The Ingredients of True Happiness—According to Calvin
By Pastor Ruttan
Generally speaking, people want to be happy.
Many pray for “health and happiness.” The American Declaration of Independence talks about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But what is happiness, anyway?
Is it physical or mental well-being? Is it related to status, money, or an all-expenses paid vacation? What about a lollipop while watching the sunset?
One day on a whim, I picked up a book called Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord. It tells a fictional story about a guy who travels the world to learn about happiness. Along the way, he takes notes:
- “The sun and the sea make everybody happy”
- “Happiness often comes when least expected”
- “Happiness is being with people you love”
I want to share “the ingredients of true happiness” according to John Calvin, a towering figure in Protestant thought, best known as a church reformer in the sixteenth century. He was also a very intelligent and prolific Bible commentator. While doing some research on Psalm 85, I stumbled across what he called “the ingredients of true happiness.”
But before I tell you what they are, let me give you some more insight into Calvin himself—specifically, that he suffered greatly. Why is that relevant? Because I think it’s wise to listen to people who have endured significant hardship when trying to define happiness. It guards us against being too naïve or simplistic in our thinking.
According to a biographical summary by Victor Shepherd, Calvin was afflicted with chronic tophaceous gout—deposits of calcified material around his joints. At one point he was in so much pain that he had to be carried to the church to preach.
He also suffered from kidney stones. His doctor said he should ride his horse vigorously with the goal of discharging a stone. The next day he was bleeding. “The urinary canal was so much lacerated that copious discharges of blood flowed from it.”
He also suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, which at one point confined him to bed for eight months. He had intestinal parasites, and passed hookworms and tapeworms. He had irritable bowel syndrome; as a result, he could only eat one meal per day—for ten years. He had migraine headaches which sometimes lasted for days. He also suffered from hemorrhoids. His cause of death at the age of 54 was most likely septicemia—shock because of bacteria in the bloodstream.*
Okay, so the guy suffered. But what did he say about happiness?
In Psalm 85, God’s people are praying for renewal and restoration. They cry out to God that his glory “may dwell in our land” (verse 9). It then goes out to talk about the beauty and power of these four virtues co-existing:
“Mercy and truth shall meet together; righteousness and peace shall kiss each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven” (verses 10-11, Calvin’s translation).
Mercy. Truth. Righteousness. Peace.
Calvin pays very close attention to these four virtues. He writes: “nothing can contribute more effectually to the promotion of a happy life, than that these four virtues should flourish and rule supreme.” Put together, he calls them “the grand and ennobling distinction of the kingdom of Christ.”**
He doesn’t mention happy hour, a weekend getaway or negative test results—as nice as those things may be. Calvin says that true happiness is achieved when mercy, truth, righteousness and peace flourish and rule supreme.
Sounds like a happiness worth pursuing, don’t you think?
Mercy when there is so much hate.
Truth when there is so much deception.
Righteousness when there is so much evil.
Peace when there is so much violence.
How do you define happiness?
In a journal entry from 1903, Lucy Maud Montgomery, the famous author of Anne of Green Gables, made this discerning observation: “Happiness is an elusive thing. We may not lay violent hands on it or cajole it into our hearts…”
Our society seems to gravitate toward quick fixes and Band-Aid solutions. So maybe we need to aim higher and think more broadly. And maybe we can learn from someone who committed his life to keeping his eyes fixed on God while enduring an avalanche of personal suffering. According to Calvin, true happiness is achieved when mercy, truth, righteousness and peace flourish and rule supreme.
In a world like ours—and at a time like this—wouldn’t that be beautiful?
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*Victor Shepherd, A Ministry Dearer Than Life: The Pastoral Legacy of John Calvin (Toronto: Clements, 2009), 51-52.
**John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. III, trans. J. Anderson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1949), 376.
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