Get Jesus, Get Happy
I asked my nephew once whether he thought God wanted us to be happy. His answer, not surprisingly, was a resounding yes. When I asked him why he thought that, he said, “Because it’s fun.” When I pressed him for more information, he got rather tired of the discussion and went off to play. After all, he was only five years old. I had a good chuckle. I even wrote a blog post about it which you are welcome to read here. Imagine my surprise when I heard essentially the same sentiments from Victoria Osteen as her remarks made the rounds on Facebook a while back. It’s strange, hearing the same ridiculous assertions from a grown woman that I got from my five-year-old nephew. Still, the wheels have been churning in my mind since then. But in all fairness, they’ve been churning on the subject of happiness for quite a bit longer than that. It all started about the time I experienced my first round of anxiety as a little girl followed by panic attacks and depression as a teenager.
- The quality or state of being happy
- Good fortune, pleasure, contentment, joy1
It seems that happiness is one of the most elusive and yet sought-after states of being. There are all kinds of songs about it. (Think Pharrell Williams.) It’s even generously sprinkled among a lot of the hymns we sing at church. “At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away. It was there, by faith, I received my sight and now I am happy all the day.”2 Even the little kids in Sunday School get told about the importance of happiness with this little ditty, “I’m inright, outright, downright, upright happy all the time. I’m inright, outright, downright, upright happy all the time. Since Jesus Christ came in and took away my sin, I’m inright, outright, downright, upright happy all the time.”3 The hymns used to really bother me. I often felt unhappy. Life was disappointing. But according to the songs, I was supposed to be happy because I had Jesus. So what was wrong with me? I still wasn’t happy. Horrors. Maybe I didn’t really have Jesus–nothing like adding the agony of doubt to the fire of intense sadness. But then I began to think. Some things Christians said didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the grand scheme of things.
For instance, it’s interesting how the contemporary “sacred” and the “profane” overlap. In Pharrell William’s song, happiness is the truth. In the sacred songs I mentioned, getting Jesus seemed to be a means to the end of getting happiness. Let’s think about that. If Jesus is the prerequisite for happiness and not just occasional times of happiness, but perpetual happiness, than how come Pharrell Williams is so dog-gone happy? Pharrell didn’t mention getting his heart cleansed from sin. Hmmm. Something, to paraphrase Hamlet, is rotten in Denmark.
Over the years, I began to realize that this idea of happiness I was getting from some of the old hymns was something not so old after all. Christians in past ages didn’t often place much weight on happiness. In fact, they didn’t often have overwhelming numbers of happy experiences to report. They seemed to spend a lot of time in jail, getting beaten up, hiding from angry authorities, suffering great emotional torments, and getting executed. Perhaps I wasn’t so odd after all. Where did the “get Jesus, get happy” theology come from, anyway? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it has something to do with the American dream, not reality and certainly not the Scriptures.
So, the years passed as I thought about this and tried to wrap my mind around the fact that Jesus didn’t necessarily die to make me happy. Then as I was completing a free-lance writing assignment, a few things began to fall into place. I was to write an article on a well-known Christian figure. Feeling very original I chose Martin Luther. Specifically, I chose to write about the events surrounding and leading up to his composition of the well-beloved hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” I dug into some research and what I found astounded me. The things that came from that man’s pen about his own struggles with depression and spiritual darkness I had never heard before. Ever. Not in church. Not anywhere. One article that particularly impressed me was “The God Who Hides From His Saints: Luther’s Deus Absconditus,” by Laura Welker. She speaks about Luther’s idea of the hidden God, who veils himself in obscurity so that our weak faith can become strong, true faith.4 It seems somewhat counter intuitive, doesn’t it? The stuff of faith-building, at least from what I had often heard in church and various youth conferences, are answered prayers, sudden victories over sin and temptation, miraculous events, improved relationships, and so on and so forth. But according to Welker, Luther believed that the greatest work God does for his child is to withdraw his presence and allow the child to stumble on in the darkness for a time. She says,
“In the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Luther contrasts the theology of glory, which seeks God only in his glory and victory, with the theology of the cross, which knows God in his suffering and humiliation on the cross. Because God chose to reveal himself in the incarnation of Christ, God then ‘wished to be recognized in suffering.’ Luther emphasized, ‘He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering’ and does not deserve to be called a theologian. God paradoxically reveals himself by hiding himself in the suffering, crucified Christ, in order to make foolish the wisdom of the world which would seek him only in his glory… As the hidden God cannot be known apart from the sufferings of Christ, Luther strongly believed that those who adhere to Christ in faith cannot know God apart from personal suffering.”5
You see, contrary to the popular salvation narrative, Luther did not accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior and live happy all the day. In fact, once he cast his lot in with Christ, things just got exponentially worse. You know the story. He spent a long time hiding out in a castle because the authorities wanted him dead. He had health problems. He lived through an outbreak of plague. But beyond that were the mental agonies—agonies which he felt were too severe to describe in words. The best he could do was the word, “anfechtung.” James G. Keicker explains it this way, “Anfechtung is a word Martin Luther used a lot, but it’s hard to find an English word, which covers it perfectly. It means doubt, inner turmoil, pangs of conscience, despair, pain, temptation and a lot more bad things. Remember the word blitzkrieg from World War II–a lightning-like attack? Well, that’s about what an anfechtung is: a sudden, warlike attack on the human soul or body.”6 Dr. Richard P. Buchner writes in further explanation, “At the heart of such an anfechtung was the terrifying feeling that God was going to judge and condemn the sinner at any moment. In the wake of such a feeling came subsequent feelings of deep sadness that God had forsaken one.”7 In short, it’s the kind of thing people get sent to a psychiatrist for, though I doubt even a psychiatrist would be of much help. According to Luther, it was a state that God at the very least allowed, if not directly caused, and only God could take away, by revealing his smiling face after a night of storms.
I have come to the conclusion that God does not want us to be happy as much as he wants us to be holy. He allows us to experience everything we experience for that end and purpose. Happiness rarely does the trick, but pain is a marvelous teacher. A poem comes to mind as I write this:
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser;
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh! The things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.
—Robert Browning Hamilton8
The thing that most concerns me about this “get Jesus, get happy” idea many Christians speak of, is that it is an entirely false pretense. How they can say such things while reading passages like Isaiah 53 and Matthew 10 is beyond me. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…” (Isaiah 53:3a) “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake; but he that endureth to the end shall be saved (Matthew 10:22).” The thing is, we do not come to Jesus for happiness. We come to him because we are dirty and need to be clean. I feel for the person who decides he wants Jesus so he can be happy and get his life turned around (fixed relationships, financial prosperity, vanished addictions) only to come to the bitter realization that Jesus didn’t “work” after all.
Do not misunderstand. I have had many happy moments in my life. I do not think we ought to go about with long, dark faces trying to be miserable. When I’m happy, I thank God for it. But I also don’t expect it to last nor do I feel entitled to it. (I should say, I am learning to reject that sense of entitlement whenever I encounter it in my soul. I wish I were a faster learner.) Because, here’s the crux of the matter: We know from God’s word that ours is a fallen world; fallen through our sin. Would it really be a kindness for God to grant perpetual happiness in the world as it is? I say, no. It would be utter cruelty. If we were content in this dimness, we would not know to long for the light. Whenever God has shown even a glimpse of his glory, his servants have fallen flat on their faces. Imagine what would happen if we went from being perfectly content and happy in an evil world straight to God’s full glory. We’d probably disintegrate at the shock. Unhappiness, pain, and sorrow are really gifts, just as much and more so than any happiness or temporary pleasure, because they cause us to want him more. Pain forces us to believe his promises, though everything in our experiences seem to contradict them. It is the stuff that builds faith and spiritual muscles. At the very least, it causes us to ponder the purpose of life, and that is a very good place to be.
So, does God want us to be happy? I highly doubt it, but you must be convinced in your own mind. One thing I do know: Happiness and physical comforts build an Osteen. But agony built a Luther. . .and an Augustine. . .and a Wesley. . .and a Spurgeon. . .and pretty much every great Christian I could name. I dare say He would like to build you. Are you ready?
You may notice that references to Christian joy are absent. This is not because I feel the topic is unimportant, but because I simply did not have the time or space to include and develop it. Joy, though related to happiness, is still a different thing. I do not believe it is an automatic reality as soon as one becomes a Christian, though many may argue with me. I would like to write about this subject at some point. In the meantime, I’d really urge you to read this article, “Joy: Hard Earned Fruit.” It’s one of the best I’ve ever read on the topic.
1 “Happiness.” Dictionary.com. Accessed October 21, 2014.
2 Watts, Isaac, and Ralph Hudson. “At the Cross (Hudson).” Timeless Truths. Accessed October 21, 2014. http://library.timelesstruths.org/music/At_the_Cross_Hudson/.
3 “Child Bible Songs.” Happy All The Time (Inright, Outright). Accessed October 21, 2014. http://childbiblesongs.com/song-24-inright-outright-upright-downright.shtml.
4 Welker, Laura. “The God Who Hides From His Saints: Luther’s Deus Absconditus.” Laura Welker. May 10, 2006. Accessed October 21, 2014. http://www.laurawelker.com/uploads/3/2/2/5/3225973/luthers_hidden_god.pdf. 3
5 Welker, Laura. “The God Who Hides From His Saints: Luther’s Deus Absconditus.” Laura Welker. May 10, 2006. Accessed October 21, 2014. http://www.laurawelker.com/uploads/3/2/2/5/3225973/luthers_hidden_god.pdf. 6,7
6 Kiecker, James. “Have You Had an Anfechtung Today?” WELS. March 1, 1984. Accessed October 21, 2014. http://www.wels.net/news-events/forward-in-christ/march-1984/have-you-had-anfechtung-today.
7 Buchner, Richard. “Luther’s Anfechtungen: Setting for the Reformation.” Our Redeemer Lutheran Church. Accessed October 21, 2014. http://www.orlutheran.com/html/anfecht.html.
8 Hamilton, Robert. “I Walked a Mile With Pleasure.” Goodreads. Accessed October 21, 2014. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/289683-i-walked-a-mile-with-pleasure-she-chatted-all-the.
Photo courtesy of The Photography Muse.