Where does your happiness come from?
Happiness, said the philosopher Aristotle, is the ultimate purpose, the highest good of mankind. Observing human nature, as Aristotle did, you can see how he came to this conclusion. Everywhere you go, no matter what part of the globe, everyone is looking for happiness.
The West has made something of specialty out of pursuing happiness. I doubt there has ever been a time or culture in history which has provided as many compelling possibilities for the pursuit of happiness. Houses today are much more than functional; they are designed around the idea of giving you a delightful sanctuary to rest and play. Holidays are not only times to rest; they are times to indulge your senses, create transcendent experiences, and indulge your tastes. Cars still get us from A to B, but every advertisement focuses on how much closer you will be perfect contentment if you buy this latest model.
I suspect that many Western Christians are somewhat skeptical about our culture’s agenda to tickle their happiness itch. I equally suspect that they are all the while significantly invested in the pursuit of happiness as our materialistic culture defines it.
In Papua New Guinea, the siren call of happiness is just as powerful as in a Western country like Australia, but the pursuit of it looks different. For some, it’s true, this pursuit is a materialistic and individualistic one, the very same race that many in Australia, Canada, and other Western countries are running. But for many, it is more focussed on relationships and social events. What the Papua New Guinean is looking for is gutpela sindaun, a good life-situation. They want to live at peace with their family and neighbours (often synonymous). They want enough money to get by, but not so much that it will make others jealous of them. They want to frequently enjoy the experience of sitting around with your friends after a few hours of hard work, enjoying a healthy amount of food, sharing entertaining stories about anything and everything. And if betelnut or beer will help the stories to improve or draw more friends, well then, all the better.
Of course, even in one culture many different people find many different ways to enjoy happiness. But the point is that everyone, in one way or another, is looking for it.
As a missionary, it is very important for me knowledgeable and aware of this endless quest for happiness. There are several reasons for this.
First, I need to be aware that I too am busy with this pursuit. Especially in a cross-cultural setting, I find I am becoming much more aware of this search within myself. Living in Papua New Guinea is wonderful in many ways. But at the same time, I don’t have easy access to those social and material comforts that I had in Canada. Sometimes I long for the crackers I ate almost every night, the sushi that was so readily available everywhere, the breakfast cereal that tasted so good and didn’t cost $10 for a small box. Many cravings go a lot deeper: the particular way that we marked special events like Christmas and birthdays, the joy and relaxing familiarity of close family, the ability to blend in with your surroundings and just be a regular guy going to town to do regular stuff. I crave these things here because the enjoyment and happiness that they bring are not available to me here. I need to be aware of these desires, because they can easily become distractions or temptations drawing me away from my calling to serve Christ here.
Second, I need to understand this deep longing in the hearts and lives of the people I am called to serve. What brings them joy? Where do they find contentment and security? What makes them say, “Ah, this is the life!” The serve people, you have to understand them. But often I am coming at the question from the other angle, trying to figure out why they are behaving in the particular way that they are. Why do people with so very little money give away what little they have so easily? Why does everyone agree with everything that I say, especially when it is clear from their actions later that they actually didn’t? How can two people who appear to be complete enemies one day completely change and act like the most caring and loving friends the next? The answers to all these questions are complex. While these questions are difficult to answer, they matter because mission work is not an abstract concept, it is a calling to love and serve real people.
Third, and most importantly, I need to strive to both live by and preach the radical, counter-intuitive, and eternally-focussed gospel of Jesus Christ. When the Lord Jesus began his famous Sermon on the Mount, he went directly to the matter of happiness; “Blessed are those” is often (and correctly, I believe) translated “Happy are those”. But whereas all cultures of this world search for happiness in the things and experiences on this life, Jesus does not go there. Instead, he calls us to consider the things of the next life. Those who mourn will be comforted. The meek will inherit the earth. And while the happiness of all cultures finds fulfillment in what can be gained, Jesus does not say that. The poor in spirit, the mourners, and the unimpressive, the meek, are happy. True happiness, the gospel tells us, comes to those who lack, who are short, who suffer.
A major temptation in all ministry is to remove the burden of pain and suffering that people are feeling. When I was a pastor in Canada visiting sick people in the hospital, I so often wished I could just make them feel better and have their ailment go away. As a missionary in a poor, underdeveloped country like Papua New Guinea, this desire is even stronger. So often when I see the struggles, I want focus on providing access to health care, stable employment, and protection from corruption. But while these are good things, to make them the main things would be devastating.
As Jesus spoke on the mountain and turned the world on its head with His beatitudes, what did he give to the people? He gave them none of the things that they and we think will provide true happiness. Instead, what did he give? He gave himself! He is eternal riches to the poor in spirit. He is redemption and comfort to those who mourn the pain of this sinful world! He proves that God lifts up and blesses the meek!
Hold fast to Christ Jesus, and you will enjoy deep, enduring happiness, a happiness in which to live and praise your Maker forever. This is the life-changing, liberating message that we are called to bring to bear on the culture and people of all the cultures and places of the world.