Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Joy vs. Happiness

A friend of mine sent me the following email:
I read [this article] this morning in light of a conversation I had last night with a family member whose spouse has tried to commit suicide multiple times. Read this when you get a chance and let me know your thoughts...
I read the article and tracked down the source. It is chapter 8 from a book published in 1916 by Hannah Whitall Smith titled The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life. I'm hopeful that if I took the time to read the complete book, I might find this particular chapter in better context. However, in reading this chapter titled "Is God in Everything?" in light of the title of this book without the rest of the context, it struck me that many people, and particularly Americans (including myself in the not too distant past) needlessly struggle with the idea of the Sovereignty of God because we don't understand the difference between joy and happiness.

Where does the Bible talk about being happy as a guarantee of Christian life? Wasn't Jesus a man of sorrows? Weren't we promised persecution and tribulation rather than "happy" lives? Happy is a word related to "happen" which is based on circumstances. If our joy is based on circumstances, then we'll be tossed about in our emotions. The biblical concept of joy is a very different concept than "happy" and biblical joy is found in Christ, not our circumstances. If people understood that the Christian's Secret of a *Joyful* Life was not based on circumstances, then all this wondering about the sovereignty of God would be cleared up immediately.

I believe one of the main reasons why people even ask this question "Is God in Everything?" or doubt the sovereignty of God is that they believe they are entitled to a happy life. We are not. One of my favorite phrases to use with my three boys is "life is not fair." In fact, the plain reading of the Biblical text shows an expectation of happiness is pretty much the opposite of the truth.

I think Americans struggle with this a lot because we believe "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is our birthright from the Declaration of Independence. This is not biblical. Our lives belong to God, our liberty is found in slavery to Christ, and we need to learn to be joyful in all circumstances, even the unhappy ones. These are some of the many paradoxical aspects of Christian living. The Christian life runs orthogonal to or even opposite of the conventional wisdom of the world.

The challenge is consistently living joyfully through the happy and unhappy times. It is easy for me to write this today when I'm relatively happy and things are going well in my life. However, it isn't so easy to live this ethic consistently through the pits of depression, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear that come and go throughout our lives.