At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Happiness in the Old and New Testaments Is Different from the Usual Definition. Here’s Why.

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In my last post I suggested that God wants us to be happy, but we must understand how to define happiness from a biblical perspective.

True happiness can’t be derived from external circumstances. The words for “bless” and “blessed” in both the Old and New Testaments illustrate why this is true.

Happiness and Blessing in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the word ʾashrê means “well-being,” “flourishing,” and “happiness.” This word is most often translated into English as “blessed.”

ʾAshrê can be easily confused with bārak, another Hebrew word also translated as “bless” or “blessed.”

Bārak is understood as God actively giving his word and enabling it to go forth, resulting in benefits such as authority, peace, and rest.

This type of temporal or spiritual blessing, which comes from God, is like the blessing in Genesis 1:22: “God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply.””

ʾAshrê is used in passages like Psalm 1, which starts, “Blessed/Happy/Flourishing is the man…” (Psalm 1:1). ʾAshrê is used throughout the Psalms and Proverbs to describe the happy state of those who live wisely according to God’s design.

Happiness and Blessing in the New Testament

This same formula for ʾashrê is used in the New Testament with the word makarios, the Greek equivalent of ʾashrê. 

In Matthew, the Beatitudes could easily read, “Blessed/Happy/Flourishing are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

Thus, ʾashrê/makarios is making an appeal to true happiness and flourishing through obedience within the gracious covenant God has given to his people.

In a forthcoming research paper for IFWE, biblical scholar Jonathan Pennington writes that,

[In] the biblical sense of ʾashrê/makarios, true human flourishing and well-being can only be found in relationship with God and through alignment with his coming kingdom. That is, while it is important that we realize that ʾashrê/makarios are casting a vision of human flourishing, it is equally important to see that this flourishing can never occur fully apart from a proper relationship with the creator God. All of the Bible’s vision of human flourishing both now and in the age to come either assumes or explicitly states this fact.

We are irresistibly drawn into the covenant of grace by God, and are held in that covenant by his power alone, and not our works.

Yet, the Bible makes it clear that those in the covenant have responsibilities. When we are faithful to those responsibilities, we experience ʾashrê.

What This Means for Us Today

Happiness can never be found directly. If your highest priority is happiness, you will always be disappointed.

This is the opposite of what our culture proclaims. Cheryl Crow sings, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” Our culture has a dangerous bias towards happiness.

Tim Keller says this in one of his classic sermons:

Here is the irony: the less you’re concerned about your happiness and the more you’re concerned about him (God), the happier you get. This is not a trick. You can’t say, ‘Oh, great. I have it. I come to God, and I say this and this and this.’ You cannot bandy with the omnipotent and omniscient Lord of the universe. ‘Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.’

This is why true happiness is never found in external circumstances. It is a byproduct of seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

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