Happiness Words

March 01, 2008

Happiness Words

There are five Bible dictionaries on my bookshelves. How many of those five have an entry under “happiness”? None! On the next shelf are four theological dictionaries, and in only one of them does “happiness” appear as a headword.

This suggests that whatever is covered by the English word happiness it is not a particularly Biblical or theological concept. And a little research supports this impression.

The earliest citation for the word “happy” is from 1375, and the meaning is “having good ‘hap’ or fortune; lucky; fortunate; favoured by lot, position or other external circumstances”. The source word (“hap”) first appears in early Middle English (from a root that is found in both Old Norse and Old English) with the meaning of “chance; good luck; fortune”.

And this notion (“good luck; good fortune”) is still at work in the “happy/happiness” word family today. For instance, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (designed for those learning English as a second language) offers this definition of happiness: “having feelings of pleasure, for example because something good has happened to you or you are very satisfied with your life.”

The core idea here is that your “happiness” is dependent on things external to you. Whatever happens, or fails to happen, determines your level of “happiness”. In other words, when it comes to our happiness, we are the victims of our circumstances.

The Macquarie Dictionary confirms the presence of this notion in the contemporary usage of the “happiness” word family. It offers a number of definitions of happiness. Here are the first three on its list:

  1. 1. characterised by or indicative of pleasure, content, or gladness.
  2. delighted, pleased, or glad, as over a particular thing.
  3. favoured by fortune; fortunate or lucky.

Definitions (2) and (3) here point at circumstances—some “particular thing” that happens to us. Even the presence of the word “pleasure” in definition (1) is pointing us back to circumstances.

In other words “happiness” is something that just “happens” (from the same source word—“hap” or chance).

You have a good job and good health? Then you’re happy! It’s not a gift from a benevolent God, it’s just a matter of chance—what the wheel of fortune happens to have spun up for you.

On the other hand, if you have a poorly paid job (and a boss with a bad temper) plus chronic back pain—then you are unhappy (not favoured by chance or circumstances). That is the root meaning (and still the living meaning) of the word.

So when The Good News Bible translates the Beatitudes as “Happy are they who …” (Matthew 5:3-12) it’s making a mess of translating makarioi. Mourning, humility, poverty of spirit and persecution —the states or experiences that follow “who”—are not the sort of circumstances covered by “good fortune; good luck” or feelings that “something good has happened to you”.

In English usage the words “happiness” and “luck” walk in lockstep. They cannot be separated.

But the Beatitudes does separate them, by replacing the concept of “happiness” with “blessedness”. This is the contrasting concept that Christians can have a different attitude towards circumstances, not being ruled by them (as the pagan is) but trusting in a sovereign and loving God who is at work in all circumstances, not just the healthy and wealthy ones.

There are some Christian writers who miss this point, and continue to use the “happiness” word family in unhelpful ways. One writer, for example, writes that “Happiness comes to ...” and here follows a set of rules or conditions (those who “acknowledge God as God” etc.) Now, most users of the English language are going to interpret such statements as meaning “Pleasant circumstances come to …” (those who acknowledge God etc.)

But that, of course, is not the biblical message. Eternal life comes to those who respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ in repentance and faith, but there is no promise of “pleasant circumstance” (that is, “good fortune”). In fact, if anything, the promise is the opposite:

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The Bible’s wider view of life and eternity frees the Christian from the slavery to circumstances that trickles like a poisoned stream through the whole “happiness” word family. 

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