How happy should we be?

In a comment here, David asked:

“i’ve spent some time thinking about the topic of happiness.. how happy should we be as Christians?”

I’ve been mulling that over.  I was hoping somebody else would come in and offer up some thoughts.  Because I think this is far from a complete answer.  But for whatever they are worth, here goes.

There is a brand of happiness which is shallow but pervasive.  It’s the sort-of happiness that we don’t have to work at.  It’s the result of outward experiences going our way, of getting what we want.  I would feel happy if I won a million dollars (or a thousand, or a hundred, or heck, even ten)

I think Christians have done a lot of damage by acting like God wants them to experience this form of happiness.  They have acted like they feel this form of happiness.  They have sought after it to the point of making it an idol.

I think that this easy brand of happiness can be a crutch to our spiritual development.  Scripture seems clear that sometimes God will challenge us with circumstances that are unfair and not happiness-producing.   Our faith is in the idea that Jesus was undeservedly crucified.  I don’t know of a more thorough argument against the claim that God wants our outside circumstances to be easy.

There is, however, this whole other thing.  It’s like intense satisfaction pepper extensively with joy.  It’s this feeling of worship-surrender.  It comes from recognizing that there are more important things than creating more comfortable life circumstances for me.

I wonder if the guy who wrote “Blessed Be” was thinking about this difference.  In the chorus, it seems like he’s saying “I’ll praise when you have the shallow kind of happiness” and “I’ll praise you when I have that deeper kind of happiness.”  Maybe I’m reading into it a bit… Does anybody have the lyrics to that song?  I can’t remember them word-for-word.

So maybe I’ve got five bucks.  I’m headed to get an iced coffee.  On the way, I see something God calls me to use that money on.

If I get the iced coffee I’ll experience the first kind of happiness.  If I spend it on what God wants me to spend it on I’ll experience that second kind of happiness.  It’s funny how addictive the first brand of happiness is.  And yet the second is so much more fuffilling.  Almost every time I engage in it (which isn’t nearly often enough) I think “Wow, I should do this more often.” And yet without fail, I go back to my buy-the-iced-coffee-for-myself ways.

(A great read which touches on this subject: The Geography of Bliss.  It’s a secular book that started with a list of the most happy and least happy places in the world.  The author travels to these in a quest to get at what makes the people happy.  Along the way he shares some pretty interesting research about the nature of happiness itself.  Some of the conclusions that jump out at me that he shared:

People who report going to church also report being happier.

People who give away a gift report being happier than keeping a gift to themselves.

We appear hard-wired to give in a more primitive portion of our brain than anybody would have expected.

This distinction between the two different forms of happiness is a product of my own brain.  Therefore none of the above mentioned research discriminates between them.)


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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