Do you think Jesus was happy? Would you describe his earliest followers as happy? Do you think Christianity is about being happy? Are you happy yourself?
These questions arise as I find myself approaching retirement at the end of the year. Many people ask me what my plans are. What will make me happy? Am I going to rest and relax, do something new, or become a Howard Hughes-like weirdo walking around the house with Kleenex boxes on my feet instead of shoes?
Do I think I’ll be happy? Is that the right question in the first place? Is retirement about being happy? Is working about being happy? Is life itself about being happy? Or is it all about something more? One of the thinkers I depend on to help me navigate these kinds of questions is Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco-based writer who engages a range of issues—the environment, contemporary culture, and social justice questions to name a few.
Rebecca Solnit wrote about happiness in recent essay in Harper’s Magazine. Listen to a bit of what she said:
Maybe part of the problem [with happiness] is that we have learned to ask the wrong things of ourselves. Our culture is steeped in a kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is: Are you happy? …
Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.
We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable. [Rebecca Solnit, “The Mother of All Questions”, Harper’s, October, 2015]
As I understand her argument, Rebecca Solnit is suggesting that our tendency to equate the good life with the happy life boxes us into defining a good, meaningful life in far too narrow terms. As she says later in her essay, we need “better language to describe” what a fully realized life might look like. “There are entirely different criteria for a good life that might matter more to a person [than happiness]—honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope.”
I begin this morning asking questions about happiness and the good life because I think they are central to the problem this morning’s Gospel poses for us. Today we heard the well-known story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who ask that Jesus do for them “whatever we ask of you,” that is “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” [Mark 10: 35-45] This request does not come out of thin air. It has a context. In the passage immediately preceding this one, Jesus has just told them,
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again. [Mark 10: 33-34]
James and John ask Jesus to sit at his right and left hand in glory after he has just told them about what awaits them in Jerusalem. Jesus will die on the cross. Their request is a response to this prediction. When talking about James and John preachers customarily tee off on the brothers and accuse them of self-serving careerism. I have even been known to do this myself on occasion.
But as I read the story anew this year, it seems to me that James and John are not guilty of ambition or self-promotion. Their request is not to be the executive vice presidents of the Jesus movement. Their request is to put a happy ending on what Jesus has just named a tragedy. The problem here is not ambition. No, it’s something much more insidious. The problem here is the conventional wisdom of wishful thinking. James and John want Jesus to be happy. If they can just get through that crucifixion, everything will be all right. And then they can be happy, too.
When Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, he talks about it with his companions in very matter-of-fact language. He does not give them this news in order to frighten them. He tells them so that they may be prepared for the consequences of a life lived on God’s terms—a life that cannot help but come in conflict with the powers of his day. If we have defined the good life as the “happy” life, then Jesus’s persistence in his way of living seems at best perverse and at worst suicidal. If we define the good life using Rebecca Solnit’s terms—“honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope”—then Jesus’s decisions begin to make sense.
The English art critic and writer John Berger talks about our need for “another way of telling.” We need, not only as Christians but as citizens and fellow human beings, to reach for new language to describe what a meaningful, honorable, deep, engaged, hopeful life might look like. One place to look for such language is in the life and story of Jesus. He came into a culture where the good life was defined in terms of power. Those who had it were deemed to be favored. Those without it were seen as condemned. In the second part of today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the good life in language that turns power relationships upside down:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. [Mark 10: 42-45]
Jesus did not let his culture’s definition of the good life determine how he himself would live. He did not organize his own life around getting and wielding power over others. He did not spend his life pursuing achievements and possessions. Instead, he gave of himself to others. He built a community of mutuality, compassion, and justice. He consorted with and healed the people whom his own society defined as outcasts. For Jesus, the good life was the life built not on power but on service. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
When he told his companions that he came not to be served but to serve, Jesus knew he was being counter-cultural. The values of the Gospel will always stand just slightly apart from those of the world. As followers of Jesus, you and I need to do some thinking on our own and together about what it is we want from life. We need another way of telling ourselves and the world what finally matters. We inhabit a culture that will always define the good life in unimaginative, consensual ways. In Rebecca Solnit’s words, we are always “getting clobbered by the same old ways of telling,” and we cannot help but find that continual pummeling “disheartening.” Following Jesus gives us not only new life but another way to live this one: a way that might include such elusive and overlooked principles as “honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope.”
I don’t know if I would say that Jesus was “happy.” In the terms our culture to define happiness, probably not. But he did life a life characterized by those elusive and overlooked principles so often lacking in human existence. Honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope: these are the qualities that defined Jesus’s life and ministry. They are the qualities that have given shape to the best of the church’s efforts to follow Jesus. They are the qualities that you and I can embrace, allowing us to be something more than happy. They can help us live lives that are real and true and deep and faithful.
You can lead a good life free from the way our culture defines one. As long as we continue to describe the good life as the successful, powerful, affluent, healthy life, then we are destined to think only very few among us as having lived one. Jesus calls us to expand our horizons. What is it you so deeply value that you would be willing to give your life over in service to it? Who is it that deserves your empathy compassion, and trust? These commitments, and not how many monuments that you leave behind, are what really matter. Jesus said the same to James and John, but they could not help hoping that the cross would only be a bump in the road on the way to worldly glory. They didn’t get it, but you and I just might. Whoever among us wishes to be great must be a servant. Not exactly great career advice, but a principle worth organizing your life around. Amen.