by Scott R. Swain
God has promised his people supreme, unending, unshakeable happiness.
Contrary to the claims of popular prosperity preachers, however, the supreme happiness God promises his people will not be realized in this life. Ours is a life characterized by sorrow in many ways. For now, we rejoice only in part.
There are two reasons for this. First, though the Father’s will to make us happy does not change, and though the Son’s work of securing our happiness is complete, the Spirit’s work of showing and bestowing happiness to us and upon us has only begun. By God’s triune mercy, we have been reconciled to the order of beatitude, what Augustine calls “the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God, and of one another in God.”1 However, as Augustine goes on to tell us, ours is a happiness “we enjoy now with God by faith, and shall hereafter enjoy eternally with him by sight.”2
Second, having been reconciled to God’s order of beatitude, we have been brought into a state of conflict with the order of sin and misery, which wars against the happy God and the people who find their happiness in him. As William Perkins observes, “True happiness with God is ever joined, yea covered many times, with the cross in this world.”3 Our happiness has not yet fully arrived. Our happiness is not yet without opposition. For these two reasons, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) characterizes the happiness of the people whose God is the Lord as they make their pilgrimage to the happy land of the Trinity.4
Happy Now and Not Yet
In his Sermon on the Mount, our Lord Jesus Christ instructs pilgrims on the path to God’s eternal kingdom regarding the way of happiness.5 In contrast to “the error of all philosophers,” who locate happiness in “pleasure,” “wealth,” and “civil virtue,” God’s Wisdom incarnate sets out the “the nature and estate of true felicity.”6
Jesus addresses his “Beatitudes” to his disciples, to those who have heard his announcement of the good news and have responded in faith and repentance (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). Jesus assures his disciples that, having been “justified by his grace” through faith apart from works, they have “become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5, 7). The kingdom of heaven belongs to them by right: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10).
Jesus also teaches his disciples that, although the kingdom of heaven belongs to them by right, they do not yet possess the kingdom of heaven in all its glorious fullness. Their possession of the kingdom is certain, but it lies ahead of them in the future: “they shall be comforted,” “they shall inherit the earth,” “they shall be satisfied,” “they shall receive mercy,” “they shall see God” (Matthew 5:4–8).
The disciples of Jesus are thus happy “now and not yet.” Their circumstances are truly happy. Therefore, they can “rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12). But their happy circumstances, for the time being, are also mixed with sorrow and suffering. Therefore, they will mourn, they will hunger and thirst, they will be reviled and persecuted (Matthew 5:4, 6, 10–12). They are happy now by virtue of their right to the kingdom of heaven through faith; they are not yet happy by virtue of their possession of the kingdom through sight.7
As they await the consummation of the kingdom, Jesus pronounces blessings — “beatitudes” — that indicate either reversals or fulfillments of the disciples’ present circumstances. In their present circumstances, Jesus’s followers are characterized by poverty of spirit and meekness before the Lord. They hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness to be revealed. They have many occasions to mourn due to the verbal scorn and physical persecution they endure, even while the proud and insolent seem to flourish without consequence (Psalm 37:7; 73:3–13). To these, Jesus promises reversalsof their present circumstances. The happiness that is theirs now in the midst of sorrow and suffering will one day replace and displace all sorrow and suffering. Those who mourn shall be comforted, the meek shall inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:4–6).
Despite their present circumstances, moreover, Jesus’s followers are merciful. They have compassion upon those in need and seek to restore them to a state of fullness and flourishing before God (Luke 10:29–37). Jesus’s followers are pure in heart. They do not lift up their souls to what is false, and they do not swear deceitfully (Psalm 24:4). Instead, they set the Lord alone before them as their heart’s holy appetite (Isaiah 8:13; 1 Peter 3:15). Jesus’s followers are peacemakers. Rather than extending the disorder of sin and misery, Jesus’s disciples extend the order of beatitude by seeking to reconcile sinners to God and neighbor and by seeking to preserve “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
To these, Jesus promises crowning fulfillments of their present practices and aspirations. The happiness that is theirs now in seed will one day reach its full fruition. The merciful shall receive mercy, the pure in heart shall behold the object of their holy desire, the peacemakers shall be called sons of God, the supreme peacemaker (Matthew 5:7–9).8
In all these circumstances, the disciples are disciples of their Lord, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Having found in him the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44–46), Jesus’s followers are willing to suffer the loss of all things for his sake (Matthew 5:11; 11:6) in order to gain what is already theirs in him by the righteousness of faith: the happiness of the kingdom upon whose throne the King of happiness rests (Philippians 3:7–21).
Those who have been granted citizenship in the happy land of the Trinity thus walk on the path laid down by Jesus in the Beatitudes, suffering the hostility of sinners (Hebrews 12:3), struggling against sin (Hebrews 12:4), enduring God’s fatherly hand of discipline with patience (Hebrews 12:5–14; James 1:3–4), all the while assured that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3, 10), that they will see his face (Matthew 5:8), and therefore all the while encouraged to “rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:12; Romans 5:3–4; James 1:2).9
- Augustine, A Select Library of the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 2, St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), XIX.13.
- Augustine, City of God, XIX.27.
- William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, vol. 1, A Godly and Learned Exposition of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2014), 179.
- This happy turn of phrase comes from Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), chap. 2.
- For a rich and extensive treatment of the Sermon on the Mount that is attentive to its eudaimonistic dimensions, see Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
- Perkins, Sermon on the Mount, 183.
- Perkins, Sermon on the Mount, 183.
- William Perkins reminds us that the rewards promised by Jesus to his disciples are “given by promise, and of mere mercy” rather than merit (Sermon on the Mount, 220).
- Helpful discussions of the place of suffering in Christian discipleship may be found in Oliver O’Donovan, Ethics as Theology, vol. 3, Entering into Rest (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 202–7; and J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015).
This article first appeared on Desiring God