This runs counter to received wisdom. Most people think that if we were wealthier or healthier we would be happier. But it seems that this is not so. What, then, is the secret of happiness? Is there a formula?
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says of himself and his Christian friends that they have nothing and yet possess everything (2 Corinthians 6:10). How can that be true? It sounds absurd – how can you have nothing and yet at the same time have everything?
Paul knew that people looked down on him. He had experienced a catalogue of disasters. He had been rejected by his former peer group, had been hounded and at times severely beaten. He had been imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, and gone without food and sleep on many occasions. In the eyes of many, Paul was a loser – a man who had little going for him.
Materially, for sure, Paul had little to show – no comfortable home, no family, no fashionable wardrobe. Financially, he had to do manual work (tent-making) to provide for himself and his companions. Physically, his appearance was unimpressive and he had health problems.
Then, as now, people admired and idolised those who were well-off – materially, financially and physically. We look at the lives of others and assess them according to the houses they live in, the jobs they have, the clothes they wear, and how handsome or beautiful they are physically. These are the measures we typically use to establish who is successful and happy.
Speaking of himself, Paul says he had nothing, and looking at his life many would agree with his honest self-assessment. Materially speaking, Paul and his friends didn’t have much going for them.
Having nothing, says Paul, and yet possessing everything. What does he mean?
To understand this paradox we have to realise that what Paul possessed was not the substance of the material world – it wasn’t anything visible and tangible. Rather, the ‘everything’ that Paul treasured was the spiritual state of being right with God. This, he asserts, is the secret of true and lasting happiness.
Paul possessed the rock-solid assurance that in spite of his sins, faults and failings he had been irrevocably accepted by Almighty God – who is perfectly holy and who knew exactly what he was like! He was confident that at all times he was received and welcomed by God.
How could that be? Because by God’s grace he was ‘accepted’ not in himself but ‘in the beloved’ (Ephesians 1:6). Joined by faith to Jesus Christ – God’s own much-loved and eternal Son – Paul was received by God as a son rather than a sinner.
Consider the benefits that came to Paul through Christ.
The ‘everything’ that Paul possessed included the full and free forgiveness of all his sin – the result not of anything he had done but of what God had done for him in mercy and grace through Christ’s death and resurrection.
The ‘everything’ that Paul possessed included having no fear of death, because for him physical death was but the door that leads to eternal life.
The ‘everything’ that Paul possessed included the faithful, persevering, patient love of God – a love that would never let him down and never let him go.
The ‘everything’ that Paul possessed included inner joy and peace – which might be shaken but could not be shattered by any amount of suffering and sorrow.
The ‘everything’ that Paul possessed included the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, working actively within him to strengthen him, transform him, and enable him to live for the glory of God.
In short, the ‘everything’ that Paul possessed was saving faith in Jesus Christ. All these things (and more) were Paul’s as a result of his dramatic encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus – an event that turned his life upside down and inside out.
Paul had Christ as his Saviour and, therefore, whatever else he might lack in material and physical terms, he possessed everything he needed. Paul had nothing in the eyes of the world, but in reality he had the greatest riches a man can ever have – the incomparable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).
What do you possess?
You may have much already and be eager to gain more possessions to enjoy in this present age. Most of us living in the Western world possess everything we really need materially – in contrast to the apostle Paul and his friends. But in reality, unless we possess what Paul possessed we own nothing that will last.
Remember that in material terms you take nothing with you when you die. You leave every material thing behind on earth and go as a naked soul into eternity. Unless you have what Paul possessed you will appear empty-handed before God.
So what preparations are you making for the age to come? What provision are you making for eternity? Are you laying up ‘treasure in heaven’, a firm foundation for the coming age? Have you yet taken hold of the eternal life that is truly life?
The Bible teaches that a person can have nothing and yet possess everything – or, sadly, that he or she can have everything but possess nothing. This biblical paradox only makes sense when we realise that what we are in material and physical terms is not the whole story.
We need to look beyond what is visible and adopt an eternal perspective on our lives. What really matters is not what others think about us – how they judge the success or otherwise of our lives. What really matters is how God sees us and what his verdict on us will be.
What do you really have? Have you taken possession of everything? Have you learnt the secret of true and lasting happiness, which is to be found only in Jesus Christ?
1. Lord Layard; Happiness: Lessons from a new science (Penguin Press, 2005)