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Do You Want Happiness, or Justice?

We all want justice. Practically everyone wants to live in a world where truth prevails and we’re all treated fairly, lovingly. Yet we live in a world that is profoundly unjust. A society in which black men are routinely murdered with impunity by law enforcement. A world in which the wealthiest 1% control roughly half of our planet’s wealth.

How can this be? What does it mean that the overwhelming majority of us long for peace, justice, a society in which fairness and love are the norm, and yet we are surrounded by injustice that is so foul that it tempts us to despair?

Here’s the sad truth: As much as we want justice, we want happiness more.

It often seems like we must choose one or the other. The society of truth and justice that we all long for simply isn’t compatible with a safe, comfortable life. The peaceable kingdom, the beloved community, the society that King and Gandhi and Jesus point us to is one birthed of struggle.

Justice – a truthful and kind-hearted community rooted in love – comes about only through discomfort. We take the first step towards justice when we recognize that we have a problem. We can’t get there until we wrestle with the pain of that problem – with our anger, shame, and fear. Justice doesn’t find us until we resolve to change our lives, facing our own darkness and exposing it to the light.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a fun time to me. The path of justice is so full of challenge, struggle, and pain; it’s no wonder that our world looks the way it does. We’d rather be happy than do the bloody work of forging a just and loving society. Most of the time, we’d rather limp along with our bandaged wounds than face the cleansing, healing fire.

Everybody wants peace, but who wants to face up to our own violent behavior and attitudes? We all want truth, but who among us really wants to face the lies we’ve told? Practically everyone wants to live in a world that is kind, loving, and fair, but how many people do you know who are eager to give up their hard-earned advantages to benefit those who have less? Not many.

We’d rather not go down that road of risk and pain and struggle. We want justice, but not at that price. So we live in this broken world, full of injustice and hatred, despite our deep desire to see truth and love prevail.

It’s tragic, but not surprising. Most of the time, we’ll pick happiness over justice. Even if that unjust happiness is just a pale shadow of the fulfillment we might find in truth. But that kind of happiness lies on the other side of the fire, through the struggle and the pain. If the way out of hell is covered in thorns, flames, and the agony of the cross – well, most of us prefer the devil we know.

But we do have a choice. What if we had the courage to take the journey out of the inferno, even if it means walking through the flames? What kind of life, what kind of community would be possible if we committed ourselves to embracing the struggle for Christ-like love, justice, and mercy – even if it threatens our short-term happiness? You and I are not victims; we are powerful people with choices, ones that make the difference between heaven and hell. 

The easy path leads to destruction. The narrow, hard path leads to life.

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  • Jesus tells us both to carry our cross and that our lives will be full of joy. We are called beyond surface happiness to the hard work of dying to our superficial selves and allowing Christ to fill us up with something much deeper. And we are told this will not be at all easy, but in the end there will be joy although there is no assurance of comfortable circumstances. Can we embrace this seeming paradox? If we are transformed, we will no longer separate ourselves from those who suffer. We will experience in our own lives what Jesus was talking about when he said, “As you did it unto them, you did it unto me.”

    • Absolutely, Bill. I think that joy and happiness are often conflated, but they’re definitely different things! One is about getting what I want, the other is about God’s action in the world.

  • broschultz

    While happiness is overrated, I certainly don’t want justice. I like the fact that God has given me grace and spared me from justice. Now fairness would be nice. That is what is missing from the conversation. I think the major failing of our government is failing to provide the same opportunities to everyone. I think it’s inherent in our Adamic nature to treat those we love, know and need differently than strangers. Yet we need to make a conscious effort not to disadvantage others by that desire to take care of “our own”. It’s going to happen. Our politicians do it all the time. But if we try to foster the love of God that dwells within us we can slowly overcome it. There is a contentment that Paul speaks of that satisfies the soul when we know we have run the course God has set before us. it has nothing to do with happiness as the world advertises it. In our unhappiest of moments we learn to love and learning to love does more than help another, it strengthens Christ in us and we become more like Him as we starve our Adamic nature that says “me first”.

    • Hey, Jim. I think I know what you mean when you say you don’t want “justice.” The word “justice” is often trotted out to mean a tit-for-tat kind of retribution for wrongdoing.

      But when I talk about justice in this piece, I’m talking about the righteousness and shalom of the kingdom of God. I think we both certainly want that!

      • broschultz

        Following up on this I watched some video on John Rawl’s distributive justice and I think we have another example of the government trying to do what only God can do. Looking for justice/fairness in this world to the extent John Rawls wants to is like trying to build the tower of Babel or more like digging up the tares and the wheat rather than letting them grow to harvest time and than separating them. Fairness is a matter of the heart for God and in fact the scriptures tell us that God designs different instruments for different purposes. The problem with the human condition is we insist on placing our own perceived value system on each instrument. We in the church world can see this in how we elevate certain church people based on their gifts rather than their fruit. I think social justice is the salt that stops the world from spoiling but I don’t think it can transform a life in the way divine revelation can and change a piece of liver into a sirloin steak.

        • Good analogy, Jim. Fairness alone isn’t enough.

  • Frank Caruthers

    Outstanding post, Micha.