Tuesday, September 30, 2014

God Doesn't Want You to be Happy

Two Saturdays ago, I was invited to plan and facilitate a retreat -- I love this sort of work, so I gladly accepted. The theme of the retreat was finding a way through the tension that is inherent in being both a young professional (perhaps especially in DC) and a Christian. Anyway, deep in one of our discussions, we were talking about hopes -- and what God hopes for us.  The first thing someone shouted out from the back of the room was that "God wants us to be happy."

And at that moment, I realized that I believe that God does not want us to be happy.

Now, I'm not saying that God wants us to be miserable, or to suffer, or to cause pain -- I believe God redeems misery, suffering, and pain, not causes them -- but I am saying that happiness, our cultural chimera, doesn't seem to be one of God's projects. First of all, there's not a lot of God making people "happy" in Scripture. Show me a prophet, and I'll show you someone who is fundamentally unhappy. God doesn't call Samuel to be the last judge to make him happy, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, certainly had some very bad days. More recently, I wouldn't claim that MLK Jr, Oscar Romero, or Dorothy Day were particularly happy folks, either.

Secularly, I see this played out as well. Doing meaningful work often means doing sacrificial and hard work, which automatically disbars what we think of as "happiness." For instance, when I worked at the Red Cross and disasters would hit, we were working twelve hour days and weekends, were exhausted and were so stressed we were either gaining or losing weight, but the meaningfulness of the work was somehow so much more than "happy." (This description of disaster work also seems to apply to parenting.)

Anyway, provoked by this thought, I did a little digging -- and "happiness" comes from the root word, "hap," which means "luck." So someone who is "hapless" is literally "luckless" and "happenstance" is a mashup of "lucky circumstance." So, happiness is nice, but it's something fleeting that happens randomly -- nothing you can control.

Joy, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. And those folks I mentioned above? While they weren't necessarily happy, they were joyous. Joy is an inward disposition, rooted in knowing who you are and whose you are, and living in faith and trust. Joy grows if you cultivate it, if you can clear out enough of the gunk stuck to your soul so that joy can flourish. Joy is more than happiness, joy is more than luck. I can't help but think that God wants so much more for us than just "happy."

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