We are taught rather boldly in the scriptures that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). We’re also taught that God’s plan is a “plan of happiness.” We here talk of the “happiness” prepared for those that serve God. It’s almost indisputable that we are promised happiness if we but follow God’s commandments. Many are feeling disappointed by these promises, because they feel they’ve done everything they are “supposed” to do, and feel deeply unhappy. Where’s the happiness that was promised them?
I read a blog post today written by a mother who found child raising to be a very unpleasant and at times miserable experience. She hated changing diapers, she hated entertaining her children all the time, and she resented being “pressured” into motherhood and away from other pursuits. The tone of the post expressed a feeling of betrayal—she was supposed to be happy as a mother and a gospel-living saint, but wasn’t. And worse, she had sacrificed her ambitions for it. She was feeling trapped by her parental obligations and stymied in her non-familial pursuits (pursuits she believes would have made her more happy). So clearly either she’s broken or the Gospel’s broken (or at least the way we teach it). At least, that was the implicit conclusion of the blog post.
I completely believe the promises made in the scriptures: the Gospel does bring us happiness. But I believe that we often define happiness entirely differently than God does. The Savior lived the most righteous life of all, and we read that he was a man who was full of sorrow and acquainted with grief. We read that God, the morally perfect being who rules over heaven and earth, weeps from time to time with sorrow and grief. Clearly, the happiness the Gospel promises in this life is not a happiness devoid of sorrow and grief, unpleasantness and discomfort. And knowing the life of the Savior, it is clearly also not a life devoid of loneliness.
Here’s what I believe about happiness: at its very core, happiness is personal communion with God and a conscience clean of any offense towards God or man. In short, happiness is Divine companionship and a clean conscience. Consider the purity and simplicity of that. Happiness cannot be achieved without these two things, and happiness requires nothing else. Everything else is peripheral to genuine happiness—at least, to the kind of happiness promised to us in this mortal life to the faithful.
For at least one point of evidence, I look to the scripture following the scripture where we learn that wickedness never was happiness: “And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness” (Alma 41:11). Why is wickedness the opposite of happiness? Because happiness is being with God in the world, liberated from the bonds of iniquity. I interpret “bonds of iniquity” and “gall of bitterness” to represent a burdened conscience, a conscience inflicted by crimes one has committed against God and others. And this is the state that is described as “contrary to the nature of happiness.” So there you have it: happiness is Divine companionship and a clean conscience. Anything else is extra.
Consider a different mother that I know, one who is a close friend of mine: she cares for a chronically ill daughter who has been struggling with severe schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I wouldn’t be surprised if caring for her daughter for the past decade has shaved decades off of her own life. And I know for a fact that it has halted and perhaps even buried whatever career aspirations she may have had. And it’s a deeply unpleasant experience—her daughter can be frequently emotionally abusive and occasionally physically abusive, through no real volition of her own. It is physically, emotionally draining to care for her. As a family they are grateful for any relief and assistance they are offered and can afford. But nonetheless, it is a relentless burden and a tiring task, one that offers little rest of peace of mind.
And here’s the divine irony: were this mother to abandon the parental stewardship she’s been given and begin to pursue her career aspirations instead, because she felt entitled to a little bit of “happiness” (because, after all, the Gospel promises happiness, so aren’t we owed it?), she could never find the happiness she seeks. Because the happiness she seeks—that is, the happiness the Gospel promises—is not a comfortable, pleasant life devoid of grief, sorrow, heartaches, stress, etc. That’s certainly not the happiness the Savior got in exchange for his toil and troubles. The happiness God promises the faithful is a clean conscience and Divine companionship. And nothing burdens the conscience more than shirking one’s divinely appointed parental duties.
Simultaneously, the happiness God promises—Divine companionship and a clean conscience—can be found even the midst of grief, sorrow, stress, and heartache. Like the still small voice, the happiness God promises us pierces through the deepest of our Gethsemanes, our Liberty jails, our handcart treks, and our caring for mentally troubled family members. It is a happiness that can be experienced in the midst of trouble, because it is a peace of heart that comes from knowing that we stand clean before God. It requires no idyllic circumstances, no social or physical Utopia. It does not require that we live our dreams, fulfill what we imagine to be our worldly potential, or even get the time to check off activities from our bucket list. This mother does not require any of her “unlocked potential” in accounting or education to be fulfilled or actuated in this life in order to experience this Divine companionship and peace of conscience.
I’ve been really troubled by a growing feel of entitlement amongst friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—a feeling that the Gospel is not a call to heartache and service in the trenches of life, but a promise of felicity and escape from those trenches. There’s sometimes a sense that Christ suffered so that we can live free of pain, as if we’ve forgotten that all walks with Christ lead through Gethsemane.
The happiness God promises—this Divine companionship and clean conscience—vanishes the moment we resent whatever life circumstances in which we find ourselves called to serve. We are under no obligation to enjoy the trenches of life—the mother in the original article that prompted these thoughts is under no obligation to enjoy changing diapers and driving children to kindergarten and washing dishes. But even as we sometimes find our stewardships unpleasant and unenjoyable, we can still choose to relinquish our feelings of resentment for having been called to serve in those trenches. We can give up our feelings of entitlement to an easier life or a more pleasant corner of the Kingdom to serve in. And it is only as we do this that God can bestow upon us this Divine happiness, which is more valuable than all of its counterfeits combined.
I’m reminded of the words of the hymn: “There’s surely somewhere a lowly place in earth’s harvest fields so wide, where I may labor through life’s short day for Jesus the Crucified. So trusting mine all to thy tender care, and knowing thou lovest me, I’ll do thy will with a heart sincere: I’ll be what you want me to be.” I love the sentiment here: it doesn’t matter nearly so much where we serve, or what stewardship we are given, so much as we serve faithfully and discharge that stewardship with a sincere and faithful heart. We don’t have to enjoy that lonely part of the vineyard. We may even feel that our unique talents are more useful in other parts of the vineyard. But the Lord doesn’t always call us to serve where we can shine the brightest or use whatever talents we might want or enjoy—he calls us where he needs us to be, and whether that’s for own growth or the growth of others, we don’t always know.
And that’s the attitude I missed in the original article I read that precipitated this string of thoughts: the recognition that our own families are as much a part of the vineyard as any other, and if at times in our lives (whether we are male or female) we are called to serve in that part of the vineyard alone, why should we resent the chance to serve? If a man finds himself unable to obtain the job he really wants where he feels like he can really make a difference in the world, and finds himself working solely to financially support his family—or if, for example, he must give up the job he really wants in order to have time for a family—why should he resent that, if he is following his moral conscience? It is a clean conscience that is at the core of genuine happiness, not fulfilling one’s career aspirations. Further, if a mother finds herself giving up a job she wants in order to devote her attention to family and children—particularly if her moral conscience whispers that this is the right course of action—is this not the path to true happiness, even if child raising proves itself to be at times burdensome and unpleasant? Can we fully appreciate the tragic irony of betraying our moral conscience in our quest for personal happiness, when at the core of any genuine happiness resides a clean conscience? For us to feel betrayed because the path of conscience sometimes leads away from our extra-familial aspirations and ambitions (whether we are man or woman, mother or father), and to cry out that the divine promise of personal happiness is being yanked from beneath our feet when our career and social ambitions never fully materialize, is to entirely misdefine happiness itself.
Our happiness does not depend on serving where we wish to serve—it’s serving where God wishes us to serve. That’s because happiness is not “living our dreams,” it’s not some mythical Maslow-ian “self-actualization” in which all of our latent talents are put to use and all of our emotional “needs” are met, it’s not serving in a pleasant calling or living a pleasant life, never burdened with obligations we wish we could avoid. Happiness is Divine companionship and a clean conscience. And that can only be had with a heart pure of resentment, a heart willing to engage in whatever stewardship the Lord sees fit to grant to us. It can only be had with a heart that prioritizes the will of the Lord over the will of the self, even as Christ did in the midst of Gethsemane—a heart willing to submit to the will of the Divine companionship God offers the truly penitent. For that reason, happiness can only be found on God’s terms, not our own, and it seems unbecoming of discipleship to resentfully challenge God when the thorns of our own assigned corner of the vineyard prick us and make us bleed, particularly when Christ’s corner of the vineyard—Gethsemane—pricked Him until He bled from every pore.
This article should not be taken as a criticism or a judgment upon any particular individual, but rather as a public expression of my ongoing thoughts on a matter of growing concern to me. It is simply an invitation to reflectively consider what we mean when we use the term “happiness.” It is an invitation to reflect on the cognitive dissonance that results when we use the world’s metric of “happiness” to gauge whether God has adequately bestowed upon us the happiness He promises the faithful. It is an invitation to reflect on the irony that resides in the fact that happiness is linked to discharging our obligations towards God and others—a fundamentally selfless way of living in the world—and the fact that we often selfishly resent the perceived lack of this happiness in our lives. It is an invitation to reflect on whether the happiness God wishes to bless us with (peace of conscience and Divine communion) might reside in the very thickets and trenches in which we sometimes curse God for sending us to serve.