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Sam Mangai asks whether it’s reasonable to ask for some divine help on the path to contentment.
Something that I have found perplexing about Christianity is the relationship between God and human happiness.
Now, while I don’t consider my personal felicity high on the list of God’s providential concerns, there have been times when I have wondered, “Why doesn’t God make me happy?”
When voiced, such a question tends to elicit some form of ocular exasperation, be it an eye-roll, fixed squint, or vacant stare, and a sound reminder that, “it ain’t about you”. And I agree. I’d even willingly submit that, in paraphrasing the Psalmist, ‘‘I am but a worm and not a man’’ (Psalm 22). Yet God – the Holy One of Israel – is the worm’s helper (Isaiah 41). So why can’t He help me be happy?
“Happiness is not the purpose of life!” comes the sage retort of everyone’s favourite Canadian, clinical psychologist. Rather: pursue what is meaningful. Good and true. Moreover, if God is the aim of said pursuit, then surely Christian living can prove the reality of that ancient metaphysical proposition: the true is also the good.
So why is it that the transcendental aspirations of many a Christian (this one included) seem to falter at the altar of depression? Can’t He at least make me happy in those times? For many people — Christian and not — depression is a difficult topic to consider. This situation is only exasperated by the fact that old myths die hard: “crazy people contemplate suicide”; “weak minds can’t help themselves”.
Within the church, this mythos can have an appallingly Dantean hue: “a depressed Christian isn’t a real Christian”; “unsaved people contemplate suicide”. It’s not hard to see then, why for many, depression can feel like a private hell. Especially when such sentiments are taken in conjunction with ostentatious (and unbiblical) claims of health, wealth, and happiness for all who simply, “… let Jesus in”. Seems we would do well to apply Paul’s instruction to Timothy and, “have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales” (1 Timothy 4).
Somewhere between the sapiential insights of Ecclesiastes 3, and final instructions of 2nd Timothy 4, you can find the idea that life is a race for the audacious, a battle for the daring. It could even, to paraphrase the good doctor, be thought of as grounds for ‘a game of sufficient grandeur and nobility, that one’s mortality is built into its very structure’.
Certainly, every day that I find myself happy while running, fighting, and playing, is a day I’m very grateful for. But one of the issues I’ve found with happiness, is that it tends to beget faith in self, which in turn, can lead to glorying in the sufficiency of one’s abilities — including the ability to keep ‘‘playing the game’’.
Trying to pursue life, while endorsing that it takes place wholly within a self-sufficient immanent frame, seems both absurdly difficult and difficultly absurd. Perhaps this is what the Teacher had in mind when he wrote that, “…all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless ...” (Ecclesiastes 1).
Even under the sun there are dark days, and, when wrestling through, I’ve been tempted to think God conspicuous by His absence. “Ah!” goes the confidence of metaphysical naturalism, “evidence of his non-existence, surely”. Well, at the risk of answering a fool according to his folly, perhaps it’s more the case that the idol is mute.
Contemporary Christianity Lite, with its de-emphasis of Scripture and overvaluation on self-esteem, has done a wonderful job of encouraging people to envision God as some sort of cosmic butler; a being who defers to one’s personal wants and needs. So, if things are going well, and I’m happy, God gets the glory. If I’m in a depressive stupor, and feeling lousy, God gets the third degree. And the idol totters.
Perhaps the concern is that if we deny ourselves the want of happiness for the sake of God’s glory, we’ll be giving up something we need. It was the great Christian thinker, Jonathan Edwards, who observed that God’s pursuit of His own glory is not necessarily contrary to our happiness.
Indeed, Psalm 105 teaches that it is through an enduring commendation of who God is, and what He has done, that happiness might be found. Our need is a God who saves, not one who elates. This basic affirmation even drives the opening words of Psalm 88: adirge penned by (arguably) the most depressed person in the bible.
The reality is that my life, with its moments of happiness, and punctuations of despair, ultimately belongs to God. The myriad of experiences that come with Christian living, are part of astory He writes for His glorification, so that His wonders may be known, even in the dark.
- Sam Mangai is a member of the Cornerstone International Bible Church in Dunedin.