Who is Truly Happy in Bhutan?

Last week’s official visit to the Kingdom of Bhutan by Britain’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has put the spotlight on this tiny nation, wedged between China and India high in the Himalayas.

With a total population of only around 750,000, Bhutan is not well known to most people in the West, apart from a single snippet of trivia. In 1972 the country’s king introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness – based on Buddhist values – as a gauge of the nation’s development.

So the Gross National Happiness Index embodies not only economic development but also the preservation of traditional cultural values, ethical governance and the protection of the environment. It is rare nowadays to find a media report on Bhutan that does not somehow incorporate a reference to the index and the perceived happiness of the nation’s people.

Sadly this happiness does not necessarily extend to the country’s small Christian population, estimated at fewer than 20,000 people. For Bhutan is ranked at No. 38 in the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted for their faith.

The “Operation World” prayer guide comments: “Christians are denied religious freedom and are persecuted in various ways. Church buildings are forbidden in all but a very few cases; most fellowships must meet in homes. Bhutanese who become Christian face the loss of their citizenship, of other benefits – such as free education, health care, employment – and of access to electricity and water. In some instances, harassment and beatings occur.”

(The Duke Of Cambridge is the elder son of Prince Charles, and when he ascends to the throne of the United Kingdom he will also become Supreme Governor of the Church of England. It would be pleasant to imagine that he raised these matters with the Bhutanese authorities. Perhaps he did, though I assume not.)

By chance, happiness has been on my mind recently. This week my church is starting a Bible study group for newcomers to the congregation, and I shall be leading. Our first study is on Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount.

Traditionally, this Bible passage is presented in English as a series of blessings – “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on. But the study guide we are using, aimed at new Christians, replaces the word “blessed” with “happy.” Thus, “Happy are the poor in spirit,” and, of course, “Happy are those who are persecuted.”

Clearly Christian notions of happiness are radically different from those of the secular world – or of Bhutan. For a Christian’s happiness is a spiritual happiness that derives from our complete dependence on our mighty God and the blessings we receive from Him.

Now I do not want to downplay the persecution or the suffering of Bhutan’s Christians. I do not envy them their plight. I would not wish it on anyone. Yet, based on words of Jesus, they are among the happiest of all people in their country.

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