“Good” and “Happy” Shake Hands
by Lori Heine
This is an excerpt from a yet-unpublished book, “Heavenly Leaven.”
For centuries, Christians have been scouring the Holiness Code in the Hebrew Scriptures for guidance on morality. There is little evidence that this has proved helpful. Our faith history shows such “guidance” to have produced little morality—and much misery. Almost always, those who appeal to Leviticus apply it more rigorously to others than they do to themselves. Not that even such self-favoritism appears to have made them happier.
Christians who behave like what they’re supposed to be take Jesus and the Gospels as their guide. If we insist on consulting the Hebrew Scriptures, perhaps we’d get a picture closer to what Jesus taught from a different, often-overlooked book. At the risk of sounding proverbial, I suggest we’d be wise to read Proverbs.
We don’t tend to look at that book for moral guidance. Most Christians dismiss it as an artifact: the Poor Richard’s Almanac of the ancient world. But in His greatest discourse, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly patterned His Beatitudes after the Proverbs. Though repeatedly forgotten by fundamentalists, the fact remains that Jesus is the real authority on the Christian moral life.
He said He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Fundamentalists are certainly fond of quoting that, as if to imply that even now, the Holiness Code should be followed down to every jot and tittle. But Jesus also said we would be judged by the standard we use to judge others. Not too many Christians, no matter how good they think they are, could confidently stand before God to answer for their fidelity to Leviticus.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus offers a glimpse into how He sees morality. We’re so accustomed to letting the concept be shaped by fundamentalists that we usually don’t see it in any other light. That’s true regardless of whether we accept the fundamentalist viewpoint or reject it. We often lean—even leap—one way or the other.
Churches that fully include LGBT believers tend to downplay the subject of morality. A consistent complaint, from sexual minorities who search long and hard for a spiritual home, is that we get little moral guidance from the churches that welcome us. But once they grasp the actual essence of godly morality, inclusive churches need not fear their obligation to provide it.
Rightly understood, Christian morality is not about human control. It has nothing to do with whether the “right” human authorities are large and in charge. It’s about imitating God. Our lives are godly when they are Godlike.
Happiness and goodness are in no way antithetical to one another. Neither the Christian left nor right totally grasp this. God doesn’t want us to be miserable. In the Beatitudes, Jesus uses “happy” and “blessed” as synonymous—as, in His original language, they were. And in the book of Proverbs, those who are good are usually described as those who are happy.
Being good—in the genuine Christian sense—does make people happy. I wish that “progressive” churches would figure that out. It is neither kind nor loving to refrain from offering people sound moral guidance. Truth be told, it is usually not done out of kindness, but out of laziness or timidity.
Too many religious leaders are afraid that if they teach about morality, people will flee from them. Actually, if they impart a proper understanding, they will attract a great many more. The earliest believers were not sourpusses or gloomy martyrs. Because their close-knit communities were so renowned for their happiness, the infant Church grew at a speed that even non-believing historians have noted as remarkable. It wasn’t until the Church decided it had to torment people to make saints out of them (mistakenly seeing suffering as saintly for its own sake) that it began finding it necessary to burn them at the stake for waywardness, or convert them at the point of a sword.
We’ve come to equate misery with virtue and pleasure with vice. In fact, we’ve been doing that for a very long time. Such an attitude takes a jaundiced view of God.
The long-entrenched (Protestant and Catholic) fundamentalist view of same-sex love as evil is very much the product of such thinking. Of course it’s always easier for us to be offended by other people’s happiness than by our own. But if we wallow in misery because we think it makes us good, after a while it only makes us mean.
God loves us. “He” wants to be happy. Since sin is what displeases God and goodness is what pleases “Him,” it’s nonsensical to assume that God will banish us to eternal torment because we’ve been happy in our earthly lives. Such a view not only makes God out to be a monster, but probably explains why so many fundamentalists are monstrous.
Our spiritual orientation is what determines virtue or vice. Our sexual orientation has nothing to do with it. If we’re geared toward God, what will make us happy will be what makes God happy—namely, love. Selfish behavior like infidelity, objectification or exploitation, even if supposedly for the sake of love, is never genuinely loving—and is, therefore, not virtuous. Though it might give us some semblance of short-lived pleasure, conduct of that sort is always sinful.
I’m not trying to claim, then, that anything we do—even if it injures or takes advantage of others—is good as long as it makes us happy. The general fact that God wants us to be happy does not give us license to do whatever we please, no matter who it harms. God wants us to want the right things. Generally speaking, those also turn out to be the things that are best for us—and a surprising amount of the time, they do make us happy.
Committed, reciprocal romantic love—in which no one’s trust is betrayed—is a perfectly healthy form of happiness. As, in such a relationship, is sex. We were wired to want these things because that was the way our Creator chose to make us. Nor, were sex intended for procreation only, would we need to enjoy it anywhere near as much as we do.
The powers-that-be, in our consumer culture, are always telling us that selfishness will make us happy. There’s no denying that it doesn’t make us very nice people, but screw that—their “gospel” says—we’ll be happy. Actually, no, we won’t in any lasting way, because selfishness breaks our connections with other people, leaving us isolated, lonely and helpless. It also threatens to turn our society into one in which we’d ultimately have no desire to live.
Happy people tend to be nicer to others, especially when they’re happy in love. And by “others,” I mean the human race in general. As an old A.A. friend of mine used to say, “Hurt people hurt people.” Almost without exception, those who are genuinely happy want others to be happy, or at least see no reason to stand in the way of it. Jerks are almost always miserable, spreading darkness all around them, because, as the saying goes, “Misery loves company.”
The Book of Proverbs is filled with sayings even better than those. Jesus found in them a rich source of wisdom. We will, too. So will the fundamentalists—if they can tear themselves away from Leviticus.
If we want to be truly happy, we’ll live kind and loving lives. And if we live kind and loving lives, we will, very likely, be happy. This, too, is part of how God wired us. It’s one of the most important ways that we were made in “His” likeness and image.
The Gospels portray Jesus as a basically happy Man, who really enjoyed life. He was happy, primarily, because He enjoyed perfect, loving relationship with God. The unhappiness He endured, in His life on earth, was caused by what were almost certainly discontented people. Jesus came into this world to show us how to be truly happy, and to lead us into a realm where we will be perfectly happy forever. It is no accident that, at the same time and as part of an apparently indivisible message, He also showed us how to bring joy to others.
In the Realm of God, the Bible tells us, “Justice and peace shall kiss.” Perfect love will reign there. Thus, we can be equally sure, will “good” and “happy” shake hands.
© 2016 Lori Heine
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