"If you (who by comparison are evil!) know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him?" Matthew 7:11
Everyone wants to be happy, and that is certainly not a bad thing. I want to be happy. Happiness means my surrounding circumstances are agreeable. Things are going my way. So I'm happy when my health is good, the bills are paid, the Kentucky Wildcats win, etc. I could make a long list of things that make me happy.
The Bible actually has quite a bit to say about happiness. God blesses us in many ways, and some of those ways include health, possessions, circumstances of all sorts. "He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust" Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. So God is concerned about our happiness and seems to delight in giving us good things.
This doesn't change the fact that God's major concern is our eternity. So if we spend too much time on trying to be happy, or trying to persuade God to arrange everything to suit us, then we've missed the point entirely. But God enjoys giving us good gifts and encourages us to ask for them. Our happiness is important to God.
So how do we draw the line? What can we rightly expect with regard to happiness?
A phrase in the Serenity Prayer (long version) sums up my expectations of happiness. The next to last line reads, "that we may be reasonably happy in this life." That's it. I want to be reasonably happy.
Here are three keys that have helped me.
First, stop trying to be more than reasonably happy. Sure it would be a beautiful morning (and day) if everything's going my way, but is that reasonable? In fact, my expectation that I should have unblemished happiness is one of the impediments to being happy. In some ways, this expectation is vintage American theology. We've come to expect that all discomfort should be eliminated. Fact is, we'd be a lot happier if we settled for being reasonably happy.
An illustration: A few years ago I noticed how many men adamantly said they wouldn't want their children going into the same career they had. I decided to conduct my own survey and began to ask men this very question. Rarely would someone say yes. This was true no matter the occupation. Blue collar, white collar, it didn't matter. Now why? Part of the answer surely is that we all believe that something else would make us happier. But trust me, the other guy that you might be envying is saying the same thing.
I decided then that I would aim for 80%. I try to genuinely enjoy 80% of what I do. Every job I've ever had had about 20% of things that were not very fun, irritating, or even infuriating. But 80% is a B on just about any grading scale. I can be reasonably happy with 80% of things going my way. So can you.
Second, accept hardships as the pathway to peace. This is another of my favorite phrases from the Serenity Prayer. The great transformation in the Bible is that suffering actually becomes a means for spiritual growth. So this makes it possible for us to shift from trying to change everything to suit us, to looking for spiritual growth that comes with difficulty. Additionally, when viewed in this way, challenge is not something only to be endured. Amazingly, we find meaning in suffering.
Too many times, at some level, I fear that my life would be nothing but drenching unhappiness if _____ happened. That blank may be a serious health problem personally, or with a member of my family. I look at someone else in that feared situation and wonder how they make it. But when I look closer, I often find that they not only are making it but they seem to be filled with deep meaning and purpose. In fact, they appear genuinely happy.
I think here of the countless men and women who've been gravely injured serving our country. So often, I see in their lives moving testimonies of how they've met their challenges with greater resolve and thereby found a deeper meaning than they've ever had before.
I've never been a fan of the idea that "everything happens for a reason." I do believe we can construct reason, meaning, and purpose out of any situation. God doesn't bring upon us the storms of life, but neither does He waste them. He gets us through and helps us to find peace, and, yes, happiness when we accept hardships as the pathway.
Third, stop thinking of happiness and unhappiness as binary. You're never either one or the other. Every life has a bit of both (remember my 80% rule). The line between unhappiness and happiness cuts through us all. When people ask me how I'm doing I often say "I'm reasonably happy." This sometimes provokes puzzled looks, but it's accurate because at any given moment I'm a mixture of happiness and unhappiness. Now here is the challenge: I must watch more for the presence of happiness than for its absence. That's not easy!
Unhappiness is like stubbing my little toe. When it happens it's all I can think about. I ignore completely the fact that I don't have heart disease or cancer, for example. I'm outraged at the unfairness of the universe for putting that table leg right where my little toe was traveling. Any happy life depends on the proper focus. If I look for unhappiness I can find it in the next stubbed toe. But if I look for happiness, I'm surely overwhelmed by it. You always find what you look for in life.
Happiness/unhappiness is very much like the weather. It changes. That's good news because it means that the events leading to my unhappiness almost always dissipate like the storm. Of course, and this is good to remember, it also means that the sunshine is not permanent. I'm learning more and more to simply observe the clouds and the sunshine, accepting their inevitable presence in my life, without attaching any permanent self-evaluation to them. Also, my faith reminds me of the blue skies, or the starry skies, above the clouds. The troubled things of earth will one day give way to the permanence of heaven and that is a good thought. But until then, I'll look for the daily dose of heaven all around me.
I can embrace some fairly simple strategies that will increase my happiness, at least a bit, here and now. Of course, there's so much more to be said on this matter of happiness (such as helping others), but hopefully this will help. May you be reasonably happy this week.
Dr. Terry Ellis
January 22, 2017