We Latter-day Saints often talk about the blessings that come from being a member of the Church. Occasionally that talk bothers me because I think it too often overlooks the importance of worship: as God’s children, we have a covenant obligation not only to obey (so that we can live the happy life), but also to worship, to adore, to commune. Though his purposes are to bring about our eternal life, a fact that it is important for us to know, it is not our only purpose. In spite of those qualms, however, I want to think about what happiness means for us and how we talk with or think about happy people outside the Church.
Let me start by denying any too-easy distinction joy and happiness. Joy is the happiness that is intended for us; other states of existence than that intended may indeed by happy, but our faith is that the difference between them and joy is “only” that the latter will turn out not to have been happiness in the long run. But without that faith, the two are indistinguishable.
One of my very good friends is an atheist. He is also a happy man, with a good family and a good job, living in pleasant circumstances. I doubt that I can tempt him to consider taking the missionary discussions by suggesting that he would be happier if he were LDS. In fact, there are reasons to believe that in this world he would be less, not more, happy. Perhaps his wife and children would come with him into the Church, but it is unlikely his mother would, and that difference would almost certainly be a sore spot between them. The same happiness can be found in many agnostics and, certainly, among many who practice other religions, Christian or otherwise. Some of the happiest, most serene people I’ve known were Buddhist monks. And it certainly isn’t true that those who have left the Church, whether through a conscious choice, through the action of a Church disciplinary council, or just by gradually moving outside its circle, are necessarily unhappy. (Of course, there are some very bitter former Saints, but there are also many who are happy, not only happy that they are no longer part of the Church, but happy overall.)
How do I explain the importance of the Church in my life to such happy people? How do I persuade them to think that the Church is something desirable for them? Answering that would almost certainly involve deciding what it means to say that I am happy.
I know that I am happy. I take great pleasure in my life. I am married to someone with whom I continue to have an exciting relationship. I have four children who are each successful and happy, and of whom I am very proud, not least of all because they have blessed us with seven grandchildren. I work at a job that I think everyone should envy. They don’t, but that’s not important. It is only important that for me it is that kind of job. I am not wealthy, but I live comfortably, and my job allows me luxuries that we usually think available only to the wealthy—such as regular trips to Italy, France, and Belgium. I’m sitting at a computer in my home office surrounded by my books and various artefacts that remind of who I am, where I came from, whom I’ve encountered, . . . . all things that make me happy. I can easily talk about LDS and other ideas with colleagues at work and with students, and I enjoy doing so. I don’t kid myself that this is the only country in the world in which I could live happily. I’ve lived in a number of other countries and was happy then. I could have remained in any of them without difficulty and, more than once, considered doing so. Nevertheless, I love the country in which I live and I appreciate the enormous privileges and advantages it gives me.
But in spite of the fact that I know I am happy, I don’t know what I mean when I say that. Do I just mean that I live, on the whole, a life of more pleasure rather than less? It seems like there should be more to it than that, but it isn’t easy to put my finger on what more there is. Is it the serenity I feel, a serenity that I have felt even in the midst of oppression and trial? Or is serenity something else?
So, what do we mean when we say that we are happy, and how do we talk about the Church with happy people?