Synonyms for happiness: pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, merriment, gaiety, joy, joyfulness, joviality, jollity, glee, delight, good spirits, lightheartedness, well-being, enjoyment;
We live in a happiness-crazed culture. Millions of people take medications to make them happy. People get married because a person makes them happy. People end relationships because the relationship is *not* making them happy. People go to therapy to learn how to be happy. Advertisements all around us sell us the idea that we absolutely must be happy and that a given company’s product is the way to get there. People drink and use drugs to make them happy. It follows then that there is rarely a place for negativity, grief, sadness, depression, and pain in our world. But here’s the thing. Everyone’s trying to get happy, but they are failing to do so. Lots of people are faking it so that they appear happy, but again, they are secretly failing miserably. They are failing because happiness is unsustainable. People fill their lives with toys, busy-ness, relationships, jobs, hobbies and such, but those things bring happiness but for a fleeting moment, and then the reality of living in a world where there is an abundance of pain comes back into focus. Trying to live as though pain does not affect us is like trying to swim without getting wet. For many people, trying to drown out the pain becomes their lives’ focus and purpose. And then, obviously, life starts to seem meaningless. Life can also become very exhausting as we chase after what can never be caught… at least not for long. It may seem that we are very, very close to catching lasting happiness, but just as we reach out to grab it, it speeds up and eludes us once again. I’m not trying to say that it is wrong to feel happy, I’m just saying that happiness is both shallow and fleeting. In this post, I want to talk specifically to and about Christians. How has the “happiness culture” affected the church?
First off, I want to address some myths:
- God primarily want us to be happy. James 1 says, “Count it all joy when you encounter different trials.” In that passage, James tells us that God wants us to be primarily holy not happy. We are to embrace trials as a way that God uses to mold us into the masterpiece He is making out of us. If we think God mostly wants us to be happy, we will get really confused.
- God wants us to be pain free. Dying to self, a command from our Lord, doesn’t sound pain free to me. God is much more interested in affecting a transformational change in us than He is in making us happy.
- God owes me happiness because of what I’ve done for Him or given Him. This way of thinking invites bitterness and resentment. God doesn’t owe us anything, but He has promised to do a transformational work in us from the inside out. We cannot give God anything He hasn’t first given to us.
- God is completely untouched by my emotional pain. Hebrews tells us Jesus is touched by our infirmities. Jesus is deeply empathic, because He experienced the pain of being a man on a sin-cursed planet.
- Godliness leads to happiness. This kind of relates to number 3. My acts of righteousness to not entitle me to anything from God.
- Other people can make us happy. That is just categorically false.
- Being unhappy means I have a spiritual deficit. The prosperity gospel teaches that God wants us to be wealthy. And if we are not wealthy, something must be wrong. A variation on that is the notion that if I am unhappy, I should question my relationship with God, because after all, if you are in good standing with God, He will make you happy.
- I will always feel God’s presence and will always see His hand at work in my life. Sometimes, God, for whatever reason, seems unavailable. Those times can be dark and lonely, but they aren’t necessarily a sign that you are doing something wrong.
A Few Random Thoughts
Larry Crabb talks about a “dull ache.” It what he calls the feeling that human beings experience as a result of being imperfect people living with other imperfect people in an imperfect world. It’s what we feel when we turn down the noise in our lives and just reflect on what it feels like to be on planet earth. It’s a feeling that says we were meant for better things… a better place. It’s an emptiness feeling. An emptiness that only God Himself can fill. That dull ache can lead us toward God or away from God. If we insist on making the ache go away, we turn toward what Larry my therapist calls plugs. Things that don’t necessarily fit into the empty space but they help dull the pain for a season. If we choose to move toward God as He invites us to journey with Him through the ache our intimacy with our Father grows and we begin to experience how holy pain can be when we walk that path with our Maker. Walking with God through the dull ache is intended to be done in community. Those who try to walk it in isolation are very vulnerable. Being willing to share that ache with a safe group of fellow-travelers can be immensely healing.
Sometimes, Christians, not understanding that walking through the dull ache is a part of every believer’s journey, feel like the presence of pain in their lives must mean they are not the kind of Christian they are supposed to be. They may feel as though their suffering is punishment from God for some non-specific trespass. Or they may believe that they would not be in pain if they trusted more or surrendered more. So they try to be happy. How many songs have we sung either as children or adults that equate the Christian walk with happiness? In the end these “happy” people feel lost and often alone as they show one thing outwardly but experience something very differently internally. We need to encourage each other not to isolate like that but lean on each other for support, being honest about what’s going on in our Christian walk. I’ve heard people be counseled that if they have major depression, they must be in sin. If they are dealing with debilitating anxiety, they must not trust God. This kind of spiritual abuse needs to stop.
Some Christians are embittered and resentful because of the dull ache. They protest loudly and intensely. Or perhaps they just give up and reach for the plug that best self-medicates the ache. Some Christians protest for years on end, rather than accept Christ’s invitation to go deeper in relationship with Him, including walking through the fire with Him. And because trials are one of God’s primary ways of inviting us into that deeper relationship with Him, those who decline His invitation also miss out on the transformational process that occurs when we accept the invitation. Believers who decline the invitation may be openly angry and resentful, they may pretend everything between them and God is okay, or they may walk away from their faith.
Our Savior is characterized in the Old Testament as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He also battled Satan in the wilderness without food and water. He sweat drops of blood just before He was to be arrested and sentence to be crucified. We, as His followers, are called to die to self and “take up our cross daily to follow Him.” We are called to be “partakers together with His suffering.” Not only is it okay to experience pain in our journey with Christ, it is required.
There is a difference between happiness and joy or contentment. One of the blessings of walking with Christ and accepting the invitation He is offering us is a profound trust that produces a peace beyond understanding. While walking with Christ may not lead to gleefulness/happiness all the time, walking with Him produces the fruit of the spirit, which is listed in Galations as love, joy, peace, etc. Joy is generated internally as our spirit communes with His spirit, regardless of what’s going on externally. I can remember a number of years ago feeling joy while in the midst of hell. I had been on death’s door following a stroke, and I lived in misery and anguish constantly. But a couple of years into that experience, I realized that God was using my story and what was going on in my life at the time to encourage and bless others. At first, I protested because although God was using me, He wasn’t taking the pain away. When I finally came to terms with how God wanted to walk with me and use me through my hell on earth, there was an amazing calm and peace that came over me. I would go back and forth between that serene place and intense protests… and I still do.
No one can make us happy. Happy is generated from within. When we put pressure on our spouse or children to be the thing that makes us happy, we put a weight on the relationship that it can’t bear. When people feel the pressure you are placing on them to make you happy, they feel overwhelmed, and often that dynamic gives way to conflict. Unmet expectations lead to resentment and bitterness. When we put pressure on people to make us happy (something that’s impossible), they feel like nothing they do for us is good enough. Happiness is something you bring *to* a relationship and not something you take *away* from a relationship.
I don’t spend much time happy. I do spend a lot of time feeling peaceful and contented… even joyful. Since the stroke and having looked death in the face several times, I have little patience for the superficial. Happiness and feeling good make sorry life goals. If you are waiting to feel good or happy before you fully engage life, you will still be waiting when they eulogize you. I am tired of people trying to turn my sadness into gladness and my depression into joy and my anger into a smile. Sorrowful people need others to support them not change them.