By Mark Deisinger
Let’s talk about happiness. What is it and what isn’t it and how important is it? Merriam-Webster defines happiness as a state of well-being and contentment. If that’s what happiness is, then what isn’t it? I would say, and here I’m disagreeing with Merriam-Webster, who offer this as a synonym, that happiness is not joy, especially as the Christian tradition has defined joy. I think the key difference is that happiness is fleeting and depends on our circumstances, while Christian joy remains even when we’re suffering or in some sort of pain, because joy is based on the belief that God loves us and has secured our salvation even in the midst of worldly grief. C. S. Lewis said, in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer: “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.” Maybe, like Lewis often did, we should capitalize this definition: Joy.
So, if Joy is sort of the eternal counterpart to happiness, then how important is happiness itself? We certainly do seem to give it a lot of our attention. It’s easy to get wrapped around the axle because of a lack of happiness, and that can stunt our ability to navigate through our days and function in our world. Lack of happiness colors our view of the world in gray. I would say, then, that it seems unwise to neglect our own happiness.
Social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.) amplifies the “turn the world gray” effect. It’s widely understood that the overwhelming majority of people on social media portray only the positive, happy parts of their lives. This leads to an insidious trick we play on ourselves. Here is the lie we tell ourselves: A lot of people, maybe most people, are happier than me.
We see the lives of others through social media at a carefully-selected distance. From that distance, their lives look amazing. They are always smiling, their Christmas gatherings are picture-perfect, and their children have straight teeth and are beautiful, respectful, and successful.
What we don’t see are the things they don’t want to air in public. We don’t get transcripts of the arguments that ruin dinners on normal, boring Tuesdays. We don’t get anecdotes about the child falling into drug abuse before she’s out of high school. We don’t see video and hear audio of slamming doors and a strained marriage. The gatekeeper of social media keeps our understanding at bay, and from that distance we see people with better lives than ours.
But it’s not true. I think of a gal with whom I attended elementary school and college. She grew up a block from me, and she was a lovely and gracious person. The last time I saw her, at college, she was engaged to a basketball star from my high school (he’s a great guy, too). Their four beautiful kids are athletic and smart. Every picture of them just bursts with fun and good feelings. They all seem to live charmed lives, moving from success to success. The very picture of happiness. Privately, though, I learned from her that her father died not long after we were in college. That part wasn’t on her publicly-available page. Life has not been an unbroken chain of happy moments for her.
During the second week of the enCompass Clues teaching series, our illustrious pastor Kevin was talking about happiness and said this in a facetious aside:
[T]here’s always a few obnoxious people in every church who got it all. They always get the parking space, they have the happy family, their job is miraculous, and they go around looking at the rest of us like “What’s wrong with you? I’ve got the parking spaces and the happy family and the perfect job. Jesus does this for me; why doesn’t he do that for you?”
This got me thinking. If there were any such people, then my earthly nature would probably indeed find them annoying, but I don’t think there are any perfectly happy people in our church, or in any church, or in any community of any type anywhere on the planet. Happiness just doesn’t work like that. It comes and goes. It’s fleeting and hard to grasp and elusive. It isn’t Joy.
Romans 12:12 (NIV) says “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Patient in affliction and joyful in hope at the same time? That seems hard to do, but it’s what we’re called to pursue. Speaking of the Macedonian churches, Paul in 2 Corinthians 8:2 (NIV) says: “In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” Right in the midst of a very severe trial and extreme poverty, they had overflowing joy. Wow. Pretty impressive. Very unusual. Very unlike me, I’m afraid.
But also attainable for me and for you and for Joe or Jane Average Christian, because it’s been made available to all who believe in Jesus. Learning to live in Joy in the midst of trials, no matter who you are, where you live, or the degree to which others judge the severity of your trials, is something we, as Christians, should all do.
I mean, what’s the alternative? Be sourpusses? No thanks. I choose life, with all it implies, including Joy. Choose it with me.