This weekend’s edition of the ‘i’ national morning newspaper had a two-page spread entitled ‘Survival Guide: How to be Happy’.
A dozen experts shared their ideas on improving life in our current circumstances. They are fine as far as they go with lots of wisdom and helpful tips – things to be aware of, things to tell ourselves, the importance of exercise, diet and sleep, of ‘letting go’, nurturing our relationships, using technology to connect, being gentle with ourselves and so on.
The article concludes with a question: what advice or help would you like to see in our next survival guide? I took that to mean two things – what help/advice we need, and what help/advice we have to offer.
It made me wonder if there is an explicitly Christian angle on this.
The bible contains various writings that together are called ‘Wisdom Literature’. Most obviously these are found in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. But also in the well-crafted teaching stories of Joseph, Ruth and Jonah. Jesus’ parables are in the same tradition as teaching stories. And Jesus himself is the “wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).
The ancient world had its places of learning, as in Babylon (where Daniel and his three friends were taken into exile) or the court of King Solomon who impressed the Queen of Sheba with his wisdom.
Undoubtedly there were practical subjects studied, in building, metalwork, biology and study of everything in the world around from the heavens above to deep down in the earth where copper and precious stones were mined.
But most of all, Wisdom Literature is concerned with how to live a good life. The first chapters of the Book of Proverbs are addressed to a young man advising him how to live well, follow the way of Wisdom and avoid Folly’s enticing charm. It is a mixture of moral teaching and life experience (“if you do this, then this will be the result”).
Wisdom Literature in the Bible draws on wisdom and stories from other countries and cultures, and we see this (for example) in the Book of Proverbs, which reproduces some proverbs from Egypt (Proverbs 22:17 – 24:22) or the Book of Job, which is set in the land of Uz, not in Israel.
BUT – although Israel and biblical teaching draw on resources of wisdom from other nations and cultures, the starting point for how to live a good life, how to live at all is this: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).
Fear of the LORD (Yahweh) is NOT about being afraid of God (though there are times when we should be!) but really the same thing as Jesus meant when he taught us to pray ‘Hallowed be your Name’. It’s about honouring, respecting, and accepting the authority of God as the creator and giver of everything.
In the story of the Garden of Eden (a wisdom story), the fruit of the forbidden tree is “… desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). So when Adam and Eve eat it, their mistake is to seek wisdom without the fear of the LORD.
SO – what does that mean for finding happiness today? (Gulp, how did I get myself into a position where I’m now going to have to answer that?!!)
We do well to listen to the various sources of human wisdom and learn from them, whether scientific or philosophical. But for us, living well, wisdom, and happiness all start with God.
Biblical faith does not focus on happiness or on self-fulfilment as ends in themselves. They are found as a result of living well. We read more about faith, hope and love, about joy, peace and all the fruit of God’s transformational work in us through the Spirit. St Paul writes that he has learned the art of being content in all circumstances. He writes about perseverance producing character and character hope (Romans 5:3).
Much as we (like Adam and Eve) desire to control our own destinies, we must start with our dependence on God. That dependence opens up the way to knowing ourselves loved and forgiven, and we are drawn into the network of sustaining and challenging relationships that is the Body of Christ.
And together as that Body, as well as individually, we become a place where God lives by his Spirit. And nothing – trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, danger, violence, and especially death will be able to separate us from the love of God we have come to know in Jesus (Romans 8:35-39).
I don’t think this will always bring “happiness”. But I’m sure it’s the foundation for living well.
My love and best wishes,