Saturday, June 16, 2007

Being happy

The Tibetan Dalai Lama is in Australia. From the newspaper reports it appears that the main thrust of his message is that the point of life is to be happy.

Perhaps most people would be surprised to learn that Jesus taught the same thing!

Unfortunately, the teachings of Jesus have been so shrouded in religious jargon that few people would associate Jesus' teachings with "being happy". Yet His most famous sermon - the sermon on the mount - begins with the word "Happy". The sermon on the mount was placed in Matthew's account of the life of Jesus in a way which indicated that this sermon was an encapsulation of Jesus' main message - the "good news of the kingdom" (see this post for the evidence of that). And He began this sermon with a series of statements about happiness.

But most people will miss this point - especially if they are reading from the most popular English translations which have the word "blessed" instead of the word "happy". The word "blessed" in Greek is makarios and the word "beatitude" often used in Christian literature and in some Bibles comes from a later Latin translation. The Amplified Bible (AB) translates the opening words of the sermon this way:

"Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous - with life-joy and satisfaction in God's favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit" (Matt 5:3)".

In subsequent verses the AB tried to capture the richness of meaning in this word by translating it these ways:
  • enviably happy [with a happiness produced by the experience of God's favor and especially conditioned by the revelation of His matchless grace]
  • happy, blithesome, joyous, spiritually prosperous - with life-joy and satisfaction in God's favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions
  • Blessed and fortunate and happy
This is what William Barclay wrote about the word translated "blessed" or "happy":
Makarios describes that joy which has its secret within itself, that joy which is serene and untouchable, and self contained, that joy which is completely independent of all the chances and the chances of life. ... "No one," said Jesus, "will take your joy from you" (John 16: 22). The beatitudes speak of that joy which seeks us through our pain, that joy which sorrow and loss, and pain and grief, are powerless to touch, that joy which shines through tears, and which nothing in life or death can take away.
. . . The world can win its joys, and the world can equally well lose its joys. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition, even a change in the weather, can take away the fickle joy the world can give. But the Christian has the serene and untouchable joy which comes from walking for ever in the company and in the presence of Jesus Christ.
The greatness of the beatitudes is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some distant glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.

("The Gospel of Matthew" Volume 1)

It's a pity that Christianity often fails to appeal to 'ordinary' people simply because it's presented with it's own jargon which makes little sense to people without a church background. I was recently give a rather nice little summary of the Christadelphian faith being used by an ecclesia which is making a real effort to present the Gospel more simply. Given its brevity I was therefore surprised to see it included the words "righteous", "grace" and "spirit" without explanation. These are all familiar terms to church-going people or Bible-readers, but not to the average person in the street.

Let's make a real effort to de-mystify the teachings of Jesus by avoiding terms which are confusing, ambiguous or devoid of the power that was originally intended. If we did that, then rather flocking to hear the Dalai Lama speak about "being happy" people might respond by saying "there's nothing new in that - after all, Jesus taught the same thing".