In a sense the Declaration of Independence got it right and got it wrong. It got it right with the simple five-word creed that is the heart of the entire American experiment, a creed so powerful and far reaching our founders were not able to live up to it.
The five-word creed is, “all men are created equal.” This is at the heart of the American dream and the ideals that have and continue to motivate us. We have yet to achieve a society where this is true in every corner of the culture, but we have made progress.
This part, Jefferson and the committee charged with writing the Declaration, got right. On the next part they missed: “the pursuit of happiness.” No matter how hard an individual pursues it, they will never obtain it, other than for a few moments. That is because happiness is by nature temporary and elusive.
Think about the word, happiness. It is built on the word happens. What happens makes one feel happy, or not. Happenstance is by nature momentary and fleeting. What makes one happy at one moment can become a disappointment in the next moment. We can pursue it, but who ever actually obtains it?
Actually, there are people who claim they have a handle on happiness and that they know the happiest country on earth. The happiest country on earth is Denmark, according to The Happiness Research Institute, which happens to be located in Copenhagen, Denmark. They issue an annual World Happiness Index, which shows the five Nordic countries to be the happiest countries on earth.
I thought Disney World was the happiest place on earth?
These Scandinavian countries have small populations, strict boarder control, huge oil wealth, and low levels of economic inequality. If you are fortunate enough to live there, you are happier than most others.
Yet, even in happiness paradise there are troubling signs; young people are not as happy as they should be. And why are young people not as happy as they should be? Because of the social pressure they are under to be as happy as their peers. (The New York Times, Gloom in the World’s Happiest Nations) Really!
From a Christian perspective happiness is the wrong pursuit. Happiness is shallow. Its lack of depth means it has no holding power. It is an emotional state, an effective state of mind subject to immediate change by what … happens! People who make happiness their pursuit are almost always unhappy. Unhappiness in a relationship is used as a justification for ending a relationship, but in the end rarely is there much happiness.
Happiness is not what the Gospel produces in a believer’s life. It is not a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Don’t hear me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being happy, but faith in Christ offers something far deeper and more permanent – joy, which is a fruit of the Spirit.
Joy is what the Bible puts before us a worthy pursuit. While happiness depends on what happens, joy is based on a deeper reality. Happiness can be taken from you. The joy of being transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ can never be taken from you. The spiritual reality of being made one with Christ cannot be qualified by life’s happenings. Rather, that joy can be present even in the midst of life’s hardest storms.
It is countercultural to pursue it, but the pursuit of joy in Christ is worthy of your time and efforts. Happiness is as fleeting as the wind.
The creed of the Declaration of Independence is still an ideal that guides us. The pursuit of happiness, however, is the wrong pursuit.