Only Jesus Can Tell Us What Happiness Is
A Gift from Heaven
The first thing I should explain is the reason for this sermon title – Jesus Declares Happiness. There are two reasons. First, the introduction of what we call The Sermon on the Mount is not a list of do’s and don’ts. It contains no rules or steps to be happy. It is a declaration of happiness. Jesus is telling us who the happy or blessed people are. Since he gives no “steps to happiness” or “formulas for success” but instead declares happiness, we are to understand that happiness is a gift from heaven. It is something God gives to us, not something we find within ourselves, in others, or can earn or otherwise attain. And this is very important, for, secondly, the world and many believers think you can tell who is happy by looking at their outward circumstances, which are in turn indicative of the presence or absence of God’s love and blessing. This is one of Satan’s greatest lies, and we readily believe it. If all is going well, we think, “Ah, here is finally happiness. God is so good!” On the other side, if there is poverty and sickness, men trying to rob or kill us, and death is all around us, we conclude, “I have every reason to be unhappy and every right to be miserable. God must hate me.”
Jesus makes the most astounding declaration; both of these views are very wrong. The best life circumstances do not mean you are blessed by God, and therefore truly happy. The worst circumstances do not mean he has forsaken you or that you have to be unhappy. We all know that this is the case. We see rich and powerful men who leave broken families and bitter children and lost fortunes in the wake of their pride and covetousness. They have everything, but they are unhappy. We also see poor and despised believers who are very cheerful, seem remarkably contented with their lot, and do not fret or complain. Even so, we still conclude that happiness is ultimately based upon pleasant circumstances, at least in our particular case. “I shall be happy and serve God when such and such changes about my circumstances.” Jesus contradicts this dangerous sort of thinking by declaring that happiness is not based upon one’s outward circumstances. Not at all. It is far more deeply connected to our character, which determines the way we respond to our circumstances, to God and to others in the best and worst of times.
God’s Present Benediction
And this is the reason that we must take seriously that happiness is God’s benediction upon men and women whom he has drawn to himself, reconciled through his Son, and adopted as his children. Happiness is perhaps better interpreted as “blessed,” for “happiness” usually refers us to our feelings rather than to God’s benediction and smile. Yet, if we remember that God’s benediction, his declaration of good will and peace to us in the gospel, the way he has drawn us to himself through his Son, forgiven all our sins, imputed righteousness to us, made us heirs of heaven, and indwells us by his Spirit, we should be happy! No one and nothing can take these joys away from us. Thus, while we should never equate how we are feeling at a particular moment with “happiness,” by calling us “blessed,” Jesus is also saying that his disciples have a very different response, mentally and emotionally, to difficult circumstances than the children of this world have. God’s smile changes everything for us. We may be made low by our circumstances or deeply grieved over our sins, but God still loves us, is smiling upon us, and pronounces us “happy.” His love and smile are freely, graciously given through his Son, so that if we come to him in Jesus’ name, even if that coming is because we are hungry and crying, he will receive us. We can even in the bitterest groaning find comfort in his grace, for his love does not alter (Zeph. 3:17). Jesus loved us to the end (John 13:1), and nothing can separate us from his love (Rom. 8:37). Therefore, the assurance of God’s favor to us through his Son is the ultimate rock of our happiness, and if we would meditate more upon this truth, we should find more lasting and satisfying emotional joy and peace.
Not Measured by Outward Circumstances
“Surprising” is perhaps the best description of the following description of the “blessed” or “happy,” usually called the Beatitudes. Nothing about poor, humble, hungry, and weeping souls would lead us to conclude that they are the ones whom God has called to himself and blessed. But we must be careful. It is not every poor person who is blessed, as if poverty was intrinsically virtuous and inevitably turned a man toward God in faith rather than against him in bitterness. It is not every weeping person who is truly happy, for we can often cry because our delusions have met the wall of reality or our selfishness has been disappointed. It is the pious, believing poor, the God-seeking mourners who are blessed. Thus, we should not judge ourselves or others by the state of our bank account but by our heart toward God, whether or not we walk humbly before him or place demands upon him. Since he will not meet our demands, such a life will be intrinsically disappointing and embittering. But if we learn with Job to bless and worship God even if he takes everything away from us, whether to test and refine or to chasten and purify, then we have learned that true happiness is to have God at the center of our lives, to trust him, and to seek him at all times. This is the new heart that God mercifully gives to each of his children, and it is the reason that they are blessed at all times, even when their circumstances are terrible.
Happiness Depends upon the Heart
That We Are Lowly before God
Luke seems to extract much of the specifically Jewish context and application present in Matthew’s record of this famous sermon. Luke wrote to his Roman benefactor and more broadly to the Gentile world. His summation of Jesus’ famous sermon emphasizes the universality of God’s wisdom revealed in his incarnate Son. At the same time, Luke retains the implicit warning against economic exploitation that is so evident in the Old Testament prophets. Wealth is not intrinsically sinful, just as poverty is not intrinsically virtuous. Each has its particular pitfalls. For the economically poor and downtrodden, bitterness and despair might easily lead to a complaining and despairing spirit that doubts God’s love and wisdom. In some cases, then and now, poverty makes men easy prey for seducing revolutionary spirits. As Jesus looked out upon his poor disciples, for we must remember that his original church was drawn from the lower classes of society, he directed them to take a higher view of happiness. Their poverty was no impediment to God’s blessing. God’s promise to bless his people, even financially, is not absolute, so that the absence of worldly wealth and position in no way indicates God’s displeasure.
In fact, the poor – the word (ptwco,j) means “one who is greatly reduced,” and originally one who crouches or makes himself lowly, from which “poor in spirit” becomes an accurate description. True poverty before God is not the absence of material wealth but the presence of a yielded, humbled spirit that makes a man lowly before his providence, accepting of his wisdom, and trusting of his provision, however scanty. This is the way we should retain the economic and the spiritual sense of Jesus’ poor. Many were poor in his day who rejected him and were not blessed. As he did not come to preach a gospel of social revolution, it is not poverty itself that gains his support but poverty that rises higher (or deeper) to see its true condition before God, its total dependence upon him, and thus waits upon him to provide daily bread. In this way, those who are outwardly rich must lower themselves, as Jesus did (2 Cor. 8:9!), in order to obtain the true riches of God’s kingdom. If we trust our riches, our social connections, or our financial planning, it is certain that we do not trust our heavenly Father and cannot partake of his blessing. It is also in this way that the church wars against the cliquish, class, and sectarian sins that have so plagued her – by remembering our true state before God – everyone one of us – poor and needy, blind and naked, having nothing unless God clothes, guides, and smiles upon us (Rev. 3:17).
That We Hunger for Righteousness
Luke has our Lord making the general description of happiness in the second person, which is to give his words personal pointedness. Matthew’s third person record is likely original, but Luke is led by the Spirit to draw out the implications of the principles. And thus, coming to the hungry, nothing seems less blessed than to be empty, to lack what one needs in this life. Often Jesus fed the multitudes, however, so we should be prepared to be surprised by the deep joy he declares to his disciples. We may be empty and hungry, as many of his disciples have been, but nonetheless we are blessed. Like Job, Jesus’ disciples learn to desire his word more than our necessary bread (Job 23:12). Like Moses, we learn to live by God’s word (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4), so that if we are empty of all earthly good, we have a rich feast from which to draw peace and hope. And on the other side, if we have the world’s abundance at our disposal, without the love of God in our souls, there is nothing but gnawing emptiness.
Pay close attention to the hunger that marks out the true children of God. First, it is not merely physical hunger, for many hungry people are not blessed, for they complain, fret, doubt God’s faithfulness, and curse him. Second, blessed hunger is an emptiness of earthly good that leads us to seek the true and eternal good in God himself. For how else can hunger be blessed, but when feeling that we are empty of all that is good we are led to cast ourselves upon God’s goodness and grace in Jesus Christ? Third, this is therefore a hunger that the richest man in the world can be brought to feel, which is remarkable, seeing how difficult it is for rich men to enter God’s kingdom. Thus, even if we have most all that we need, we can learn to praise God for all that we have, equate our true happiness with nothing of this world (Col. 3:2), and from God’s earthly gifts be led to seek the eternal filling with his righteousness that alone satisfies. And fourth, this hunger is a present and progressive hungering, so that with each filling, the hunger intensifies for the eternal and lasting satisfaction that we have in God alone.
Matthew, fifth, clarifies the true hunger by which our Lord marks out all those whom he draws to himself and intends to satisfy eternally with his unsearchable riches and beauty. It is not hunger for this world’s goods and pleasures but for righteousness. Our hunger has a decisively Godward orientation – that we walk pleasing to him, worthy of him, in loving obedience to him, that we and others reverence his word and hold it as the dearest treasure – that our God would speak to us, deliver us from the power of darkness, give us new hearts and write upon them his word with the Spirit’s finger! And thus, however hungry we may be – or full – our Savior’s says that our blessedness is to hunger after pleasing God through obedience. This is a strange hunger and many professing Christians are strangers to it. For them, all the hunger is for grace – to live as we please, without constraints, even without a Bible, other than general principles and pithy stories. But this abuse of grace will leave its devotees empty, for the only thing that truly satisfies is when we live in obedience to our Father’s voice, in harmony with his precious truth, in fellowship with the Spirit of truth and the eternal Word.
That We Weep Over Our Sins
To human judgment, nothing could be further from blessing than weeping, but our Lord makes them inseparable. It is clear that there is a flow – from lowliness, to emptiness, to weeping – over one’s state before God, the state of other men and their miseries. Our Lord wept at Lazarus’ tomb. He bore our sorrows and miseries. He was the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). He knew firsthand sorrow and groaning and strong cries (Heb. 5:7). Like him, his disciples weep now, but even as they weep, he says, “You are blessed.” How can this be? Because in weeping, we face honestly our fallen state and God’s holiness. We look away from ourselves also to God, for since all the cause of sorrow is in ourselves, none of the cure can be. Even more, we are like our Savior (Heb. 5:7). Only in pouring out our sorrows to God and trusting his promises can we find comfort and strength to endure with “patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” (Col. 1:12). This is not the sorrow of bitterness, frustration that life has not gone as you wanted, or that others have wronged you. These usually embitter without humbling and leading us to cry to God for help and hope. But when our trials and tears lead us to him, he will collect our tears in the bottle of his love and store them up for showers of mercies. Although it is true that “weeping endures for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5), it is equally true that we know not how long night may last or when morning may come, but must trust that the Lord will shepherd us through the darkest valleys of his providence.
Happiness Now and More Later
Kingdom: When God Rules Us
Because happy men are so different than what the world thinks about happiness, and since the trouble and discipline by which the Lord confirms us as his children are hard to bear, he gives us some very lively promises to encourage us. We are to think often upon these. They are present possessions; they are also future hopes. He says to the poor, the humble, that the kingdom of God belongs to you. God’s kingdom is his rule over all. For the kingdom to belong to a person means that God rules over him in more than the absolute, unavoidable sense that God rules over everything and all men are accountable to him. It means that we find our joy in having him to rule over us and that our pleasure is to obey him. It means that he rules over us for good, and we know it, for we trust his promises and plans for us (Jer. 29:11). Now, this is a high place of human happiness, for God has made us for himself. We cannot rest in him until we have relinquished the deadly pursuit of being a law unto ourselves and living as if we are our own masters. But when the Spirit of holiness gives us a new heart and shows us that God is our Maker and Redeemer, when he shows us the joy of having God supreme and preeminent in our lives, then we begin to realize something of the joy and peace held out to us in the gospel.
Sit with Jesus’ original hearers. Is the kingdom? The kingdom of God is a present reality for us? We have nothing. We are politically occupied by the Romans, socially ostracized by the Jewish leaders, religiously despised by the Pharisees, poor outcasts – we have the kingdom, right now? You must be kidding. We should be equally surprised if we appreciated what it means to have God’s kingdom now. It is not ivory palaces and political power and abundant wealth. It is to have God indwelling by his Spirit, God ruling over us through his enthroned Son. It is to have an open invitation to draw near to God, a new heart to accept his invitation, cast our cares upon him, and seek his help and glory in every trial and trouble. It is to have power, real power from above, to seek “righteousness, peace, and joy” by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17).
It is very surprising, even shocking, to think that we have this kingdom. We shall surely enjoy infinitely more of God’s power, beauty, and satisfaction in the life to come, but our present distresses do not nullify God’s present bestowal of his kingdom, his rule over us. Let us seek to be more fully implicated into his kingdom – Father, rule over me today by your Spirit; may I live to please you today; give me power to resist sin and mortify my sinful desires; grant me a sense of the eternal value of my work and family efforts and of dropping seeds as I move about – that I am part of your great rule over all, a rule that grows no matter who holds the reigns of political power, a rule I can enjoy if I have no balance in my bank book, a glorious and ever present and reconciled God who loves me and has taken me under his wing. Even living out this first “blessed” fruit will radically change our lives. I encourage you to allow God to change you – attitudes, expectations, ambitions – to ask him to change you, to bring the power and grace and dignity of his kingdom to bear upon your life and the lives of those around you.
Filled: When God Gives Righteousness
The present hope is balanced by a future filling. As good as God’s gospel kingdom and its treasures are, as much fruit as we can bear in Christ as we live in communion with him (John 14:21), nevertheless, we have these treasures in clay pots (2 Cor. 4:6). There is a future element to our enjoyment of Christ’s unsearchable riches that lies hid in the future, even as our lives are hid with God in him (Col. 3:3-4). It is always necessary to recognize this, or we rob the gospel of its element of future hope. Too much in common Christian thinking is about now – how can I feel better now? How can I have God’s best now? We cannot. We are saved by hope (Rom. 8:24). There is a hope laid up for us in heaven (Col. 1:5). Giddy spirits do not like to talk about the waiting aspect of faith, for the mobs on the broad path to destruction do not like to hear about waiting, about tomorrow, about “setting our affections upon things above.” But our Savior gives this promise to those who hunger for righteousness, who crave to be without sin, to desire nothing but what is pleasing to God and power only to please him. The day of hunger will end, and you will be filled. Hope and faith, praying and waiting, will give way to Christ and glory, heaven and singing, love and absolute satisfaction in the vision of God himself in Christ.
Laughter: When God Makes Us Rejoice
Now we know why Christian martyrs have gone cheerfully, even gladly to their graves, forgiving their tormentors and glorifying God that he called them to seal his truth with their blood. We also learn the secret of obedience in worship and doctrine in an age that craves relevance and lives with gnawing fear that if the world does not feel comfortable in a worship service, then something is wrong with us, and we had better accommodate the world at all costs. Or the compelling power to obedience in quiet cubicles where no one is watching you, or the quiet home in which the father rises early to pray before beginning his work and reads the Bible with his family. All of these and many other dynamics of God’s kingdom are the fruit of his incredible hope that the day of weeping will soon give way to the day of laughter. It is certainly surprising that Luke uses a word less respectable perhaps than rejoicing – laughter! We never hear of Jesus laughing, and he must have laughed, but in the days of his flesh, he was the man of sorrows for our salvation. But we shall laugh with him in God’s eternal kingdom – laugh that our troubles seemed so serious then, when we see such glory and power now!
What a day of rejoicing that will be, when one look at the smiling lamb of God will release our soul from every fear and care, when God will wipe away the lingering tear in the corner of the eye – the widow’s cries and tears; the mother grieving over her lost child; the young man horrified that he has fallen again into sin; the daughter of Zion crying for relief from oppression and for God to vindicate his promise to make his church a praise in the earth; or simply the tears our souls sheds that we do not feel at home in this world, are barely tolerated and usually hated here, and that the good we attempt is often thwarted by the evil one. So many tears! But there is so much laughter coming – guiltless laughing, glad-hearted laughing, a soul spreading its wings without the hint of trouble or shade of night on the horizon – nothing but eternal spring and morning, sun and happiness – and the Lamb will be all the glory – for we shall never forget with every smile, song, and laugh, that he has purchased all this for us – and there he is – so beautiful – could he have purchased all this for us, for me, each one will ask? Could he have been thinking about me when he endured such terrors? Yes, for you, who in your lowliness look to God, who hunger for righteousness, who weep over your sins. A day of great joy is coming. You will never look back. You will never be sad again. Receive God’s blessing now. It is yours. Jesus says so.