The Power of a Joyful Life… or Revisiting the Notion of Happiness

I’ve mentioned before (at least I think I’ve said it here… if not I know I’ve said it elsewhere), that I dislike John Piper’s notion of Christian Hedonism. It strikes me that any philosophy based solely or primarily in what brings me the most pleasure is problematic, regardless of the ends it espouses. If my pleasure is the ultimate goal, then I am putting myself at the center of all things, and this is a place that I should never be. That being said, for the past two years God has been teaching me about joy, and I feel like I’m finally getting to the heart of the lesson. For most of my life happiness has been… unimportant. My goal was to be strong, or to be powerful, or to be righteous, or to be good, or to be spiritual (kind of in that order actually), and happiness was something that I always saw as an addendum at best, or a distraction at worst.

A few years ago a friend of mine was lecturing me about the way I approach life and asked me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ The only response that I could give was ‘Eh, maybe I guess…’ I want to stress here that my goal was not to be unhappy. I’ve never seen misery as a sign of righteousness (or at least I don’t think I have), but I also never made it a goal to be happy. Over the past two years God has been slowly changing this.

So, recently my bible study (yes, I’m part of a bible study now… yes, I realize that I haven’t posted in ‘like forever’ which translates to a couple of months in real time… thus proving the theory of internet relativity:T=CPI or Time=Care exponentially multiplied by the Perspective of the Individual)… anyway, my bible study has been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a book that I’ve loved for a long time, but recently I’ve had a new perspective on. I think that, at its core, Ecclesiastes is an admonition to joy. The author repeatedly points to the pointlessness, injustice, and repetitiveness of life, and then responds to himself by arguing that true purpose can be found in God.

In chapter one and two he shows that none of the things we normally cling to: labor, love, wealth, knowledge, and pleasure, can possibly serve as the purpose of a meaningful life. All of these are fleeting, ephemeral, and ultimately vanity. However, in chapter 3 he shows that, while none of these things is the point of life, all of them have a point in life. This is an important distinction. A life lived for the pursuit of any of these things will ultimately be unfulfilling, because they are, in themselves, vane. However, all of them are gifts given by God to bring pleasure to life and add to its ultimate purpose. Solomon argues that everything happens for a reason, and that God is the ultimate arbiter of that reason, so should we argue that he got things wrong?

Chapters four and five continue in this vein, showing the vanity and injustice of everyday life when we live it without God, but the pleasure that God can bring through that same vanity when we place him at the center of our lives. I have long been somewhat enamored by the mystic ascetics (or ascetic mystics… whatever you want to call them). And I think that true joy can be found in the ascetic pursuit of God, but this is not the only way to glorify him.

Whoever we are, whatever path God takes us on (and I’m not trying to preach Universalism here, if you think God is calling you to be a Buddhist Monk you need to revisit the scriptures), we can and should find joy when we truly place him at the center of our lives. This is something that I’m currently working on. For a long time I, like the Pharisees, turned moral virtue and righteousness into an idol, all too often replacing my worship with God with a worship of goodness. Even when I left this behind, I didn’t seek to enjoy God, but simply to endure with him.

My circumstances haven’t changed much in the past few years. I’m still single, still poor, and I still have debts that I’ll probably never be able to realistically pay (though this is in God’s hands). I still struggle with depression, fear, doubt, worry, etc. However, I’m struggling less and enjoying more. I’m learning to find my joy in God and truly, thoroughly worship him.

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A Life of Worship

It seems that I have a lot more to say when I’m struggling with things than I do when I’m not struggling. Honestly, I don’t suppose that should really surprise anyone. I think we all tend to have more to say when we are struggling with God. The issues in our lives tend to be more evident when God makes them undeniably clear to us. In turn, this obviously means that we pay more attention to them, and that we have more to say about them. All to often I (we) have little to say when life is good. The reason for this is, I think, very simple. In the church today there is a dearth of true worship in the church. I have much to say when I am struggling with God because my struggles are at the forefront of my mind. I am frustrated with God, frustrated with myself, and I want everything to be better. However, when things are better I am not thankful. E.M. Bounds illustrates the difference between thankfulness and gratitude in his book The Essentials of Prayer. Bounds argues that gratitude is inward focused and negatively associated (i.e. not that gratitude is a negative or bad thing, but in association with action gratitude, being focused inward, is negatively focused because it does not produce action). Thankfulness, Bounds argued, is outwardly focused and positively associated (i.e. again, towards action: that thankfulness, being outwardly focused, produces action). I find that I agree with him in this, and I think that both are necessary for a life of true worship.

Obviously one may demonstrate thankfulness without being grateful. This happens quite often when we utter words of thanks to God or to others, even though we are inwardly bitter, angry, or disappointed. This is, of course, hypocritical (i.e. hupokrites refered to an actor, so a hypocrite is literally one who acts), but we are often hypocritical in our lives without paying much attention or care to our hypocrisy (this is something that has strongly disabused younger generations [who value genuineness greatly] from the mainstream church). So, we go through the motions of thankfulness with no true spirit of gratitude. I have found, in my own life, that this often leads to even deeper feelings of disappointment and resentment. I have, many times, felt truly grateful for the trials and struggles that God has put me through. However, I have also (probably more often) been thankful out of a sense of obligation. I suppose Kant would argue that acting on this sense of obligation, especially when my feelings ran counter to it, was the most truly good action. However, while I have great respect of the man, this is one place where I think that I profoundly disagree with Kant.

Sacrificial love is, in my opinion, a beautiful and very important thing. However, love that is truly sacrificial is gracious and grateful as well. It is not resentful, which is what I find my hypocritical thankfulness often turning towards. To act out of obligation is good as long as the action is truly genuine as well. I may thank God for trials because I am obligated to do so, and still feel truly grateful for those trials. However, if I give obligatory thanks in bitterness and resentment, I cannot find the wherewithal to call this ‘good’. Thus, I must argue that this kind of hypocritical thankfulness is not good.

However, one may also clearly be grateful without being thankful. I have often found myself in this place: filled with a feeling of grateful contentment, but so focused on my own internal pleasures that the outward exercise of thankfulness disappears. St. Teresa of Avila warned of this in The Mansions. St. Teresa claimed that she had known several sisters (she was a nun and so her writings were generally directed towards the sisters) who became so overwhelmed by the internal pleasures of God’s gracious love that they ceased all activities. She called this a deathly illness (though it isn’t entirely clear if she meant physically or spiritually) and called on the ranking sisters to keep watch on nuns who showed signs of this malady. St. Teresa claimed that this cessation of outward activity was a sign of spiritual weakness that would inevitably delay or even halt the spiritual growth of the sisters so affected.

I have to admit that I have seen this in my own life. There have been times when I hoarded God’s love and compassion, keeping it to myself and enjoying my time with God without letting anyone else benefit. When my spiritual life is turned entirely inwards it doesn’t stop being real, but it stops being prosperous. When we turn our affections entirely inward then, as Paul said to the Corinthians, we are edified, but the body is not. However, when we keep our holy affections balanced, with a strong inward life of spiritual gratitude that spills over into an outward life of thanksgiving and praise, then we edify not only ourselves, but the body as a whole. This is, I think, the best life that I could hope for, and I hope that it is the path that I am now on.

Media Influences and Satisfaction

Sometimes the media makes me feel worthless. I was watching an episode of the sitcom New Girl today and the entire focus of the episode seemed to revolve around the idea that money is what makes us worthwhile. Having money means being an adult, and if you aren’t doing something that the world considers worthwhile, then you’re just a child. Of course, to emphasize this point a rich, successful older man is contrasted with two ‘boys’ in their thirties who spend their time partying, drinking, and trying to have sex with twenty year old women. The idea that these boys represent those who haven’t grown up is quite strong, because they haven’t grown up. In the episode they act like children. However, the idea that growing up means being rich isn’t quite right either.

I am currently playing a bit part in the stage version of It’s a Wonderful Life, and much as I hate the movie, I have to admit that it has a good point. Unlike what modern media tells us, and unlike what my generation grew up hearing, life doesn’t have to be special to be worthwhile. The truth is that I appreciate the movie more now than I ever have in the past. It’s still chalk full of horrible theology, but the overarching point of the movie is about satisfaction. George wants to kill himself (tries to kill himself) because he isn’t satisfied with his life. He feels worthless because he hasn’t accomplished any of the things that he set out to accomplish. Instead he got stuck in his hometown, running his father’s business, and his life has been thoroughly small. Honestly, while I don’t think I’d want to run a building and loan, George’s life has always seemed pretty good to me. He has a beautiful wife, loving friends and family, and a fairly stable business. He’s always seemed like a bit of a pussy for wanting to kill himself. At the same time, I’ve been suicidal, and I have no doubt that (if that story were made into a movie) there would be a lot of people out there thinking that I seemed like a pussy. So, I suppose I have no place to judge.

However, all of the theology and complaints about George aside, the movie is really about being satisfied with what you have. George worked hard, cared for others, lived up to his responsibilities to family and community, and through the movie he comes to see how much value that has had in his life. The episode of New Girl did exactly the opposite, and I see this in a lot of modern media. Where It’s a Wonderful Life encouraged us to embrace the lives that we’ve been given and learn to be satisfied where we are and with what we have, a lot of modern media encourages us to want more, to always be looking for what comes next, and to never be satisfied with where we are.

It strikes me that this is an extremely unhealthy message that perfectly fits the attitude of my generation. We grew up easy (financially at least) and were promised that everything we did would be amazing. We weren’t told that we had to be satisfied. We weren’t told that we had to work hard. We weren’t told that we might not get what we want, or that we might not be good enough. Well… a lot of us weren’t anyway. Those of us that were told these things were generally told that no matter how hard we worked we would fail, or that we would never be good enough for anything. In other words, most of us weren’t raised with any in-between space. We weren’t raised to understand that we have to work hard, try our best, and be satisfied with the results.

This isn’t to blame my parents, or parents in general for failing in their duty. Certainly they did fail us, but the culture as a whole failed them. I don’t think this is an issue for which any particular party can bear the blame. We are all at fault, and especially those of my generation because all to often we haven’t done anything. We look around at our friends on facebook, twitter, linked-in, etc and the amazing careers that they post online, and fail to realize that, on-line, most of our careers look equally amazing. Simply put, instead of going out and doing something about our dissatisfaction, we puff ourselves up in an attempt to compete with the images we see. We lie about our lives because we think everyone else is being honest about their’s, and we all remain dissatisfied.

A few day ago my roommate’s girlfriend said something that took me by surprise. She’s young (20 something I think… maybe 19) and works at a local fast food establishment. I was sitting in my favorite recliner (… well, really it’s the only recliner in the apartment that actually works…) grading papers when, on her way out the door she looked at my computer to see what I was doing. In passing she commented, “This is what you do all day? Man, I wish I had your job, that would be awesome!” This girl knows how much I make (or at least I’ve told her), and she is still envious of my job. I’ve said many times here that I love my job, and her comment brought to mind a simple thought: My life isn’t that bad.

There are things that I want, and only a few of them have anything to do with what media pushes on us, but all in all, I have been greatly blessed. I spent a good fifteen minutes today just thanking God for the life that he’s given me, and that isn’t something that I used to do.

So, if you’ve managed to read this far into my ramblings, take a moment and think about your life from someone else’s perspective. It’s probably pretty good.

Being Yourself

I have a friend that I deeply admire. She’s actually a barista at my favorite coffee shop, but I’m there so much that I consider most of the barista’s friends at this point, or at least close acquaintances. This particular young woman, let’s call her Michelle, impresses me because she is always herself. I… am not always myself. Don’t get me wrong, I always try to be myself, but there are times that I wind up being someone else, or trying to be someone else, to impress someone, or to hide some insecurity, or to protect myself from getting hurt. I think that I can honestly say that I am usually myself, but not always.

I’ve never seen Michelle be less than herself. She has a unique personality that is inspiring both in it’s confidence and in it’s openness. I can’t say that she’s not afraid to share who she is (I don’t know the inner workings of her mind), but if she is afraid, she doesn’t let it stop her. Michelle doesn’t seem concerned with impressing people, and in being unconcerned she is impressive precisely because she isn’t trying to be unconcerned. I’ve written a fair amount about striving. Striving for success, for coolness, for likablility, for wealth, for attraction, for godliness, for… whatever… we strive for the things we want, we push, we fight, and weep, and we are never satisfied. Michelle strikes me as a person who is simply satisfied.

I’m probably wrong in this, at least to some degree. I’m sure that she has her share of problems, and I’ve certainly seen her on off days when she wasn’t particularly happy with something. I’ve seen her on days when she’s down in the dumps, on days when she’s still asleep, on days when she’s bright and chipper, and on days when she’s just plain frustrated with something. I’ve seen her struggling with problems she didn’t know how she was going to handle. So I’m not trying to say that Michelle’s life is perfect, or that she handles life perfectly. However, I can say that she handle’s life honestly.

I am forced here to think of another young woman I met at this coffee shop, a very pretty young woman to whom I was quite attracted… until I spent a little time talking to her. I honestly don’t even remember her name, but we’ll call her Red Dress… it was what first attracted me to her… unlike Michelle, my few conversations with Red Dress have seemed… less then genuine. She strikes me as a person who forces herself to be happy, even when she isn’t, because it’s the Christian thing to do. I remember one of my first conversations with Red Dress, she put on one of the most plastic smiles I’ve ever seen, and told me that I too could be filled with unbelievable joy… the only thing I could think was that if the ‘joy’ I saw in her was the joy she was offering, I didn’t want any part of it. Michelle is joyful, even on her crap days she exudes a sense of wonderment about God and the world around her. Red Dress is… fake.

One of the most important things that any of us can do is to be honest with ourselves. If we are not honest with ourselves, then we cannot be honest with others. If we cannot be honest, then we cannot be ourselves. We will put up fronts, masks, falsehoods without even realizing it, and all to often, people can see through these into our actual selves. Masks are a natural part of being. A natural part of living. That doesn’t make them good.

Hope

I know what it’s like to live without hope. I’m not there right now, actually I’m doing pretty well right now. I find that I’ve finally come to a place where I’m not looking for anything. I’ve always been looking for something, a better job, a relationship, someone to love me, someone to support me, a new hobby, a new degree program, or some new thing… always something. However, recently God has had me waiting. I honestly have no idea what I’m waiting for, I’m just waiting. I’m not applying to any jobs, not sending out resumes, not applying to schools, and I’m not looking for a relationship.

At first this was really hard because it felt like giving up. I thought I was on my way back to that point of utter and complete hopelessness, that God was, for some reason, commanding me to dive back into the depths of suicidal misery, and I do actually mean that literally. I’m not being melodramatic, two years ago I was suicidal for about four months. I also spent Jr. High and High school trying to get myself run over by cars. However, that’s a story for another time. I’ve found that the secret when I’m suicidal is to remember that my life is not my own. It is not my right to end my life. Only God has the right to choose when I die.

However, back on track, that hasn’t happened. It’s been hard, especially the last couple of weeks, but God is bringing me to a point where I actually do rely on him and find my meaning, my purpose, and my self in him. As I wait, I find that I am becoming more comfortable waiting. Not the hopeless, giving up kind of comfortable that proceeds suicidal desperation, but a comfortable expectation that the waiting will end at some point, and that God will use it to make me better.

I love my job, and while I’d like more work sometimes, and could certainly use more money, I know that what I do matters. I have friendships that need work, but I also have friendships that are meaningful and that allow me both to sharpen others (which I love doing), and to be sharpened (which I need). Finally, for the first time in a very, very long time, I’m comfortable being single. There are one or two women that I’m interested in, but I don’t need anyone else in my life.

I’ve been happy before, but it was always something of a circumstantial happiness. There’s nothing wrong with this, circumstances can make us happy, but they can’t be relied upon to make us happy. Circumstances change, good things come and go, but our happiness doesn’t need to do so. We can be joyful because God is with us. As the Psalmist said, he is our portion and our part. Actually, even more telling, Jeremiah says this in the middle of Lamentations, which is a book that thoroughly expresses the feeling of hopelessness and depression.

I’m finally beginning to learn to simply be happy, not because of something that I have or something that I’m doing, but because I have him. I am simply content, and satisfaction is the key to happiness. Like me, many of us spend so much time searching for one thing or another that we forget how to be content, and contentedness is not only important, but also commanded.

So, simply put, I’m learning to be happy, and to let go of pain. Giving things up always happens differently. When I gave up my hate it happened almost overnight after I first got saved. One day I hated everyone and everything, and the next I didn’t. However, God took almost a decade to change my suspicion and distrust into a complete and total trust of him, and many of those lessons were very painful. When I gave up my anger he had me fast for three days, and I gave up my anger on the first. No, this… I’m learning to be happy, learning to let go of my pain, and I am fasting, but I think this is going to be more of a process. God works in mysterious ways, but he never stops working, and he always knows what he’s doing.

Eudaimonia

I’m jealous of people who seem like they have it easy. This isn’t a good thing, but it is a thing. I have a few friends who work hard, and they’re good people, but it always seems like things just come to them. I don’t really know how else to put it. This is a meanness in me, and I realize that, but I see these people who are happy and successful and together, and I get frustrated sitting on the outside looking in. Partially because I don’t know how to be that person. Happiness has never been particularly important to me. A year ago a friend of mine tried to coach me, well… she called it coaching, but it was really counseling in disguise. She kept trying to convince me that I could just choose to be happy, that I should go to a happy place, which has always struck me as a cop-out. There is a difference between having a peaceful confident joy that comes from God and running to some imaginary happy place that lets you hide from real life. However, she finally got around to asking me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ And this honestly should have been her first question. My answer… “I don’t know. Happiness is… meh.”

I’ve always striven to be better. There was a time that I was a very bad person, and I think a lot of this striving came from that. I want to be good more than I want to be happy. I want to be like Christ more than I want to be happy. However, I think that I’m coming to the realization that part of being better is learning to be happy (and by happy I mean joyful). Joy is one of the fruits of the spirit, perhaps one that me make to much of (after all it isn’t faith, hope, or love), but still it is one, and if I am devoid of joy (and I have been devoid of joy at times), then I am missing an essential part of what Christ is trying to make me.

I’ve said for a long time that Americans are far to obsessed with happiness and pleasure, and I think this is very true. However, running in the opposite direction and avoiding happiness and pleasure entirely isn’t any better. It’s like saying that Americans are greedy, so I’m going to give away everything I own and live on welfare. It might be a noble gesture, but it isn’t really the right response. So… I think I know my answer, a year later, but still I know my answer. I do want to be happy, or rather I want to be joyful. It’s something that God’s been trying to teach me for a while, and I tend to have a really hard head. I don’t listen well, but he always get’s through to me eventually.

My happiness actually does matter. It’s not the only thing that matters. Obviously it has to be held in balance with temperance, love, peace, patience, kindness, virtue, etc. Nonetheless, my happiness does matter, and I should be working to be happy. I don’t want to say that I should be working to make myself happy. I’m honestly not even sure what that would look like… a wife maybe, a few kids, an income of $50-$60 thousand a year… or maybe two or three wives and an income of several million a year… or maybe living in a monastery where I don’t have to worry about women at all… honestly, I’m pretty sure that (if it were up to me at least) happiness would revolve around women in some way.

Instead of trying to make myself happy and running from one thing to another to another, I want to be happy where I am, with what God has given me. I want to be happy with myself as the man that God has made me, even if I can’t have the things that I want. That… is something that I’m still working on. Too often I still want to be someone else, and that does nothing to help me be satisfied with him, and I think that the kind of happiness that I’m describing here, Plato’s eudaimonia, is part and parcel with satisfaction. Still, at the moment, beyond the fact that satisfaction comes from God… I have no idea how to actually be happy. Plato argued that eudaimonia comes from living a virtuous life. However, my life at present is fairly virtuous and I certainly don’t spend a lot of time in eudaimonia. So, while I agree that virtue is a part of eudaimonia, there is another part… or probably a few other parts, that I haven’t found yet.

Right now God has me waiting… on pretty much everything in life, and I think I may have just realized why he has me waiting. Of course, I could be completely wrong. This might just be another rabbit trail, he knows I’ve gone down plenty of those, he’s even led me down a couple. That, however, is a story for another time.