The beginning of the Declaration of Independence makes an interesting statement.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The writers believed that this was self-evident, meaning that it was completely obvious and didn’t need explanation. The right to life (a.k.a. to stay alive) and right to liberty (a.k.a. freedom) make perfect sense to us. But the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” doesn’t have the same meaning to us today as it did to the patriots in 1776.
We live in a world today that is obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. But it’s not a world that our founding fathers would even recognize. Today the words “happy” or “happiness” have become watered down, speaking more to a temporary mood or shallow state of being.
But when that sentence was written, the phrase signified a combination of fulfillment, contentment, self-worth, dignity, and community or civic duty. I love the quote from this article, which sums it up by saying that “happiness was about an individual’s contribution to society rather than pursuits of self-gratification”.
So our founding fathers thought that this was a core tenet of humanity, but is the pursuit of happiness a biblical principle as well?
What does the bible say about happiness?
A lot, it turns out.
It’s worth just getting this out of the way to begin with: pursuing happiness does NOT mean pursuing your own desires at the expense of others, or at odds with God’s way. It does not say “the pursuit of pleasure”. And it’s NOT the pursuit of materialism, humanism, and hedonism (II Tim. 3:1-4). Solomon was clear that pursuing these things was pointless vanity (Eccl. 12), and the bible reiterates this again and again.
One aspect of happiness that the bible does talk about is synonymous with God’s blessing. In the Old Testament this is mostly derived from the root word esher, meaning happiness or blessed (H835; it’s translated “happy” and “blessed” about equally). This is used a ton, particularly throughout Psalms and Proverbs.
Additionally, makarios (G3107) is used heavily in the gospels. It also can be translated either way, so while it’s mostly translated “blessed” you could accurately translate “happy”. For instance, all of the Beatitudes could be read as “Happy are…” (Matt. 5:3-10).
The bible is chock-full of verses that clearly lay out a path for pursuing happiness:
- Ps. 146:5 – Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord
- Prov. 3:13 – Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding
- Job 5:17 – Happy is the man whom God corrects
- Prov. 29:18 – But happy is he who keeps the law
- PRov. 14:21 – But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he
- John 13:17 – If you know these things, blessed (happy) are you if you do them (this was while Jesus was washing the disciples feet)
- James 5:11 – Indeed we count them blessed (happy) who endure
- I Pet. 3:14 – But even if you should suffer for righteousness’s sake, you are blessed (happy)
So God’s word tells us that we will be blessed, or happy, if we’re seeking Him and following His commandments. But what does “blessed” mean in this case? What does it feel like?
Related: Is Ingratitude the Root of Most Sin?
The case for joy in the bible
There’s something else often used synonymously with happiness that the bible says we should pursue, and that we’ll find if we are utilizing God’s spirit. And that’s joy.
The bible emphasizes joy. Joy, rejoice, and similar words are used literally hundreds of times in the bible. The Psalms and Proverbs are full of direction on joy. Music is often spoken of as an expression of joy in the bible (I Sam. 18:6, I Kings 1:40, I Chron. 15:16). It’s used as a verb throughout the minor prophets, and Jesus spends a significant chunk of time during His final Passover night talking about it (John 15). It’s kind of a big deal.
Joy is one of the fruits of God’s spirit, what He produces in a person (Gal. 5:22). That means it’s also an essential part of God’s nature—God is joy.
Joy is a fundamental human need. It is an orientation of mind and heart, not just a momentary mood. Don’t get me wrong, feelings are involved. But the difference is that joy, unlike happiness, is not dependent on your physical state. Happiness pales in comparison to joy.
Joy is the ability to be content even when circumstances don’t live up to your expectations. Joy is not being peppy, chipper, or happy all the time. It is not fun. Fun is…well, fun. It’s great and something we all need, but it is not a substitute for joy, and true joy is not the end result of having fun.
Fun is temporary, an experience, often shared with others. It’s an outward experience, while joy and contentment come from within. Many people spend their lives in the pursuit of fun, and are some of the unhappiest people you know, because fun is fleeting. I quite liked this quote:
“Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation” (source).
It’s no coincidence that joy and peace are often mentioned in the same breath (Rom. 15:13, Prov. 12:20, Gal. 5:22). If we seek to fulfill God’s instructions and follow His word first, we will be happy. He will give us that contentment. If we seek our own first, we can’t be happy. It is one of life’s great paradoxes, and the way God created us.
It’s not hard to see how the founding fathers of the United States looked at the bible and deduced that the ultimate pursuit of an individual’s life is to pursue joy or happiness in the form of God’s way. Here are just a few examples of joy in the bible for us to explore:
- Ps. 16:11 – You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy
- Ps. 37:4 – Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart
- Eccl. 12:13 – Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all
- Matt. 13:44 – The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field
- John 15:11 – These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full
- II Cor. 1:24 – Not that we have dominion over your faith, but are fellow workers for your joy
- II Cor. 8:2 – That in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded
- I Thes. 1:6 – Having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the holy spirit
- Heb. 12:2 – Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross
- James 1:2 – Count it all joy when you fall into various temptations
- I John 1:4 – And these things we write to you that your joy may be full
These are just a few of scriptures focused on the role that joy should play in our lives. And reflecting on these verses should lead us to each ask ourselves this question…
Are you pursuing worldly happiness, or Godly joy?
God wants us to pursue happiness. But not in the same way the world does. Not dependent on circumstances, the people around us, or the things we own. Our human nature tends to lead us away from the very actions and thoughts that will produce lasting joy, and causes us to chase after things that give us fleeting fun and happiness. Most of Ecclesiastes focuses on this very thing.
Since joy is a product of God’s spirit, the short answer is that we will have joy when we have and use His spirit. When we are looking outward to see others’ needs, studying and putting His words into practice, staying close to Him in daily prayer, and answering our calling to be a reflection of our Father in our day-to-day lives.
“And these things we write to you, that your joy may be full…” (I John 1:4)
If you want to explore some other biblical principles in our country’s founding documents, I thought this article was interesting as well.