A few weeks ago, as I was planning out my sermons for the summer, I came to a standstill. I had run out of things to say. I know, that’s a little bit like coming to the end of the Internet, but even people who talk for a living sometimes get stuck for an idea. So I asked some folks, what would you like to hear a sermon on? And one of the answers I got, was, “a road map to happiness.”
Happiness. How do you achieve happiness? What is the way to get there? And, me being me, that idea immediately reminded me of the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer.
Sometime in the 13th Century, Thomas of Erceldoune -- True Thomas, as he is known -- is idling away the time on Hunlie Bank when a fair lady comes riding by – perilously fair, for this lady is none other than the Queen of Elfland herself, who invites Thomas to visit her realm and taste of its delights. And how do you get to Elfland? Well, she tells him,
Now, when I hear people talk about what they want out of life and how they propose to find it, I notice that most of them aren’t talking about that narrow road, the difficult road, the path of righteousness. Most folks I know admire righteousness, but they find it daunting. They do not think they possess the single-mindedness of purpose to follow the path blazed by the saints and martyrs.
O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.
And see ye not yon braid braid road,
That lies across yon lillie leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.
And see ye not yon bonny road,
Which winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.
Which is not to say that they don’t believe in God, or that they reject his lordship; they would be quick to say that they aren’t bad people. And they want you to know that they aren’t like those people on that other road – the road to self-indulgence or self-destruction, the highway to hell – oh,no; they’re being as good as they can. But they don’t think of this life as an either/or proposition. They mostly think of it in terms of personal fulfillment.
They’re looking for a third road – a road that parallels the way to heaven (and gets you there eventually), but which allows for a lot of fun and achievement along the way. And though they are slow to say that they just want pleasure out of life (they are not hedonists, they say), still, they want things to enjoy:
Love; and family; friends; a good-paying job in a career that interests them; a nice house; enough money to go places, do things, have things without excessive worry or strain. They’re looking for the road to Elfland, if you will, and they think of that as the way to happiness.
Which all sounds very good to me. I want to be good, but I don’t want to be obsessed with it or sour about it. I don’t want to be evil or experience evil, and I’m a tolerant sort who is slow to point fingers at others. I think of happiness as a thing to be achieved – something you have to put together, to work at – and I think that maybe happiness is to be found in the putting of it together more than as a settled state at the end, more about the journey than the destination.
Lots of people think this way; I think this way; certainly I can point you to lots of philosophers who thought this way, who gave great consideration to the well-lived life. There’s just one thing wrong with it – and I hate to be the one that has to tell you, but,
There is no third road.
There is no road to Elfland, because Elfland doesn’t exist, however much we wish it did. There are only two destinations, when you come down to it, for however much the roads people follow may twist and intersect, it is the destination that defines the road, not the other way round.
Now, Art, I’m not looking for Elfland – I just want to find some happiness in this life.
I know, but hear me, now: when I say there are only two roads, two destinations, I’m saying what is at the core of the Christian gospel: That God loved the world so much that whosoever believes in his Son – whosoever follows Christ on his road – will be saved from a world that is otherwise headed for destruction.
Everybody and everything can be saved, can find its way to heaven, if it belongs to Christ; but everything that will not belong to Christ, that insists on belonging to itself, will in no wise be saved. And anything that is not saved, in the end will be lost. There are only two destinies, two destinations to choose from; therefore, there are only two roads.
Well, okay, but does it matter so much? I mean, this matter of ultimate destiny is a thing to be thought on – but do we have to do it now? Do we have to think about it all the time? Is there room for nothing else in your view of happiness?
Well, sure, there’s room for all kinds of things in life. But no matter how you try to arrange things, some experiences will be pleasant ones and some experiences will be unpleasant ones. Some people will have to struggle more than others, and that’s maybe not fair, but then, that’s just the way it is – and everyone will have to struggle sometimes. If happiness is a matter of never experiencing anything unpleasant or never having to struggle, of never being denied anything you want, then “happiness” is a bigger fairy tale than True Thomas’s sojourn in Elfland.
And when I say that the destination defines the road, I don’t just mean in terms of putting up route markers. I mean also that the destination you are pressing on toward will change your experience of the road you are on in the here and now, as well as in the end. Those who are on the road to heaven will find everlasting joy – and that joy will work backward throughout their experience of life and change the meaning of everything they have experienced. The joys will all be heightened, and the sorrows and burdens transmuted by the greater gain.
Even in terms of this life, and the way we experience it, have you never heard someone talk about hard times of long ago? They’ll say, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it, because we had each other.” Or, “Life was hard, but we lived every day to the full.” For those who have surmounted the turmoil, when struggle is over, all that is remembered is the happiness; even old pains don’t hurt any more, even though we know they did then.
But just as heaven works backward to sanctify all of the journey and make everything a vessel of grace and a means of fulfillment, so, too does hell work backward to defile and poison everything. For those who reach the other destination – and you can hear it foreshadowed in the way some people talk, even now – everything was hollow; no achievement was big enough; everything will disappoint you in the end; nothing lasts; nothing was worth the effort. Happiness along the way is thus made into stuff not worth striving for. What is really remembered is how everybody did you dirt. Or how you always failed. For some people, every hurt experienced along the way hurts forever, and will not heal.
In the end, all of us will reach one state or another – everlasting joy or everlasting grief – and however we have lived our life, all that we will make of it will all be one or the other, according to whichever destination we reach. The destination defines the road, not the other way round, and the destination changes the experience of the journey, both now, in time – and also in eternity. And there is no third road
At this point, it would behoove us to get back to the Scripture reading we started with, for this road to happiness – to fulfillment – is what Paul is talking about. He tells the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. To be happy, whatever their circumstances. If happiness could be purchased with earthly status, Paul would have been first in line. He had it all,
But whatever gain I had [he says], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.The surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. That is the secret of happiness. If I have Christ, I have all things, even if at the moment people or circumstances are taking things away from me.
And so Paul’s greatest desire is to know Christ, and be found in him, to share in the promised resurrection of the dead. He’s not there yet, he says, but he’s pressing on to make that goal his own. He says,
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.In saying this, neither Paul nor I is saying that being religious is the road to happiness. I am not suggesting – and neither is Paul – that if you just spent all your time in religious observance or doing good works or studying the Bible or whatever, that you will be happier than someone whose life is devoted more to other things.
But it is the upward call of God in Christ Jesus that defines my life. It’s what I am striving for, hoping for. And the longer I live, the more I realize that only finally attaining that prize will make everything I have done in my life satisfying. For whatever possessions I accumulate in my life I must some day leave behind. The people I love will eventually leave me or I must leave them – in death, if no other way. No matter how long I live, the day will come when I can no longer do those things I once did, which meant so much to me, and with what shall I fill my days then?
Those who reach heaven – or who have heaven in their sights – will live and die in possession of all things. Those who fail to reach heaven – or who are distracted from it because they think happiness can be found in something or someone else – will live and die in constant loss. But I would not have you think overmuch of the second possibility. As Paul says,
Only let us hold true to what we have attained.Build your life around the love of God in Christ Jesus, and love will be your everlasting portion. And whatever the circumstances of your life, you will be happy – now and always. For Jesus Christ is the road to happiness.