It’s advice you sometimes hear people say: just do what makes you happy. On the one hand, it’s not terrible advice—happiness is better than walking around miserable all the time. But on the other hand, it leaves the door open to individualizing morality away from God’s holiness; and it turns happiness into a god of sorts, making the feeling the supreme objective of life.
Solomon gave us an interesting take on the issue at the end of Ecclesiastes. Writing as an old man and reflecting back on his life, he mentioned several times how he had tested everything and denied himself nothing, even abundant pleasures, yet found them all to be vain. After his sizable reflection on the vanity of pleasure and just about everything else, he wrote:
8So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. 9Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. 10Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
12:1Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them.” … 13The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. ~ Ecclesiastes 11:8-12:1, 12:13-14
Solomon told his son: rejoice in your life, especially in your youth, do what you desire to do—what you think will make you happy, but remember God will judge. So keep your mind set on him, fear him, and follow his ways.
Thus our attitude should not be do what makes you happy; rather, do what makes you happy, but… That but helps put a bound on our happiness: God and his word. Yet, this is really not a bound but a refocusing. God’s ways are better than our ways. Hebrews 11 says that sin has its passing pleasures, Psalm 16 says that in God there are pleasures forevermore.
Solomon’s point is really threefold: 1) you only live once; 2) you’re only young once; and 3) God’s ways are best.
In the broader picture of his book, Solomon concluded there are plenty of things in life that can make a person miserable. Death comes to all, death comes unexpectedly, and death comes too soon. History moves on, the new generation forgets the last, yet human nature and folly remains the same. There is nothing new under the sun.
So, make the most of your life that you can, especially when you’re young and able. Pursue happiness. And why? Because the evil days are coming. In Ecclesiastes 12:2-7, Solomon poetically painted the process of aging. Yes, we have some medical benefits now that can make aging easier and more comfortable; but none of us escape it. Vision fades, strength is lost, hearing goes, desire falters, and then comes the grave.
Man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets. ~ 12:5
With age (hopefully) comes the wisdom of experience; but with age also comes difficulty in doing things. So, seize the opportunity while you can, grasp at the moment, pursue happiness, but keep the eternal in mind.
Recently I saw a list of 30 things to do before you’re 30. Most of them were good—spend a night camping under the stars, travel some place exotic, climb a mountain, learn a different language, etc. But several also had to do with various drunken revelries. In the pursuit of happiness, we need to keep the but in mind. In looking for joy we need to ask: will this make me happy AND will this honor God?
Life is short, age robs us of certain abilities, death comes to all… seek to live life to its fullest, make the most of your opportunities, and do it all for the glory of God in Christ. It is the pursuit of happiness interwoven with the pursuit of holiness.