Happiness has been a frustrating topic in my life for a very long time. The tag line of my home church is “more joy in Jesus.” On one hand, I agree and have no problem with it at all. There IS more joy in Jesus than can be found outside of a relationship with him. The trouble comes when joy is equated with happiness and a value of “chase happiness” develops. The definition of happiness is ” a state of well-being and contentment.” What that means is that happiness is circumstantial and changes in a moment if we are no longer in a state of well-being or contentment, and God knows that life holds plenty of these moments. I do believe there can be a hopeful joy in deep pain and grief when we are able to shift our mind to an eternal perspective… Sometimes joy is simply the knowledge that this pain will not last forever. Jesus will eventually make all things right again, justice will be birthed, and the dead will live again. That’s the joy that Jesus brings that doesn’t rest on our changing states of well-being. But those states of well-being are not meaningless.
There are two major problems that I have with the theology and lifestyle that says that if people are doing this faith thing right, they will be happy. The first is that it leaves no room or time for true healing. The “chase happiness” perspective shames the broken and hurting, heaping pain upon pain on those who don’t feel the happiness they are apparently supposed to be experiencing even when their loved one dies, they are abused, or they experienced any of the great, tragic losses that this world can throw at us. It makes an emotional expression the litmus test of faith, and there is not a biblical case for this. Rather we see human beings in Scripture experiencing the ups and the downs of emotion, and we see the permission granted them for seasons of mourning and times of grief (John 16:22, Ecclesiastes 3:4).
The second and perhaps biggest problem that I have with “chasing happiness” is that I see no real way that we can behave like followers of Jesus with that as a priority. If we are to be people who mourn with those who mourn, that means empathy that feels pain, grief, devastation, and anger alongside others. It means choosing to leave a state of well-being for the sake of sitting inside of someone else’s pain with them. If I am preoccupied with pursuing my own happiness then I must be necessarily pursuing a state of personal well-being. If that is the case, I cannot truly enter into mourning with others.
Recently, I came across this comic. Normally this comic strip is good for a snort-laugh, but this particular piece deeply resonated with me. I loved the part where the comic character is discussing her vocation, “Sometimes my arms hurt from lifting these, and sometimes I get frustrated. But I find it meaningful.” The artist goes on to explain that he does things that are meaningful even though they don’t make him happy. They don’t make him happy because they are achingly difficult and painful. To demand that people in deep grief and suffering feel happy is, at best, delusional and absurd. Last I checked, people who feel a state of well-being (aka happiness) in pain are pathological.
So if being happy is a virtue that I should be pursuing, it means that I have to avoid pain. But I believe that the things most worth doing in life involve pain. The deep work of personal healing when we’ve been wounded or abused is incredibly painful. Choosing to truly empathize – mourn – with someone who is suffering is a deliberate choice toward pain rather than happiness. The way of the cross might be a pathway to the joy of being aligned with the One who will eventually make all things right, but it is also the path of a Savior who chose to empathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). To erase these very real parts of Christ’s identity is to rewrite who he actually was. To act like we are to do anything other than to emulate him is to place ourselves above him.
Jesus embraced excruciating pain in his life and death, and I don’t believe for a second that he was feeling all that happy when he agonized in the hours before his death about the torture awaiting him the next day. I think he meant it when he said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt 26:38). If we are going to act like Jesus, we don’t chase happy. We follow obediently toward what is both meaningful and beautiful precisely because it endures through hardship and pain.
Like Christ, we will experience moments in our lives of happiness and carefree pleasure. These are gifts, but they are no indication of our morality or the state of our faith. If they were, we would be forced to say that in the most holy moment of Christ’s life as he willingly chose to die a guilty man’s death for the triumph of good over evil, he was in the most faithless moment of his life. I think it was the opposite. The moment he chose personal pain for the sake of love was exactly the moment of his victory. His willing journey toward painful torture, degradation, and death was in solidarity with ours. He did not have to do it; he could have remained in his happy heaven. But he chose suffering and pain instead. He let go of that eternal happiness temporarily so that we could eventually have it forever, and it was beautiful and meaningful.
As I think about what this means to me personally, it makes complete sense. Last night I sat in a room full of sex workers, many of them there through coercion and some of them still teenagers. Intermittently in the hours I was in the brothel, I watched these precious women and girls get up to go meet the men outside the room who had purchased the opportunity to use their bodies. They were not happy, and I was not happy. There was no possibility of happy feelings when awaiting these transactions of human flesh. Rather in a small (and honestly what feels like insignificant) way, I listened to these women and girls tell me about their lives while we waited. We showed each other pictures of our babies, and I murmured words of sympathy at how difficult it must be to leave a baby behind in another city in order to seek out a job that would provide for her. I ached with grief and I know that they felt my true concern and tenderness for their awful situations. I cannot fathom any other appropriate response. As The Oatmeal creator described, “When I do these things, I’m not smiling or beaming with joy. I’m not happy. In truth, when I do these things, I’m often suffering. But I do them because I find them meaningful. I find them compelling.”
I don’t want to chase happiness. I want to deliberately choose the way of Jesus that is set solidly on the foundation of peace and hope and joy of knowing that someday (but not yet!) the work of the advancing kingdom of light will finally and forever overcome the darkness. In the meantime, I choose to suffer alongside Christ with those who suffer. There’s no place better than that.