Happy Are Those…

What is happiness from the Christian point of view? How can we tell secular people about it clearly, succinctly, and simply? And what meanings will be revealed to us if we look at the commandments of God from a new angle?


In modern Russian, the word for “blessed” or “blissful” (блаженный, blazhenniy) usually implies a person who is not quite of sound mind. This may have been influenced by a combination of factors. Those saints whose lives were connected with the podvig of voluntary foolishness for Christ’s sake—which looked like insanity to those around them—were called “blessed.” At the same time, there were mentally ill people in society who could be mistaken for fools for Christ, given the outward similarity of their behavior to “holy fools.” Less often, people associate it with something positive; although bliss, for example, is clearly perceived by everyone as a synonym for pleasure.

Does the modern man seek blessedness? No, rather he is in a continuous search for that which is commonly called happiness today. Every man has his own criteria for happiness, perhaps quite clear, but also sometimes vague. How often do we as Christians raise the question of what real happiness Christ offers to humanity? Those around us know much more about the limiting Ten Commandments; but less, or practically nothing, about the commandments of happiness. Yes, precisely happiness, because they reveal to man the road to acquiring peace of heart and unity with God.

The ancient Hebrew word for “blessed”—“אַשְׁרֵי‏‎” (ashrei)—is translated as an enthusiastic “good!” which should be followed by a noun, the thing that is good. That is, if we literally translate the words of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount about the Beatitudes, it would be, for example, “it is good to him who is pure in heart,” or, “it is good to him who thirsts after righteousness,” and so on. The Greek word “μακάριος” (makarios) can also be translated as “happy.” For modern language, the concept of happiness and its derivations are closer to our lives (perhaps because of its mundanity), while blessedness is perceived (as it probably should be) as something otherworldly, distant, too exalted. On the one hand, this is true, because the Beatitudes reflect the state of the highest possible pleasure for man. But pragmatism reduces everything to the fact that a man usually perceives what is clearer and therefore conceives and accepts that which is more familiar to his consciousness.

Therefore, in conversations about God with secular, non-Church, or even Church people, the word “happiness” may be much more effective than “blessedness” in conveying the meaning of Christ’s commandments from the Sermon on the Mount. This in no way implies the need to adapt the sacred texts to everyday language, but without “updating” the Gospel truths in a conversation with an unprepared person, it simply won’t work.

And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some (1 Cor. 9:20-22).

The saint is speaking of the need to communicate the meaning of Christ’s teaching in a language that is understandable for an unprepared audience. What happens if we try to read the Beatitudes, substituting synonyms?

  1. Happy are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

  2. Happy are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

  3. Happy are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

  4. Happy are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

  5. Happy are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

  6. Happy are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

  7. Happy are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

  8. Happy are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

  9. Happy are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in Heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

It sounds strange, but by replacing the word “blessed” with “happy” in certain places, we get a sharp contrast and contradiction from the point of view of secular logic. How can those who weep be happy? Joy is obviously not a synonym for grief. And the crying here is clearly not from an excess of positive emotions. We can go further and try to transform the wording of the Beatitudes to be even more understandable. What do we get then?

  1. Happy are those who realize their spiritual need for God, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.

  2. Happy are those who mourn their sins, for God will comfort them.

  3. Happy are the meek, for they will receive the land promised them by God.

  4. Happy are those who strive for a righteous life, for they will be fully satisfied with God.

  5. Happy are the merciful, for God will show them mercy.

  6. Happy are those whose thoughts are pure, for they will be with God.

  7. Happy are those who reconcile people, for they will be called children of God.

  8. Happy are those who are persecuted for the pursuit of righteousness, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.

  9. Happy are you when you are insulted, persecuted, and slandered for following Me. Rejoice and be glad, for you will receive the greatest reward in the Kingdom of Heaven. They also persecuted the saints who lived before you.

This interpretation is, of course, not an exclusive translation. On the contrary, it is an attempt to go beyond the bounds of strict translation and convey the meaning, taking the era and familiar terminology into account. Of course, even this version of “decoding” the Beatitudes will require additional explanations.

People are seeking happiness, preferably in recipes and measurable proportions: “Five Steps to Success,” “Six Ways to Stay Calm,” “Ten Secrets of Happiness”… So let’s give the world our true, Christian secrets of happiness, which in one way or another every man seeks throughout his life. Simplifying the exalted formulations of the Beatitudes should in no way lower the believer from the heights of otherworldly language to the linguistic norms of modernity. On the contrary, such interpretations of the commandments of happiness (let’s call a spade a spade) can help people who are seeking to take a step towards God.

Vladimir Basenkov
Translated by Jesse Dominick


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