Knowing Freedom Part 2: The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute New Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…”

This is the second of two articles in this series with a quote from the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson (Read Part 1 here).

“What makes you happy, Samuel?” That’s the question I asked my autistic 19-year-old son. “Happy!” he replies. I ask again, “Son, what makes you happy?” “Happy! Yes, happy please!” That’s a typical experience in the Melvin household. “How about you, baby girl? What makes you happy?” “Sleep,” says my high schooler at 7:00 in the morning. Her brother and I are bubbly morning people, while she and my wife take a little more coaxing to get going for the day. Let me ask you: what makes you happy?

When Jefferson wrote these words, he didn’t explain what he meant by “the pursuit of happiness,” though scholars have long debated this question. Some say he was influenced by John Locke, exchanging the pursuit of “wealth” or “property” with the pursuit of “happiness.” Alternatively, his Epicurean leanings might have led him to a more personal interpretation of happiness. And yet we see Jefferson in 1787 writing to his daughter and telling her about “those principles of virtue and goodness which will make you valuable to others and happy in yourselves,” as well as “the mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe for felicity. The idle are the only wretched.” As we discussed in Part 1, Jefferson was complex and often contradictory.

What makes you happy? Would Christ want you to pursue happiness?

Jefferson emphasized that certain rights granted by God are unalienable. The term unalienable or inalienable refers to being permanent and impossible to remove. These rights are absolute. But the inalienable right in question is not happiness: it is the pursuit of happiness. Merriam-Webster defines pursue as “to follow in order to overtake, capture, kill, or defeat.” Nearly every dictionary source or reference defining this word begins with the phrase “to follow.”

When the term is used in the Old Testament, we see examples primarily of war, where one group is pursuing or chasing another. When we encounter the term pursue in the New Testament, however, we see it not referring to war, but to moving quickly toward an objective. Paul tells the church in Rome to pursue peace and to pursue building each other up (Romans 14:19). He tells the church at Corinth to pursue love (1 Corinthians 14:1). He tells Timothy to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness, and peace (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). Like Paul, Peter tells his dispersed reading audience also to pursue peace (1 Peter 3:11). But interestingly, nowhere in the New Testament is there encouragement to pursue happiness. Don’t pursue happiness? That doesn’t seem to add up. Doesn’t God want us to be happy? Wouldn’t Christ want us to pursue happiness? I’m missing something here!

Well, what did Jesus say about happiness? The closest word we find in the New Testament used by Jesus is makarios, which means to be blessed, fortunate, or privileged. Some Scripture translations use the word happy. Jesus uses this term almost exclusively in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). He said that the fortunate, privileged, blessed, or happy ones would be those who were spiritually humble (v.3), those who were repentant (v.4), those who were meek (v.5), those seeking right standing with God (v.6), those who give mercy (v.7), those whose hearts and motives are pure (v.8), those who make peace (v.9), and those who are persecuted for doing the right thing (v.10-11). He declared the disciples makarios because they had been given knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:10-16). He declared Peter makarios because he spoke what God had revealed to him (Matthew 16:13-20).

Pursuing happiness is a beautiful thing when we understand where our happiness comes from. 

What we learn from these passages is that pursuing God leads us to happiness. The path to happiness is through God. Chris Hippe and Peter Mahoney note in their book Knowing Freedom that finding happiness in our lives is not a bad thing, but “these benefits are not our goal or our prize. Our true prize is Christ himself. Everything else is a secondary byproduct of our friendship with Jesus.”

When we compare what Jesus said would make us happy to what Paul and Peter encourage us to pursue, we see a life that is not only fulfilling and free, but one full of happiness. For example, those who pursue righteousness will be filled (Matthew 5:6), so pursue righteousness (1 Timothy 6:11). Those who make peace will be God’s children (Matthew 5:9), so pursue peace (1 Peter 3:11). The opportunity to pursue happiness is a beautiful thing when we understand where our happiness comes from. We must always derive our happiness from our walk with Christ.

This Independence Day, let us be grateful for life and liberty. Let us also be grateful for the right to pursue happiness. Let us praise our Creator for these “certain unalienable rights,” and may we never forget that true happiness can only be found in our pursuit of God through Christ Jesus.


Sam Melvin


Read Part One of Knowing Freedom as well as other articles in our Holidays series including those written for Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.