By Hal Knight
Happiness is something everyone wants but no one can adequately define. One internet site had over 13,000 quotes from famous people on what brings happiness. Suggestions include having enough money (but not too much), having a fulfilling job, positive thinking, a warm bath, a warm puppy, having good friends, or having a loving family (although George Burns is quoted as saying “Happiness is having a large, caring, close-knit family in another city.”).
While some of these are indeed good things, for John Wesley they do not give us deep and lasting happiness. There is a hunger within us that cannot be satisfied even with the good things of life. Advertisers count on this. Long before Wesley, Gregory of Nyssa (325–394) observed that “as soon as a man satisfies his desire by obtaining what he wants, he starts to desire something else and finds himself empty again; and if he satisfies his desire with this, he becomes empty once again and ready for still another.” (The Life of Moses).
In his sermon “The Way to the Kingdom” Wesley argues that our deepest need can only be fulfilled by “true religion,” which he defines as “holiness and happiness.” Holiness, or righteousness, consists of loving God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourself. This is the part of Wesley’s teaching that is most wellknown: holiness of heart and life centered in love.
“But,” Wesley says, “true religion . . . implies happiness as well as holiness,” and happiness is “peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” Such peace is a gift of God which the world can neither understand nor take away, banishing both doubt and fear. It enables us to know that we are children of God. With this comes a “joy wrought in the heart by . . . the Spirit of God,” a joy that our sins are forgiven and that we are children of God, to be with God forever.
Holiness and happiness, taken together, are the kingdom of God within us, in which God reigns in our hearts and heaven is opened in our souls. Our happiness, then, is in God and what God has done in Jesus Christ. Augustine (354–430) said in his Confessions that “Our hearts are restless until the rest in Thee.” Only God can satisfy full and eternally our deepest desires.
In his later writing Wesley emphasizes that we not only are happy in God, but we are also happier when we love others as God has loved us. In “God’s Love to Fallen Man” Wesley says, “the more holy we are upon earth the more happy we must be (seeing there is an inseparable connection between holiness and happiness).” Thus “the more good we do . . . the happier we shall be.”
This is because as we grow in this life of holiness (which comes to us as a gift from God received by trusting in Christ) we are becoming more like the image of God in which we were created. To become more the persons we were always meant to be is itself a deep source of happiness and well-being that will abide through all of life’s circumstances.