By Archbishop Nathanial (Lvov) 1906-1985
Translated by Charles Bausman
People wish each other happiness on various occasions, for example, on the New Year, but what is happiness? How can one define it?
Modern man’s concept of happiness has not changed much since primitive times, ie. happiness is when I acquire more material things from others, and unhappiness is when others take my property from me.
Even if we leave aside the morality of this concept, it is still flawed in its essence because no matter how much property, power, public recognition, and pleasures we amass, it will not bring us happiness. Material objects cannot bring true happiness, only taedium vitae, after which a person is overcome by depression even more than before.
It is interesting to note that the word “happiness,” — “tikhi,” in ancient Greek, appears very rarely in the Holy Scriptures, and not once in the New Testament. The term is too broad and is inexact. On its own it has no meaning. Instead, the Scriptures use another more clear and specific term, “joy,” (“khara” in ancient Greek) which is one of the components of happiness.
Christ says the following about joy: “… that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” He also indicates where this joy comes from: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15: 10 – 11). Here we have the answer to the age-old question. True happiness, true joy, is God’s love, and being with Him. This is completely confirmed by St. Paul when he says: “For the Kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). John adds this: “…and your joy no man taketh from you” (John 16:22). This means, nothing and no one — neither suffering, nor deprivation, nor persecution, not even death itself.
This is well understood by those who have solved for themselves the centuries-old problem of humanity, and who have found happiness: the Christian saints and those who please God, past and present. Yet their behavior is puzzling to others. The ancient Romans couldn’t understand why Christians were so joyous. Contemporary heathens, most of whom nominally think of themselves as Christians, ask the same question.
There exists a wide-spread, sentimental, romantic, Western European notion, which is often offered as an answer to this question, which goes something like this: that because in the ancient world people had little understanding of what happens after death, people feared death, and Christians espoused the soothing idea that people will live after death, that Christ has saved everyone, forgiven everyone, and promised everyone eternal life and heavenly bliss, and that this is the reason why Christians are so joyous. This notion, in one form or another is very common, but it is completely inaccurate.
In fact, Christ did not at all promise heavenly bliss. Frequently Christ gives frightening warnings: “…there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…,” (Matthew 24:51), “…Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment…” (Matthew 25:46). Furthermore, St. Peter, speaking of the terrible danger of eternal suffering hanging over us, reminds us that even the righteous barely save themselves, and that the impious and sinful almost never do (1 Peter 4:18).
Another notion, originating in Protestantism, which is quite common amongst liberally inclined Christians is that the gloomy concept of the after-life and the difficulty of salvation is a product of a later era, of “gloomy, joyless, ascetics/monks,” and that in the ancient, initial Christianity there predominated a “bright mood, and an understanding that one’s salvation derived alone from one’s belief in Christ.” Those who believe this are inventing their own version of Christianity, with no basis or confirmation either in the Gospels, or the Epistles, or in ancient Christian history.
For example, read the early Christian book by “Pastor” Erma, a writer of the 1st century, and you will see how demanding early Christians were regarding salvation and how clearly they understood that the slightest hint of immorality puts a person at risk of eternal death. This book is written with the pathos of the frightening words of the church song – “the suffering of the sinful is limitless.” This was even more true regarding pureness of faith and loyalty to the Church.
Therefore, a Christian viewpoint might seem much less cheerful than a pagan one. Pagans have a “kingdom of shadows” after life, not very clearly defined, and of which one can form the most varied of conceptions. At one extreme one has the “Elysian Fields,” a kingdom of bliss, which are quite easy to enter. At the gloomy end of the spectrum one has the concept of nothingness, of complete destruction after death. To quote Socrates, “Since I didn’t suffer before appearing on this earth, it follows that I won’t suffer when I leave it.”
If you compare this with the awful picture of eternal suffering and hell and you see that the liberal view on the reasons for the joyousness of the first Christians is essentially flawed. And nonetheless, that Christian joy was and still is. It shines brightly in each line of the lives of the martyrs and ascetics (podvizhniki), and glows still in the lives of monks and in Christian families. In fact, it alone deserves this term. And the more spiritual a person is, the more clear and perfect his joy is. This joy, this bright world-view never left the early Christians, even during suffering, and at death’s door.
What then is the source of this joy? The answer, of course, it is faith. But not in the way Protestants understand it. It is not a formal, lifeless, faith, absent of heroic spiritual effort (podvig) (after all, even “demons believe and tremble”) rather it is an animating, active faith which lives in a pure heart and is warmed by God’s grace, a faith burning with love for God, and strengthening hope in Him. As one modern Christian writer put it so well, “It is not enough to believe in God, one must believe Him too.” The lines from the litany: “Let us entrust ourselves, and each other, and all our life to Christ our God” properly describe true Christian faith. It is a full, trusting, filial entrustment of oneself into God’s hands. This is, and has always been, what opens the doors to true joy, to true happiness.
If a Christian trusts God, then he is prepared to accept anything from him: heaven or hell, suffering or bliss, for he knows that God is infinitely good. When he punishes us, it is for our sake. He loves us so much that he will move heaven and earth to save us. He won’t betray us, not even for the best reasons, and will certainly save us, if at all possible. As St. Augustine put it, “The only refuge from God’s anger is God’s favour.”
With this kind of understanding, joy and light firmly inhabit the heart of a Christian, and there is no room for gloom. The world, the boundless universe belongs to my God. No event, from the smallest to the greatest can occur without His will, and He loves me infinitely. Even here on earth he allows me to enter His kingdom, His holy Church. He will never drive me from His kingdom, as long as I am faithful to Him. What is more, if I fall, he will pick me up as soon as I realize my sin and offer tears of repentence. That is why I trust my salvation and the salvation of not only my loved ones, but of all people, to God’s hands.
Death is not frightening, it has been defeated by Christ. Hell and eternal suffering await those who consciously and by their own free will turn from God, who prefer the gloom of sin to the light of His love. Joy and eternal blessedness await the faithful. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Let ever-merciful God help us achieve full trust in Him. Lord rejuvenate us who pray to Thee!