What is a Beatitude?

man jumping from a rock

The Beatitudes are the name given to the opening lines of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, found in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-12. They consist of 9 statements which all begin with the words “Blessed are…”

So what exactly is a “beatitude”?

Not the Be-Attitudes

One common explanation is that the beatitudes are the “be-attitudes”, i.e. “the attitudes you should be.”

Not only is this atrocious grammatically, it’s also incorrect linguistically.

The Happy Sayings

The word beatitude comes from the Latin word beati, which means “happy”, because in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, each of these sayings begins with the word, “Beati” or “Happy are…”

In the original Greek, each of these sayings begins with the word makarios, which also means “happy”.

The beatitudes, therefore, are not a laundry list of attitudes you need to muster up, rather they are a group of sayings, in which Jesus shows us the pathway to true happiness.

Blessed or Happy?

The English translators of the Bible chose to translate the word makarios as “blessed” instead of “happy”.

Other languages, however, retained the simple, straight-forward translation of makarios as “happy” – such as the other language I speak: Hungarian, which translates it as “boldog”, the regular word for “happy”, as opposed to the word “áldott” which means “blessed”. In Hungarian, the beatitudes are called “A Boldog Mondások”, literally “the happy sayings” – which is what beatitudes actually means.

Recently I was teaching at Ravencrest Bible College in Estes Park, and asked a student from Scandinavia how her Bible translated it, and sure enough, makarios was translated as a word meaning “happiness” rather than one referring to “blessedness”.

So, why did the English translators of the Bible translate makarios as “blessed” rather than as “happy”? Many people believe that it was because they felt that the word “happy” was too trite, and not religious enough. Some English translators have translated makarios as “happy” – such as the Good News Translation, but most have kept with the tradition of using “blessed” instead because it is so engrained in the English linguistic heritage.

However, I believe that translating makarios as “blessed”, something is lost in translation. The word “happy” has a different tone than the word “blessed”. After all, you can be blessed without being happy. Blessed doesn’t communicate elationit doesn’t evoke the image of a smile on your face and lightness in your heart!

When Jesus spoke these words, he was using a word that was common and relatable, and not a religious word: “happy”!

The Pathway to Happiness

The beatitudes would have been surprising to their original hearers! They would have caused people to do a double-take, and listen closely, perhaps wondering if maybe they had misunderstood Jesus in what he said!

Think about it:  “Oh how happy are the poor in spirit.”  “Oh how happy are you who weep.”

The first listeners would have said, Wait…what?! Poor people aren’t happy! People who weep are literally NOT happy!

It was a set-up, for Jesus to instruct them about his “upside-down kingdom”.

In the beatitudes, the “happy sayings”, Jesus is laying out the pathway to true and lasting happiness. Unlike what many people in the world popularly believe about how to attain happiness, Jesus shows us the true and better way:

Happiness begins, Jesus said, with recognizing and acknowledging your spiritual poverty, and then weeping over that spiritually poor condition. It continues by you humbling yourself before God and hungering and thirsting after righteousness: which if you do, God will give to you as a gift of his grace (His righteousness, not your own!).

For more on how the beatitudes, the “happy sayings”, show the pathway to happiness, check out this message I taught on this section called “How to Be Happy – Matthew 5:1-12”

May we be those who hear what Jesus has to say in these Happy Sayings, and may we follow him down the pathway to true, lasting happiness, which begins with humility and repentance!

Further Reading

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Is Christianity About Denying Yourself or About Being Happy?

woman wearing grey long sleeved top photography

Jesus said that his desire was that we would have his joy in us, and that our joy would be complete (John 15:11). He also told his disciples that if anyone wants to come after him, that person must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24).

So, which is it? Is Christianity about being happy, or is Christianity about denying yourself and dying to yourself?

In my previous post, I talked about happiness and whether there is a difference between “joy” and “happiness”. Check that post out here: Does God Want You to Be Happy?

One question I received in response to that post was how self-denial and taking up your cross to follow Jesus fits into this idea of happiness.

A Means to an End

Is self-denial the goal of Christianity, or is it a means to another end?

This is a very important question, as it shapes the way we think about the purpose of following Jesus.

I believe the answer is quite obvious: self-denial is not the end goal of Christianity, it is a means to another end, which is: joy.

In order to experience greater and increasing joy, we must deny ourselves in some areas. After all, it was for the joy that was set before him that Jesus endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)

For Jesus, dying on the cross was a means to an end, not the end in itself. The end goal, the purpose of that act of literally dying to himself and taking up his cross, was the joy of redeeming his creation, and everything that would bring in the future.

Likewise, the purpose of denying ourselves – even to the point of taking up our “crosses” and following Jesus is: joy.

Liberating Constraints

This is true in all areas of life; if you indulge every desire you have, you will end up less-happy, not more-happy. Anyone who wants anything practices self-denial, because there are some things they want more than other things.

Real freedom comes from a strategically forfeiting some freedoms in order to gain others. Greater happiness always comes as a result of giving up some pleasures in order to greater pleasures.

Happiness is not the result of the absence of constraints but is found in choosing the right constraints and giving up the right pleasures and freedoms.

For example, if you want to have the freedom and pleasure which comes with having a good income, you will need to sacrifice many other freedoms and pleasures in order to get a good education, improve your skills, or build your business. If you don’t deny many of your impulses to go hang out with friends, spend money, travel, party, etc., you will not succeed in getting your degree, or building your business.

If you want to experience the elation that comes with being a top performer in sports or the arts, you will need to accept many constraints on your life. You may give up the freedom of where you live; you may have a coach who dictates what you will do with your time, what you will eat, etc.

Having children certainly restricts freedom. I have had to do some pretty gross things for my kids which I did not enjoy. More times than I can count, I have had to not do what I wanted to do in order to do things for them. But what has been the result of all this self-denial for my kids? Greater joy than I would have known without having them in my life.

Imagine a person who loves eating anything he wants, but also loves playing with his grandchildren. He goes in to the doctor, and the doctor tells him: “Unless you stop eating those foods you enjoy, you are going to die.” Obviously death would mean not being able to spend any more time with his grandchildren. So he is faced with a choice: which of the things that give him pleasure will he need to forfeit in order to enjoy the other? To deny himself the foods he enjoys will be driven by his desire for the greater joy of spending time with his grandchildren.

This principle can be found in almost every area of our lives: greater joy and happiness is always the result of denying ourselves something in order to gain something better.

Greater Joy

Why would Jesus tell us to deny ourselves? Because he wants us to experience greater joy. Because there is a difference between momentary pleasures and long-lasting elation.

God loves you, and he wants you to experience the true and lasting joy that your heart longs for, and because he loves you he guides and instructs you on how to experience that greater joy.

Trust him, and follow his lead into that greater joy!

Does God Want You to Be Happy?

silhouette photography of group of people jumping during golden time

Maybe you’ve heard someone say it before: “God doesn’t care about your happiness, he cares about your holiness.”

Is that true? I don’t believe so.

Recently at White Fields, I taught on the subject of holiness from 1 Peter 1:13-25. You can listen to the message here: 1 Peter 1:13-25, “The H Word”. As I talked about holiness, I made the claim that the reason why God wants us to be holy is because holiness leads to happiness, and God wants us to be happy.

Holiness vs Happiness?

I have sometimes heard people say things along these lines: The world offers happiness, but God doesn’t care about your happiness, He cares about your holiness!

I completely disagree. Not only does it send the absolute wrong message, it is not accurate biblically.

Sometimes people think that holiness is opposed to happiness. “The worse something makes me feel, the better,” this thinking goes, “because the more miserable I am, the more holy and godly I must be,”

Friends, that is not holiness, that is self-righteousness.

While there may sometimes be an aspect of self-denial involved in holiness, the purpose of that self-denial is because it will lead to more happiness, not less, in the end. I will elaborate on the relationship between self-denial and happiness in a future post.

For Christians to pit holiness and happiness against each other is a fundamental error, and a misrepresentation of the heart of God and the gospel.

Jesus: Holy and Happy

In Hebrews 1:9, we are told that Jesus was: 1) holy (he loved righteousness and hated wickedness), and 2) the happiest person who ever lived (anointed with the oil of gladness beyond all his companions).

Furthermore, this verse tells us that Jesus’ happiness was the direct result of his holiness (“therefore…”).

Holiness is not opposed to happiness, rather holiness is the pathway to happiness.

Therefore, when God says “be holy as I am holy” – he is inviting us to be happy as he is happy!

But Isn’t “Joy” Different than “Happiness”?

Sometimes people have tried to make a distinction between “joy” and “happiness.” They claim that whereas “happiness” is momentary and fleeting, “joy” is something which is unemotional and doesn’t depend on circumstances.

Furthermore, this line of thinking tends to say that “happiness” is what “the world” has, but “joy” is something that only Christians can have.

This is a false dichotomy. It is well-intentioned, but incorrect, both linguistically and biblically.

Joy and happiness are synonyms. Not only does Jesus use the word “happy”, but it is found throughout the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible talks about the “joy” of the wicked (see Job 20:5), and it talks about the Pharisees having “joy” when Judas betrayed Jesus.

Consider this quote from Joni Eareckson Tada:

“We are often taught to be careful of the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness, it is said, is an emotion which depends on what happens to you. Joy, by contrast is supposed to be enduring, stemming from deep within our soul, and which is not affected by circumstances surrounding us. I don’t think God had any such hairsplitting in mind. Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words such as “delight”, “gladness”, “blessing”. There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these. Happiness is not relegated to fleshly minded sinners nor joy to heaven-bound saints.”

Our Happy God

1 Timothy 1:11 says: “…in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Timothy 1:11)

The word translated “blessed” is the Greek word markariou, which means: “happy”. In other words, a direct translation of the Greek text would be: “…our HAPPY God”

Furthermore, this word makarios (Greek for “happy”) is found in other places:

Happy are those whose sins are forgiven, whose wrongs are pardoned. Happy is the one whom the LORD does not accuse of doing wrong and who is free from all deceit. (Psalm 32:1-2 GNT)

Happy are those who reject the advice of evil people, who do not follow the example of sinners or join those who have no use for God. Instead, they find joy in obeying the Law of the LORDand they study it day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2 GNT)

Lost in Translation

As to why the English translators of the Bible in the Middle Ages chose to translate the word “makarios” as “blessed” rather than “happy” is because they considered the word “happy” to be too trite, and not religious-sounding enough. However, in the process, we have lost the sense of mirth that these words were originally intended to have!

In other languages, such as Hungarian, the word “markarios” is translated as “boldog” – which is the normal Hungarian word for “happy”, rather than the word “áldott” which means “blessed”. This more faithful and straight-forward translation conveys the heart and feeling of happiness which has been lost in translation for those of us who read in English.

Charles Spurgeon and Amy Carmichael on God and Happiness

Amy Carmichael was a missionary to India who worked with exploited girls in horrendous situations, and rescued over 1000 of them in the name of Jesus. She spent the final 2 years of her life mostly bedridden. Here’s what she said during that time:

“There is nothing dreary or doubtful about this Christian life. It is meant to be continually joyful. We are called to a settled happiness in the Lord, whose joy is our strength.”

Charles Spurgeon, “The Prince of Preachers” asserted:

“God made human beings to be happy.”

“My dear brothers, if anyone in the world ought to be happy, we are those people. How boundless our privileges, how brilliant our hopes!”

Redeeming the Word

The problem is not with the pursuit of happiness, it is with the pursuit of happiness in the wrong places and in the wrong ways. This is the essence of sin. But rather than throwing out the baby (happiness) with the bathwater (sin), we should redeem this wonderful word which is truly ours as the people of God, and pursue holiness and happiness – the former leading to the latter.

Resources

Randy Alcorn wrote a fabulous book on this subject, which I highly recommend: Happiness by Randy Alcorn

Check out this video in which Mike and I discuss happiness and God:

Here is the video of my sermon from 1 Peter 1:13-25: “The H Word”:

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

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The Declaration of Independence contains this famous phrase:

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.

Happiness is what all people are ultimately seeking.  Including you. Including me. You want to be happy. So do I.

If you really think about it, everything we do is, in one way or another, a pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is what motivates people to get married – or not to get married, to have children or not to have children, to choose certain careers or paths in life and not others. It is the reason people abuse substances – and even, as strange as it may sound at first, to commit suicide.

Philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal said:

All people seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they always tend towards this end. The cause of some going to war and of others avoiding it is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object (happiness). This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Suicide is the (very misguided!) belief, that one can escape unhappiness here in this life and hopefully find happiness wherever they end up. Still, even this terrible and tragic act is part of the pursuit of happiness.
Sometimes Christians have made a false distinction between happiness and joy. Here is what Joni Eareckson Tada has to say about that:
We are often taught to be careful of the difference between joy and happiness. ‘Happiness,’ it is said, ‘is an emotion which depends on what happens to you (a false etymology).’ Joy, by contrast is supposed to be enduring, stemming from deep within our soul, and which is not affected by circumstances surrounding us. I don’t think God had any such hairsplitting in mind. Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words such as “delight” “Gladness” “blessing” – There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these. Happiness is not relegated to fleshly minded sinners nor joy to heaven-bound saints.

If you ask the average person what they want more than anything else, they will reply:  “I want to be HAPPY!”   “It’s not the only thing I want — but it is at the core of the other things I want.”

If you ask people: “What do you really want for your kids?”  They will say: “I want them to be polite, respectful, successful, responsible” — but why?  Because what they really want is for them to be happy.  The reason they want all those other things for them, is because they believe those things will result in their greater happiness in the long run.
C.H. Spurgeon said this:
My dear brothers, if anyone in the world ought to be happy, we are those people. How boundless our privileges, how brilliant our hopes.
As Christians, in and through Jesus Christ, we have the keys to the happiness we desire and the joy we were made for.
Starting this Sunday at White Fields Church, I will be teaching a series titled: The Pursuit of Happiness, in which we will be studying Paul’s letter to the Philippians with a view of how Paul had the keys to happiness and an indomitable joy even in the midst of dark circumstances.
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