on the Mount, and was caught by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

One of our foremothers in mission, the editor of Woman's Missionary Friend, posed a challenging question in a 1934 issue of the publication: "What did Jesus Christ offer to the world in the Sermon on the Mount, this constitution of the Kingdom of God?" She then answers her own questions by saying, "Primarily the leaven of a new type of citizen." The Sermon on the Mount seen as leaven that a baker kneads into the dough! A leaven to hide into our very being, so that we can be transformed into a new type of a person and citizen in the realm of God, already here in the world but not yet fully realized! Most of Jesus' original listeners were poor and living under the oppressive rule of the most powerful military might of the day: the Roman Empire. Jesus bestows "blessedness, happiness, and favor" on these mostly oppressed and dispossessed people. His is not a storybook happiness as in, "And they lived happily hereafter." But, rather, Jesus authenticates a radically new way of being in the world.

Jesus invites his followers then and now to be the channels and instruments of the realm of God here and now. "Thy kingdom come" with its new citizenry! These followers are Jesus' eyes and ears on the ground. They are his hands and feet. These are differencemakers who will revolutionize the world with Jesus' new definition of happiness, the gospel of blessedness, the message of happiness.

It is not a do-it-yourself happiness. On the other hand, this happiness is the outcome of Holy Spirit-led lives. The bearers of this happiness are those who know that they are spiritually poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who have passion for justice and the pure in heart. Then there are those who engage in merciful acts and those who are peacemakers who make it to the list. Finally, Jesus lifts up a difficult truth of the day that defies the sheltered vocabulary of happiness: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account" (Matthew 5:11).

These are the people whose faith is firm enough to resist the power of evil taking control over their lives and the lives of people in their communities. These difference makers endure social hostilities and risk their lives while witnessing to Jesus in their lives. This happiness is a tool of resistance, a tool of the oppressed. The early Christians used this tool as a nonviolent weapon against their oppressors. For the sake of their faith, the modern-day disciples of Jesus, too, speak truth to power, they wage peace, they dare to step into Ebola- infested communities to render merciful acts and work for the abundant life that Jesus has come to offer (John 10:10).

The basics of this human flourishing are found in building relationships, personal and communal relationships across human barriers. The late mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi Diaz used the word kin-dom instead of kingdom to lift up God's realm built on equity, justice and relationality. Let's pause for a moment to consider:

  • How are you strengthened by the Sermon on the Mount?
  • How are you challenged by it?

Happy feast, happy host

The ultimate symbol of the celebration of human flourishing is a happy feast hosted by our happy God. The Hispanic Creed captures this hoped-for reality:

  • We believe in the Reign of God—the day of the Great Fiesta
  • When all the colors of creation will form a harmonious rainbow,
  • When all peoples will join in joyful banquet,
  • When all tongues of the universe will sing the same song."

To this, let all God's people say, "Happy are those who will feast in God's kingdom" (Luke 14: 15b, CEB). Created in the image of God, may we commit ourselves to be God's blessings to bestow God's happiness, in Christ's way!

Glory E. Dharmaraj, Ph.D., is former director of spiritual formation and mission theology for United Methodist Women. She is the author of numerous books on mission and interfaith relations including Theology of Mutuality: A Paradigm for the 21st Century. This article supplements the 2015 United Methodist Women spiritual growth study, "Created for Happiness: Understanding Your Life in God."

Posted or updated: 5/4/2015 11:00:00 PM

March 2015 cover of response: Celebrating 150 years in mission.


Spiritual Growth

This response article relates to the 2015 spiritual growth study, Created for Happiness: Understanding Your Life in God .

Additional resources

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including study books and leader's guides in Spanish and Korean.

A Theology of Mutuality

by Glory and Jacob Dharmaraj
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