It is a curious paradox that the pleasures we plan most carefully to recreate give us less joy than the serendipitous pleasures that overtake us. I think this provides a clue for how God thinks about happiness. Not only are we surprised by joy, but the surprise increases the joy. This is why “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'” (Revelation 21:5 NIV).
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” –Matthew 5:5
Who can believe this? How can the meek get anything? You have to be aggressive. You have to be bold and assertive. You can’t wait for anybody to give you anything. What was Jesus thinking, telling people that being gentle and mild, being meek will get you anything? We know that the rich—those who really inherit the earth—don’t get it without being decisive, seizing the opportunity, making their own opportunity, and taking what they want. You can’t be soft. You can’t let feelings get in your way. You’ve got to be hard; the world isn’t for sissies.
Of course, you don’t want to be cruel. You want to be kind. But when others use violence, you have to be prepared to respond with force. You won’t strike the first blow, but when you do strike, it will be to end it. You have a right to protect yourself, your home, your family, your property. You have a right to defend yourself against violence. Get a gun, and learn how to use it. If anyone tries to cause you pain, you’ll bring the pain to them.
Of course, sometimes you have to strike first. If you wait for them to make the first move, you could be dead. If they threaten you, they had better be prepared for what you will do. If they so much as glance at your daughter, they won’t get a chance for a second look. If they come through your door, they had better already be shooting. Otherwise you will take them out.
Jesus commends the gentle, calls them blessed—lucky to have soft answers for the wrath of others, favored by God with a mild temper that forbears to injure anyone. He says that they and not the aggressive go-getters will inherit the earth. The world will become the possession of mild-mannered men and women, those who value peace and love and simple happiness. “Be happy,” he says. “Consider yourself lucky if you’re the type of person who abhors violence, who wants to live and let live, who looks for ways to de-escalate tense situations. The world of the future will be yours.”
It is not only the world that does not believe Jesus; it is Christians. How do I know? Because we praise strength when it is a willingness to use violence rather than a readiness to endure it. Search for images of meekness on Google, and you will find a lot of memes proclaiming, “Meekness is not weakness. It is strength under control.” Notice that the virtue being touted is not gentleness or patient endurance. It is control. You harness your violence and make it do your bidding. You keep the threat of force in check and only use it when necessary. The trouble is, it will always eventually become necessary.
This is a lesson taught and reinforced again and again by our media and the stories we love to tell. The good guy knows how to use violence as well as the bad guy, but he uses it judiciously: in self-defense, or the defense of others. He does not use it wantonly like the bad guys who care nothing for others and kill or destroy to advance some evil agenda. The good guy’s violence is under control, made to serve good purposes or at least some end that is less bad than the bad guy’s aim. The good guy’s violence is for justice. It is for vengeance and retaliation. He may train for violence, but he does not originate it. When the bad guys offer violence, he retaliates.
This lesson feels good and right to us, in part because it helps us believe that our wars are just, that our police are upright, that our laws and their enforcement are humane. But this is not a lesson Jesus taught. Until the night of his arrest, whenever the authorities sought to detain him, Jesus always evaded them. He ran away. He avoided confrontation. He didn’t stand his ground. He didn’t put up a fight. During his arrest, when one of his followers tried to defend him, he rebuked him and told him, “Put away your sword. Everyone who draws a sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:50-52). In his own actions and in the teaching he gave his followers, Jesus was relentlessly non-violent. If we consider ourselves his followers, then he taught us to endure violence. He taught us not to retaliate, not to seek retribution, and to leave justice to the Father. We can plead for God’s vengeance, but we are explicitly told not to take matters into our own hands. Those who have sought to emulate Jesus’ teaching of non-violence have had better success in changing the hearts and minds of their oppressors than all the warriors and agitators in history. The future belongs to the gentle. The meek will inherit the earth.
I would like to reclaim luck.
There is a notion prevalent among evangelicals that Christians should never attribute their good fortune or success to luck but only to God’s blessing. I suspect that many would attribute luck—good or bad—to the devil. By good luck he further ensnares those who are already his and prevents their escape. By bad luck he discourages the faithful and tempts them to desert the way of life.
The bible, however, presents a different view. Even the terrible misfortunes that befall Job, though designed and executed by the devil, are nevertheless permitted by God. His religious friends are convinced that Job is guilty of some great wickedness. They accuse him of robbing widows, enslaving orphans, or getting his fortune by murder and deceit. No one, their reasoning goes, is that unlucky. Job, too, looks for some overarching reason behind his misery. He wants to confront God with his own innocence and insists on his own integrity even if he must die for it. Neither Job nor the friends seem aware of the role Satan has played, and the author does not recur to it at the end of the narrative, as if the devil’s part is not really important. In the bible God takes responsibility for everything. His blessings result in peace, well-being, and happiness. His curses result in disaster and misery.
For me the distinction between being lucky and being blessed is one of emphasis. If I attribute my success to luck, then I am saying that it was not primarily my doing. I merely took advantage of advantageous opportunities. If I attribute my success to being blessed, then I am saying that it was God’s doing, not mine. I am merely the recipient of God’s beneficence. The context determines whether I want to emphasize God’s agency.
One potential problem with emphasizing God’s agency in blessing is the tacit assumption some people will make that God’s blessing has somehow to be deserved. If I claim to be blessed, I may appear to be claiming some kind of special status with God due to moral superiority or holiness. To avoid such an appearance, I might just say, “I was lucky.”
A look comparing how often the phrases “so lucky” and “so blessed” occur over the past 200 years shows that “so blessed” tended to predominate in the 19th century, but “so lucky” surpassed it around the beginning of the 20th century and has remained ascendant since.