“We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these rights are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (Declaration of Independence of the United States of America)
First to note for our times is that Thomas Jefferson and his peers assumed a Creator responsible for all creation. Given their times, a rational Creator would endow the highest form of creation with attributes of life; therefore, an ideal government would affirm life as a God-given right, together with the freedom to experience and express life to its maximum. Perhaps they had in mind their motherland, where a monarch could end human life - as was King Henry VIII’s way of dealing with his unwanted wives - and the restrictions on freedom due to social strata that thwarted or prevented those born in poverty to advance in the ranks of society.
The pursuit of happiness was an inspired insight to Jefferson. What does it mean to chase after happiness, and how does one do it? Let us begin with a definition: From Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary to Charlie Brown’s illustration, we all think we know what happiness means, and we agree that it has as many definitions as there are people. Indeed, to define means to limit by our under-standing. As such, only believers have the best chance to explain what the term means, because for us it will always exceed our expectations and surprise us by its largesse.
Our Lord Jesus Christ chose to use images so that we could even begin to appreciate what He had in mind. It starts as a nearly invisible mustard seed, then in the kingdom of God grows like a huge tree [Luke 13:19]. Or like a tiny pinch of yeast hidden in a bowl of dough that permeates the lump completely, baking all parts into a loaf [Luke 13:21].
Christ Jesus even expressed the joy in heaven when a lost sinner is returned to God. It’s like a shepherd who finds a lost lamb [Luke 15:6], or a woman whose circle of coins on her forehead is incomplete until she rummages through her earthen floor to find the missing coin [Luke 15:8].
All the above images imply a transcendent happiness for which earthly joy is but an aperitif. The kingdom of God is an acquired taste, one which many of our contemporary fellow citizens decide to do without. Our government offers us all the right to seek pleasure in any form we choose. America is the land of opportunity. Christianity is the ultimate example of delayed expectations. Many wise parents encourage their children to forgo instantaneous pleasures of time-wasting activities, to study hard and apply themselves to tasks that press their minds, bodies and imaginations to their limit, and to achieve their highest potential. Others feel, to use the phrase from Disney’s film “Pinocchio”: the world owes me a living.
For the true Christian, happiness is more than self-achievement, even when that goal is to follow Jesus Christ to His Father’s kingdom, because in doing the will of our Lord, we are commanded to follow His example in serving the needs of others. An ancient axiom, “One Christian is no Christian,” is important to keep in mind. The moral dimension of our faith is to find our happiness in providing for the welfare of all God’s children. Not only must we reach out and help others, that ministry has to appeal to us in a way that enhances our lives and liberates us from self-awareness. Self-centeredness is not an option for a wholesome Orthodox Christian personality. We are our brothers’ keepers. Or as Nicolai Berdyaev expressed so profoundly: “Moral consciousness began with God’s question, ‘Cain, where is your brother Abel?’ It will close with another question of God’s: ‘Abel, where is your brother Cain?’” [Destiny of Man, p. 297]