The way up is down (part 2)

Perhaps you’ve had the experience. There was something you really wanted, something you worked for, something upon which you pinned your happiness. You told yourself, If only I had X, I would be happy, fulfilled, satisfied.

And then, at last, you finally accomplished or received it. What happened next?

Maybe it truly did make you happy — but that happiness was short-lived. Maybe you discovered it wasn’t as wonderful as you expected it to be, or brought new responsibilities and challenges.

Experiences like these should teach us that “happiness” is an elusive goal. Researchers who study happiness tell us that part of the reason is that we tend to adapt to new circumstances. You finally get that raise you’ve been wanting; your income goes up; you’re able to afford more. But soon, that “more” becomes the new normal. We take the increased income for granted, and set our sights on next goal, feeling again the sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction.

What we should learn is that “happiness” is a moving target, indeed, that the happiness game itself may be twisted. Instead, we keep playing the game, hoping the next goal, the next achievement, is the one we really want.

Good luck with that.

What’s the alternative? The Bible calls it blessedness. And if we want to understand what it means to be blessed, there’s no better place to turn than the teaching of Jesus.

. . .

James, as we’ve seen, has counseled his readers to stop striving for worldly status and humble themselves before God instead. As can be seen in the life of Jesus, the road to exaltation runs through the humility — the humiliation — of letting go of divine privilege to become mortal and die on a criminal’s cross. The way up, in God’s kingdom, is down.

When I read James’ language, I hear echoes of the teaching of Jesus, specifically of the Beatitudes from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3-12). Recall what James says:

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:8-10, NRSVUE)

The entire passage echoes Jesus’ seemingly paradoxical teaching about blessing. In Matthew 5, Jesus declares that the “poor in spirit,” as well as those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice) are all blessed. Certainly, it doesn’t sound much like what we would normally count as “blessing.”

And lest we spiritualize his words into something too abstract, compare his teaching here with the words of Luke 6, where Jesus pronounces blessing upon the poor, not the poor in spirit, as well as upon the hungry, not those who hunger for righteousness. Moreover, he turns right around and pronounces woe upon the rich, the well-fed, those who laugh, and those who are spoken well of by others.

What kind of blessing is that?

It’s not that there’s anything particularly blessed about being poor and hungry. Jesus is drawing upon an ancient spiritual tradition: the poor (again, the anawim) are blessed, not because of any intrinsic merit in themselves, but because God is on their side. It’s not about the people, it’s about God.

If we listen, we might hear the echoes of the Beatitudes in James. Humble yourselves, says James, drawing upon the same tradition as Jesus when he speaks of the poor in spirit and the meek. Lament, mourn, and weep, commands James; Blessed are those who mourn, says Jesus. Purify your hearts, James insists; Blessed are the pure in heart, teaches Jesus.

The way up is down because the way down is where we let go enough of our striving and pride to find God waiting. This is not the happiness du jour, but the grounding of our humanity in a relationship with the one who created us, who knows better than we do what will satisfy our longings.

James teaches it. Jesus teaches it.

There must be something there, even if sounds upside-down.

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