By Brian Emmet
“In this world you will have serious troubles, but cheer up: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
I read recently that every group in our country is currently unhappy with its position and standing; everyone feels that they are “losing,” being relegated to the margins, facing overwhelming obstacles and contrary currents. Republicans, Democrats, evangelical Christians, Catholics, LGBTQ+ folk, climate-change supporters and “deniers,” men, women, majority, minority: we’re all pretty unhappy with our current lot. We all have many troubles, and we’re all anything but cheerful about them.
There are, of course, questions and issues of genuine substance and import at stake in looking at our political, economic and social lives, the state of the environment, religious liberty, along with many other matters. As we look out over the world, there really is a great deal to be unhappy about. But I wonder if we’re unhappy about the wrong things, or unhappy about the right things in the wrong sorts of ways.
When Jesus spoke to his followers about having “serious troubles” (or “tribulations”), he was not talking about the kinds of “troubles” that actually chew through a lot of our time and energy: things like not finding a parking spot when we’re in a hurry, feeling stressed by all our have-tos and want-tos, worries about the state of our wardrobe, how many social media “friends” we have, or lack of advancement in our careers.
How often we first-world folk forget how good we really have things! The next time you’re stuck in traffic, reflect on this: you’re driving a pretty incredible machine over excellent roads, most likely to destinations that are clean, well-lit and by and large legally operated. You have car insurance, and access to outstanding medical care, even if the access routes are complicated and more expensive than you’d like. You have plenty to eat, a reliable roof over your head (even if it’s still in your parents’ home). “Count your blessings” is actually pretty good advice.
Jesus, in line with the entire Bible, spoke about “happiness” quite often. The usual word is “blessed,” but if that word has connotations that are “too religious,” “happy” is a pretty good substitute. It seems that God, contrary to reports, is actually committed to human happiness, including yours.
It’s possible to be happy in ways that are blessed by God, and ways that are not; it is likewise possible to be unhappy in ways that are in fact blessed by God, and ways that are not. If I’m secretly delighting in the distress and failure of a rival, that would be an unblessed happiness; if I am weeping with those who weep and mourning with those who mourn, that can be a blessed unhappiness.
Jesus said the following kinds of people, because they are listening and responding to him, can be happy (“blessed”): the poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; peace-makers; and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness
When it comes to how we think about happiness, it’s a pretty “upside-down” list.
Jesus is neither masochist nor materialist; to be meek is not to be everyone’s doormat or punching bag. To “mourn” over the fact that you can’t afford a Maserati is not what he has in mind.
And Jesus is not giving a list of have-tos in order to earn our way into blessed happiness. He is instead describing our actual current condition, and telling us that it is the setting for true blessed happiness, if only we can open our eyes and ears.
“Poor in spirit” (spiritually bankrupt) is our starting place with God; if you can recognize and accept this, Jesus says, you are blessed. There is a lot to mourn about, Jesus says, and you are involved in contributing to that mourning; if you can accept this, and learn to mourn over what God mourns, you will be blessed in that. If only you can recognize that what you’re really hungry and thirsty for is not power, status, fame, and wealth, but for rightness, in yourself, with other people and for the world, you will find yourself nourished and fed. And if we are simply willing to allow Jesus and his words to disturb and unsettle us, to pose some uncomfortable questions and posit some counter-intuitive answers, Jesus says that that disturbed, uncomfortable place is actually a place of blessing, of happiness.
And, if we’re going to learn this happy life, if we’re going to follow Jesus, it will create serious problems for us. In this world there will be serious troubles, because with respect to God and God’s rightness, it is the world that is badly upside-down.
So many of our troubles and sorrows are sourced in our believing the lies our world tells us about itself and us: that we are already spiritually rich and “OK”; that mourning and lament are totally out of place for well-adjusted and well-positioned people like us; that meekness equals weakness, and weakness won’t ever get you anywhere; that there’s nothing worth hungering or thirsting for than all of the tasty delicacies, anesthetizing beverages and intoxicating experiences already on offer; that we are hardly the kind of people who would need mercy, so why should we extend it to others; that we can take into our bodies, souls and hearts whatever we like and not ever be polluted by any of it; that “peace” is only about my experience of tranquility and serenity, and is in no way connected with the lives of my neighbors; and that to be persecuted for just following Jesus is a loser’s way to live.
But for those willing to learn how to enter the blessed unhappiness that soon turns into true and lasting happiness, Jesus says, “Cheer up (= be happy)! I have overcome the world.” There are many kinds of unblessed happiness and unblessed unhappiness; Jesus promises that his way might seem like it begins in blessed unhappiness (and it does), but it soon and unexpectedly becomes both blessed and happy.