“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
– Blaise Pascal
I’ve always been a fan of Pascal’s insight into the humanity’s quest for happiness, both for its apparent explanatory power in our world today and its rugged observations about the state of the human heart. We certainly see traces of this searching all throughout our hearts and lives; around each corner and in every nook and cranny of the human experience is a unified pursuit of what we believe ourselves to be longing for. But what are our hearts longing for? Do we long for money? Accolades? Attention? Affection? Better yet, what is the stuff of all of this longing? What is it we truly seek and why does it govern our lives and control our pursuits?
Why the Question of Human Flourishing Matters
This is the question at the forefront of our hearts and one that is deeply relevant to the study of the Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus arrives on the scene announcing the Kingdom and inviting men to follow Him, we can note a sort of resolving not only to the story of Israel but the story of humanity and redemption. In a world extraordinarily fractured by by the devastation of sin (Genesis 3:17, Isaiah 59:2), all of mankind is born into a longing – crafted and made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28, Psalm 139:13) yet possessing a sin nature (Romans 5:12). It is in this continental divide that we find ourselves made for another world while unfortunately at home in a world in which we do not belong. This separation creates a crisis of identity that will never be reconciled in this life and compels us on a path of searching for explanation and resolve. From the fragments of our heavenly identity, we seek to construct lives that fill the void of meaning and longing, all of which will hopefully land us in a place of true happiness.
The Proclamation & Invitation
This is the good news of the gospel: the proclamation of the coming Kingdom and the call to allegiance to King Jesus is also an invitation to experience true human flourishing. In turning to Christ to follow Him, we not only become obedient, but also find resolve for what our hearts truly long for. The blessedness that we experience as our lives accord with the Kingdom is the way of happiness and flourishing that exceeds our present circumstances. As Pennington writes in his book, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, “The Sermon is Christianity’s answer to the greatest metaphysical question that humanity has always faced—How can we experience true human flourishing?” It’s in this charter for the Kingdom that we see that the way of being in the world that Jesus calls us to is actually the way of satisfaction and happiness. The virtuous King Jesus models the better way and invites his followers to partake in the “good life” (The Gospel of Matthew, R. T. France).
Which to Pursue: Happiness or Christ?
It’s in this invitation that many of minds face a sort of stumbling block; it is difficult for us to imagine how a life of allegiance to Jesus results in happiness. Whether we state it explicitly or not, we often think of religion as a motivation-less cold adaptation of our lives around a book of arbitrary rules. I would submit to you that this is not the gospel of King Jesus. Among the things most needing redemption is the human imagination. The good King calls and invites us to a way of obedience and holiness, but this is not the opposite of happiness, it is the epitome of it. The divide that we perceive between obedience to Christ and human flourishing is nothing more than a failure to conceptualize the way of life Jesus invites us to.
In answering the call to follow Christ, we also orient our lives around a pursuit of blessedness and happiness because these are inseparable. The reign of King Jesus means the experience of human flourishing in the lives of his people. As we read the Sermon on the Mount, we should be reminded that Jesus is calling us to a more excellent way; he invites us to pursue a reward wisely and experience in Him what our hearts truly long for. There is no need to shy away or sell short the goodness of God in the call of the King.
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
– Isaiah 42:6-7