The Phantom of Happiness
The Christmas season is one of my favorite times of year. I love to watch my children as they get wrapped up in the wonder of the holidays. I love to put up my tree and lights (which is done the day after Halloween; yep, we’re those people, don't @ me). I love to be reminded of the great love and sacrifice made by Jesus as we celebrate the incarnation. There are so many things to love at Christmas, but there is also an oft hidden part which can be crippling. Of course, what I am speaking of is not relegated only to the holidays, but rather is an ever-present lie which whispers lies and makes promises it cannot fulfill.I am talking about the danger of happiness. Happiness is something we all seek, work and fight for, and something for which heavy prices are paid. Yet, the terrible thing about happiness is once it is obtained, it either disappears again rapidly or we find ourselves unsatisfied. We wait for it, and we are surrounded by culture, people, advertisements, and a myriad of other voices communicating we can finally be happy and free if we just (fill in the blank). Even many psychologists recognize the dangers therein,
This widespread “myth of happiness” is harmful, because our overly high expectations can instigate a major crisis when we realize that achieving those dreams has not made us happy (or for as long) as we believed they would.
Happiness is the answer we think we want, but it will always overpromise and under deliver. Yet, throughout cultures past and present we try so hard to make happiness be our endgame. This is why happiness is a dangerous commodity to seek on its own. Before you continue assuming I am just some sort of Grinch type creature who think nobody ought to be happy and we should all just embrace our misery and deal with it, let me assure you I am not trying decry happiness altogether. Rather, I am asserting happiness as a standalone feature will never suffice. To put it another way, “the word happy in our culture has been sentimentalized and trivialized…as a result, it connotes a certain superficiality.”Happiness as defined by culture will always come up empty. Here’s why:
- Happiness is fragile. Is there anything more friable than a feeling of happiness? You may be in a great mood with high spirits. Things are looking up. You feel like you finally have it all together, and then you get a piece of bad news. Happiness comes cascading down like an avalanche. It falls apart seemingly from out of nowhere, and once it dissipates we scramble and try to claw our way back to the comforting glow we hope can embrace us again. Our emotions are easily swayed and can be highly unstable. Hanging our hope on an emotional response is precarious at best and destructive at worst.
- Happiness is temporary. For every happy moment we have there is a wave of sadness, anger, bitterness, grief, etc. waiting just around the bend. No matter how hard we try it just does not last. We try everything. We lose weight or get in shape, we earn/save money, we climb the ladders of our careers, we gain power, fame, notoriety, and what do we have to show for it, a wealth of temporary moments where happiness was momentarily held only to escape our grasp once more. Happiness is like a drug which wears off quickly and leaves us longing for the next fix when we know it can never last forever.
- Happiness sets unrealistic expectations. If a person’s main pursuit in life is to be happy there will undoubtedly come moments of severe hurt and frustration. Moreover, what do we do with those of us who deal with some form of depression? How cruel is to have an expectation that you must always try to be happy when you are hurting deeply within? If the expectation is for a person to gain happiness and let that be the paramount achievement of life then not only has an unrealistic expectation been placed, but a wildly irresponsible ideology has made something good (happiness) into something it was never meant to be…God.
- Happiness is exhausting. How tiring is it to have to always try to be happy? When we keep spinning our wheels in the mud of happiness we find ourselves obviously getting nowhere, but moreover we find we are simply exhausted. What begins to happen is we create masks to hide our true selves because we feel like if others are happy and we are not then something is clearly wrong with us. This fuels the lie and danger of this kind of happiness even more. You cannot sustain yourself at all times.
I write all this again not disavow happiness or even say it is not a good gift…it is, but I am writing this with the intent to showcase that not only can cultural or worldly happiness not support its own weight in the position we have placed it, but I want to show what true happiness looks like.The endless quest for happiness is a journey we all take at some level, but where we find it is what matters. Paul Tripp writes,
Everybody searches for life somewhere. God has placed this quest in each of our hearts. It is there to drive us to him. It is there because we were made for Him. But sadly, in their lifelong quest for life, most people ignore God. In their God amnesia, they look for life where it cannot be found, and because they do, they always come up empty. It’s important to realize that you can search for life in only two places. Either you have found life to the fullest vertically or you are shopping for it horizontally.
Romans 1:21-22 tells us that in our foolishness we think we find true happiness (or as it shall henceforth be called, joy) outside the bounds of God. What we perceived as wisdom in distancing ourselves from God is actually just foolishness. This is why true joy is different standard happiness. This is what Tripp was asserting. If we keep shopping horizontally for happiness then we are going to keep missing it, but if we have found our worth, value, contentment, and yes, happiness in whom we are in Jesus, it can never be robbed. Sure, grief, sadness, anger, and all the other things are present even for Christians, but the main difference is for those who trust in Jesus when their happiness shatters, their life does not.Happiness on its own leaves us always wanting more, but joy brings satisfaction. Happiness will be like a phantom. We think we find it, only to have it elude us once more. The standard idea of happiness means always trying to do more, or be more, or have more, but this is not the case with the biblical standard of joy. True happiness or joy both comes from and breeds contentment. In his book, The Greener Grass Conspiracy, Stephen Altrogge writes,
We won’t be fully satisfied when we get what want. Because God loves us and wants us to find our satisfaction in him, he won’t allow us to be satisfied. To believe that we’ll finally be happy when we get what we want is a lie.
Contentment, joy, and happiness are espoused. You cannot separate them if you want real happiness. Happiness by definition is optional. You can find happiness in your career, money, children, etc. But what do you do when any one of or all of those things are stripped away? If we find ourselves clinging to a notion of happiness apart from our joy found in Christ we will fall into a black hole of bitterness. We will be angry at God or curse God because we had something taken away we feel like we were entitled to possess. In fact nowhere within the pages of the Bible will you find any promise of happiness, but rather a host of promises which include difficulty (John 16:33; Psalm 23:4; John 15:20; 1 Peter 4:12; etc.). In stark contrast the Bible has a multitude of promises regarding joy (Psalm 94:19; John 15:11; Psalm 30:11; Hebrews 12:2; Lamentations 3:21-24).Happiness on its own cannot satisfy and it can only offer temporary glimpses of hope, but joy is something greater. Joy offers hope where none exists and brings about contentment and blessing. Unlike happiness, joy can even be experienced by those with depression, and the proof for this is my own life. I have dealt with depression on some level since my teenage years, and at times it has been extremely difficult, but I have found when my hope is in Jesus and my eyes are upon Him that He is enough to get me through whatever my struggles are (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). I love the way David Mathis puts it when we proclaims, “It is good that joy is not optional in the Christian life, because the final weight falls not on our weak backs, but on the almighty shoulders of God himself.”Whether you are crestfallen around the holidays or are just having a difficult season in life altogether, there is hope. Do not settle for happiness, seek joy by finding Jesus. Do not pursue a phantom, but rather pursue Jesus and let your joy be complete not by your own doing by His.I'm reminded of a great quote from Charles Spurgeon, "I have learned to kiss the waves that throw me against the Rock of Ages."Here are two links to some really outstanding videos/music which I think profoundly speak of exactly what I've written. I hope you find them helpful. I know I have.
WORKS CITED"Joy Is Not Optional: Why Your Happiness Matters To God," Desiring God, accessed December 18, 2018, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/joy-is-not-optional.Altrogge, Stephen. The Greener Grass Conspiracy. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.Sonja Lyubomirsky. "Why Aren't We Happier During The Holidays?" Psychology Today. Accessed December 18, 2018. http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-happiness/201312/why-arent-we-happier-during-the-holidays.Sproul, R.C. Can I Have Joy In My Life? Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2012.Tripp, Paul David. New Morning Mercies. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. Sonja Lyubomirsky, "Why Aren't We Happier During the Holidays," Psychology Today, accessed December 18, 2018, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-happiness/201312/why-arent-we-happier-during-the-holidays. R.C. Sproul, Can I Have Joy In My Life? (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2012), 1. Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 107. Stephen Altrogge, The Greener Grass Conspiracy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 55-56. "Joy Is Not Optional: Why Your Happiness Matters To God," Desiring God, accessed December 18, 2018, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/joy-is-not-optional.