“Happiness” is an over-used, misunderstood term. The word happy literally comes from the root word “happenstance.” “Happiness” is something that happens to you. We say “Happy Birthday” or “Happy New Year.” We talk about happy hour as a place where you can go to buy cheap drinks and appetizers. Then the hour ends. Disneyland advertisers call their theme park the “Happiest Place on Earth.” I don't know if you've ever been to Disneyland. We took our kids to the Magic Kingdom. We had fun, but when we stood in line 95-degree heat on black pavement for and hour and forty minutes we weren’t happy.
All of us live our lives in this tension. We want to be happy, but a lot of what happens to us causes us to be unhappy. Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:10: “God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” Whoa – wait a minute ... again that word “God blesses” is one word in the original language. It could literally be translated as “divine favor” or “blessed” or “happy.” Happy are those who are persecuted for doing right.
As you read through this passage in Matthew 5, Jesus assures us twice that the persecuted are blessed. It's as if he's saying there are double blessings to you when you are going through a difficult time because you are a follower of Christ. Double blessing. Happy are you because people are persecuting you. We can experience an inner peace and an inner joy that co-exists with tough circumstances. It is possible to have this happiness within us even through persecution, sufferings and setbacks.
Focusing on our problems and difficulties is a happiness-killer. We must look beyond those to the hope of Heaven and the love of God, to the peace and the reward that we will ultimately receive as we follow Christ. What you focus on tends to be what you see. You'll start to see Jesus and experience His strength and power in the midst of your trouble and problems. Christ’s divine blessing can give us the power to say and do miraculous things even when everything and everyone around us is going against us.
A perfect example of a man who rose above his problems and challenges was the English statesman William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was elected to parliament at the age of 21. This bold young man of 21 years stood in front of parliament for four and one-half hours and argued to abolish slave trade. His motion was summarily voted down. For the next 23 years, every single year, William Wilberforce did the same thing. He stood up in parliament pleading for the abolishment of the slave trade. He was mocked. He received death threats. People wrote horrible things about him. He was the brunt of jokes and the subject of satirical cartoons in the newspapers. Wilberforce was persecuted for doing what was right.
This godly man could have focused on his troubles, but he never did. He continued to keep his eyes on God and passionately pursue the calling God gave him. After twenty-three grueling years, the vote tipped in favor of abolishing the slave trade. History books tell us that the day the English government abolished slavery, everyone rose to their feet. The resounding ovation was one of the longest in the history of the British parliament. Do you know how William Wilberforce responded?
He sat in his seat with his face in his hands and he wept. Undaunted by persecution, this godly servant spent twenty-three years of difficulty and struggle to fight for his cause.
But God told him he had not finished his mission. Wilberforce, continued to persevere. For the next twenty years, the crusader gave his life to another phase of that campaign-freeing the existing slaves. This great saint fought that battle until the final days before he died. While Wilberforce lay on his deathbed, parliament finally voted to free all of the slaves. His colleagues came and told him that finally it had been done. All existing slaves were freed!
This compassionate, visionary Christian man also fought for single mothers and orphans. He defended the poor. He was unstoppable, and I think he represented the heart of Jesus Christ in such a powerful way. Peter writes in I Peter 3:13 “Now who will want to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you suffer for doing what is right God will reward you for it. Don't worry or be afraid of their threats; instead you must worship Christ as Lord of your life.” You follow Christ; you remember who and whose you are and do what's right.
Jesus exhorts us to rejoice when we suffer great difficulties and obstacles. In Matthew 5:12, Christ encourages us to rejoice: “Be happy about it. Be very glad.” It could be translated as “jump for joy.” What? You want me to jump for joy? He's saying in the midst of difficulty and hardships you can rejoice. I think what Jesus means is that between what happens to us and how we chose to respond is one of our greatest life-tests. Jump for joy. Keep jumping even when you suffer. Rejoicing is the gasoline that fuels your engine to keep moving forward with God’s passion and power.
Wilberforce knew the key to facing impossible obstacles and suffering was rejoicing in God. We have a choice to make. We may be victims, but we don't have to live as victims. We can choose to live differently. Do you know the saying, pain is inevitable, but misery is optional? We may face pain in our lives from any number of directions, but how we choose to deal with that will determine whether or not we are miserable. Your attitude is the one thing that you can control. Jesus says to learn in the midst of those difficulties--to rejoice. And when you learn the power of rejoicing, God can help you move mountains and change the course of history.