Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Matthew Kelly calls it “The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity” — which is also the title of his book on the subject. He subtitles it with an appeal to our all-too-common experience: “How Modern Culture is Robbing Billions of People of Happiness.” By that he means the lies we are fed everyday about how to be happy, and how they deliver just the opposite of what most of us are looking for.

The first thing that may strike the reader is the assertion that being Christian has anything to do with being happy. I certainly don’t presume to speak for anyone else, but I wonder how many Christians — as well as non-Christians — think that this is what Christianity is all about, namely, deep happiness and a happiness that lasts. I have often confessed that, despite the best efforts of my teachers and mentors, trying to get it into my head and heart that the Gospel — which means “good news” by the way! — is all about God’s love and desire to bring joy to the world, I had an idea for too long a time in my earlier years that God was not very pleased with me because I was not measuring up to his expectations. And I just had to keep trying harder.

Again, speaking only for myself, at any given time in my personal history, am I all that I can be, am I the best version possible of myself? This is a good question. Each of us can only be the person we are and can become in the world. We know there has never been a person with the same DNA, the same history and the same feelings and aspirations — and that there will never be such a person again in this world. That certainly tells us something about how important it is not to blow this chance and while our life away. 

The great news is that St. Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians with a hymn of praise to what he learned from his own experience about what the Gospel is all about — and how it changes lives. It is worth quoting him here in this week in which we have been celebrating the lives of “ALL Saints” and are praying for “ALL Souls,” because our Christian faith affirms that ALL of us are called to be saved and to become saints! So St. Paul writes:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him. In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ, in accord with the favor of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace that he granted us in the beloved. In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us” (Eph 1:3-8).

He should know! Recall that St. Paul was a rather earnest Pharisee who had persecuted Christians for many years and had a bent toward perfectionism in his personal life. He was a man who wanted to do the right thing and struggled with his own sins and failings, but was totally turned off by the attitude of these Christians who seemed to be so happy and full of joy in following Christ in the midst of the pagan world in which he and they lived, which was not delivering on its promises any more than today’s materialistic, me-centered culture.

Sounds familiar, no? Does it seem that what the world offers, the promises it makes, fall short of fulfilling the hype? Money, careers, sex, power, home improvement, new cars, technology, work, politics, pets, degrees, travel — with all the bells and whistles — do not bring that deep peace and satisfaction we all hope for? Something does not add up. Maybe Paul envied Christians who seemed to be so happy and joyful and at peace when he was working so hard on following the rules and regulations that his faith laid down (God’s demands) if he were ever to be saved. He certainly was a man who was deeply religious and kept trying but was just not making the cut. His life before his conversion does not sound much different from the way many Christians, I suspect, experience their struggle in today’s world: trying to follow the teachings of their faith and feeling the world’s ways not only unsatisfying but oppressive. 

Of course, we know from the rest of the story and the tone of the hymn from which I quoted above, that St. Paul came to find in Christ that joy and happiness he had never experienced in his former life. This is the experience of those who begin to take Jesus seriously. Last Sunday we heard the Gospel (Mk 12:28b-34) in which Jesus is complimented by a Scribe who asks him about the greatest commandments. We recall that Jesus joined two passages from Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18) about total love of God and of neighbor as oneself. Jesus returns the compliment — “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34) — essentially affirming that this is God’s way and the source of divine joy and human happiness.

Nothing is more serious for God than that each and every one of us be saved, that we find happiness with our lives in this world and be happy with God in heaven for all eternity, sharing in God’s joy. How seriously do we take Jesus at his word about the way to happiness? What the two greatest commandments set the stage for is what Jesus, as the new Moses at the start of his Sermon on the Mount, spells out for us in the Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12a). He calls those who live these Beatitudes “blessed” or “happy” in the deepest sense of that word.

Why and how does living the Beatitudes bring us happiness? Because this is how God lives, this is what divine living looks like in this world. The life of Jesus is one of total giving. He empties himself and shares with us everything that he is (cf. Phil 2: 5-11). His life is in sharp contrast to the “way of the world,” which lies to us about how to be happy. Instead of amassing treasure for ourselves, building up our names and legacies, gaining (buying?) influence and the praise of others, he humbles himself and gives all he has away.

In a certain sense, we might say that Jesus himself is the original “rich young man.” Remember the account in the Gospel a few weeks ago (Mk 10:17-30)? The young man who wanted to be perfect? He was a good man and he followed all the rules, observing all the commandments. He wanted to please God and was doing all the right things. No doubt he thought that this God was happy with him. But was he himself happy? Apparently not, because when Jesus invited him to take the next step and actually enter into the joy of God — completely trusting God and living with Christ as Christ lives (“follow me”) — he walks away sad. He could not part with his possessions.

Jesus did not send him away. He walked away. It never occurs to him that Jesus might have made it possible for him to do what he felt impossible. He took himself and his possessions more seriously than the Lord who made him and loved him to the point of dying for him, giving him his entire self. How seriously do we take Jesus? Enough to let him be who he is? The Lord of all life, the way to happiness and eternal life? Or do we dismiss him as just a nice guy, a teacher, a mentor and model, a Facebook “friend” who just follows me? Is he or someone else, something else, the god of our life?