Monday, December 14, 2009

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Doesn't God Want Me to be Happy?

"It can't be wrong when it feels so right."  When Christian singer Debbie Boone crossed over onto the pop music charts in 1977 with "You Light Up My Life", it was these lyrics that made Christians really sit up and take notice.  Does "feeling so right" really mean something must be right? 

Happiness.  We all want it.  In fact, we demand it.  Now.  On our terms.  We're just claiming what is ours by right, because the Bible promises it ... doesn't it?  After all, "happy is that people, whose God is the LORD."

During my last conversation with my spiritual father, he spoke about some of the challenges of pastoring.  One set of church issues that particularly troubled him (as it does most who are involved in ministry) centered around the various romantic pursuits of the flock:  sexual promiscuity, marital infidelity, divorce, homosexuality, etc.  When our hearts burn within us for someone or something we cannot (or at least should not) have, it is common to protest:  "Doesn't God want me to be happy?"  Well, doesn't He?

Of course He does.  There would be little point to the hope and promise of the Redeemed if there were no hope or promise.  As God's dearly loved children, we are guaranteed eternal, unbridled happiness in His presence.

Oh, right ... that.  Of course.  But what about now?  Surely God promises me joy here on earth ...

Ah, well now we come to it.  Happiness and joy--are they the same? 

Happiness is pure emotion.  It's what I feel when I get a promotion, sip a vanilla latte, or cuddle with my wife front of a good movie.  On the other hand, when my kids don't do their homework, or when there's tension in my marriage, or when I sit by the death bed of a loved one ... well, not so much.  Ever since sin and death entered the world through the Curse, the fact that we will experience unhappiness is a stone-cold lock of a guarantee. 

By contrast, joy is a choice, a command, a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  It is what happens when I rejoice in the face of calamity (and in good times), secure in the hope of my salvation, laying claim to the promise of Christ:  "In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world!"  Jesus promises his followers trouble, not happiness.  But He gives us Himself so that we may overcome and be joyful in all things:
Though the fig tree does not bud
       and there are no grapes on the vines,
       though the olive crop fails
       and the fields produce no food,
       though there are no sheep in the pen
       and no cattle in the stalls,

 yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
       I will be joyful in God my Savior.

But this isn't what we want!  We want the fig tree to bud ... NOW!  At the root of sin is the demand that this life produce uninterrupted happiness for us.  If we don't experience it in obedience, well we have to do what we have to do!  God can't expect us to tolerate unhappiness, after all.

One of my favorite stories on this topic comes from Larry Crabb's superb book Inside Out.
     A man opened a counseling session with an urgent request:  "I want to feel better quick."

     I paused for a moment, then replied, "I suggest you get a case of your favorite alcoholic beverage, find some cooperative women, and go to the Bahamas for a month."

     Now it was his turn to pause.  He stared at me, looking puzzled, then asked, "Are you a Christian?"

     "Why do you ask?"

     "Well, your advice doesn't sound very biblical."

     "It's the best I can do given your request.  If you really want to feel good right away and get rid of any unpleasant emotion, then I don't recommend following Christ.  Drunkenness, immoral pleasures, and vacations work far better.  Not for long of course, but in the short term they'll give you what you want."
My generation's great child philosopher, Bill Waterson's "Calvin", puts it succinctly:
Calvin:  It's true, Hobbes.  Ignorance is bliss.  Once you know things, you start seeing problems everywhere... and once you see problems, you feel like you ought to try to fix them... and fixing problems always seems to require personal change... and changes means doing things that aren't fun! I say phooey to that! But if you're willfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like! The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest.
Hobbes: We're heading for that cliff!
Calvin:  I don't want to know about it.
Now, lest you think me a curmudgeon, I'm totally in favor of happiness.  In fact, I think I'd like some more, please.  There's nothing wrong with being happy.  But while the "pursuit of happiness" may be an "inalienable right" according to our Declaration of Independence, it is also an invitation to hedonism when it becomes our consuming motivation.  It is the siren's song, offering satisfaction for the moment, but leading to emptiness and death.  The Teacher understood this:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
       I refused my heart no pleasure.
       My heart took delight in all my work,
       and this was the reward for all my labor.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
       and what I had toiled to achieve,
       everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
       nothing was gained under the sun.

Doesn't God want me to be happy?  Indeed He does, and he has promised it in abundance as the culmination of a life lived in grateful, obedient submission to His commands.  In the meanwhile, we can learn to rejoice and remain faithful in the midst of trouble, as we wait patiently for that day:
Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

5 comments:

  1. God wants us to be happy, but within the context of his Will as revealed in scripture.

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  2. This is an excellent post, Ray. Thank you! It befits the season we are in.

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  3. With creative religion and a bit of good fortune, you could aspire to Albert Schweitzer's view of happiness: "Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory." Give me the God of Scripture.

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  4. The verses from Habakkuk 3 make me think of the friends John Newton and William Cowper:

    We sing the verses from time to time in the context of Cowper's wonderful hymn, "Sometimes a Light Surprises". It's chock-full of encouragement. And yet Cowper suffered from chronic bouts of depression so intense that he had to be confined at times and, at other times, would despair of his salvation. That exasperated John, who is supposed to have told him, "I'll see you in heaven and tell you I told you so!"

    As for John, who came out of great sin into profitable ministry and a wonderful marriage, Grace Irwin tells us in "Servant of Slaves" that the one thing which John was long sure that God would never ask him to lose in this life was Mary, his wife. But, over time, he became more and more convinced that God might ask precisely that, and he carried those verses from Habakkuk around with him, prepared to preach on them in the event that she was taken from him. The day she died, he was scheduled to preach and did, using that text.

    She and he together behold Christ's face today. It's more than enough!

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