The Bible records that Jesus walked on water. And that his apostle, Peter, did too. In one account (Matthew 14:24-25), the Savior is walking on the sea of Galilee as the wind is churning up rough waves. Get the picture? Jesus, buffeted by wind, is walking on the jagged surface of the sea. (Since the text says “walking,” we needn’t think that he was floating across the water like a hovercraft.) And Peter also is walking unsteadily in the wind, struggling forward on the roiling sea toward Jesus like a man tipsy from draining too many wineskins.
When life is like a stormy sea, our being happy seems as miraculous as walking on water.
Happiness in History
Once upon a time philosophers pondered the origin and meaning of happiness. What it is. How to attain it. Plato said back in the BCs that happiness is derived from right living; so he urged individuals and societies to live by rules that promote virtue. For Plato the virtuous person will be happy. Later, Aristotle agreed.
By the fourth century, Saint Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. According to Augustine, our happiness depends on the existence of a loving, caring Creator.
But by the so-called Enlightenment, when the world was supposedly under the distant gaze of The Watchmaker, many people in Western Civilization assumed that personal happiness was their own responsibility. And as the pursuit of happiness replaced the religious quest and the universe seemed emptied of God, people began feeling lonely and showed the first symptoms of angst.
Today, many people are losing faith in the whole enterprise of pursing happiness. They feel lucky to have survived another week. In these days of downsized expectations and apocalyptic visions, happiness seems an extravagance.
It Only Hurts When I Laugh
Human experience is complicated, sometimes weird. Some people hide their pain like business executives hide tattoos; others display their sorrows with open pride, pleased to be counted among a community of invalids who can excuse themselves from life, since the angel has not stirred the medicinal waters particularly for them. Perhaps this is why Jesus asked the cripple at the pool of Bethesda if he really wanted to be healed (John 5:2-9).
Cravings for spiritual fulfillment can sometimes drag people into the dark caves of irrationality, despair, suicide. I once knew a young man who was so earnest about his spiritual life that he meticulously measured every thought, word, and deed against the perfect character of God. He didn’t understand the biblical truth of grace and ended his desperately unhappy life by hanging himself.
Seeing what had happened to him made a deep impression on me. I thought, “Wrong notions about religion can kill you. Be careful about what you believe.”
But Wait, There’s More
Much of today’s product advertising and ideological propaganda mimic wrong beliefs about religion. They distort the truth and intentionally create an unhappiness in people to sell them a fake happiness. Such marketing methods aren’t cloaked in mystery. They’re pretty obvious. And we’re tempted to use them even in the church.
When I was young, I sometimes heard the church promise eternal happiness through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Some of my friends became Christians on the basis of this promise. After a year, when discipleship to Jesus was becoming painful for some of them, they left the church for an easier, happier spirituality. Frankly, I blamed the church for its bait and switch method of evangelism. No one ever told us up front that the Christian life would be one of sacrifice. We were just promised happiness.
The Inflation Factor
Have you ever noticed that people’s expectations for happiness have become inflated? If six months ago we were “happy” with 2.0, now we will be unhappy if we don’t buy 2.1. And it must come in an awesome array of colors—choices; we must have lots of awesome choices. And, oh, this is a must . . . we need all those choices today. Such an immature understanding of happiness produces unhappy people with unrealistic expectations.
Look at some American Idol contestants who lack singing talent. The judges tell them, “Listen, go home and do something else. You have no talent for singing.” But after such a rejection, these deluded contestants get angry, desperately unhappy, and some struggle to emotionally survive. They curse and blame the judges for not seeing true talent. But isn’t it obvious that those contestants are unhappy because they cling to false notions about personal happiness and personal identity that are based on misdirected wants? They want what they can’t do and can’t have, instead of what God has called them to do and have. We all need God’s grace to survive and God’s blessings to flourish.
How to be Spiritual Without Being Religious
Many people these days are dissatisfied with the ephemeral happiness that the world promises. That’s one reason for the growing interest in spirituality, particularly among young people who’ve seen in their parents and older siblings an unexpected disappointment in materialism as a source of happiness.
But established religious institutions have disappointed too. Many young people these days are skeptical of organized religions. Perhaps that’s why many of them are seeking a new spirituality, a spirituality that is multifaceted and has all the fashionable elements for the contemporary consumer—convenience, self-orientation, and a modular inter-changeability that permits one to easily swap-out old notions and replace them with new beliefs, particularly about morality.
Today, seeking is more fashionable than believing. What a Renaissance Man was to the seventeenth century, the Inclusive Person is to the twenty-first. Today’s spiritual seeker is the Inclusive Person, always on the move, gathering, synthesizing new information and experiences, processing, analyzing statistics, meditating on the harmonics of the data, designing new innovative ways to be a happy. The self-oriented spirituality of the Inclusive Person has less to do with a relationship with God than it does with finding personal fulfillment.
Is it Good to be Bad?
Happiness, in some people’s minds, is equated with irresponsibility (Hence, those reminders in small print at the bottom of liquor ads to “Drink responsibly.”) and vice is portrayed as more exciting than virtue. If we are to believe many messages within Western culture’s visual entertainments, from movies to video games, vice is risk taking, adventurous, and good; virtue, well . . . yawn, it’s just boring. And in American culture, the greatest sin is being boring.
So if you’re truly good, you can’t be happy; and if you’re really happy, you can’t be good.
Happiness is a Fizzy Feeling
While some people think of happiness as a pleasant emotion that eliminates pain and fills our minds with a slightly euphoric sensation, like the effervescent buzz from glass of champagne, the biblical truth is that happiness is far deeper and more dimensioned than any form of “happiness” that relies exclusively on pleasure or right living. Happiness is far bigger than what we feel.
Christians don’t deny that happiness is, in part, an emotional experience. But a Christian worldview of happiness is not just about what you feel, based on the circumstances of life; true happiness is a state of being—and this state of being is a gift from God. Such a deeper happiness permits a Christian to be happy, even when the circumstances of life result in suffering and sorrow.
When Peter got out of the boat to walk on the water toward Jesus, the storm had not yet abated. Jesus didn’t calm the stormy sea and then call Peter to walk toward him. He called Peter to walk on the stormy water. Such is our life. Jesus doesn’t always calm the storms in our lives before calling us to walk toward him. We sometimes have to walk on stormy seas.
Boogie Like a Christian
Christians haven’t been known as the fun people at the party. Indeed, over many generations Christians have cultivated the deserved reputation of dour. Descriptions of most saints, both apocryphal and true, seem to highlight their sufferings, granting to their sorrows the character of virtue. Within some churches, the notion still prevails that we are called to welcome suffering and invite mortification as evidence of our solitary with sinners and the poor. And while empathy and compassion are praiseworthy, we’ve inherited from this medieval notion of mortification such a perverse understanding about holiness that we’re unaware of the aspersions it casts on happiness and the Inquisitorial glances it gives cheerful Christians.
What if we reconsidered our theology about happiness? What would a fully mature theology of happiness look like? Perhaps, paradoxically, it would begin with a biblical understanding of sin.
Sure, the world is sinful, but as Christians under the grace of God, we can face sinful realities without flinching. A biblical Christian faith doesn’t call us to wallow in sorrow or teach sadness to our children as the normal Christian life. Quite the opposite. The Bible urges us to experience joy in the midst of sorrow, happiness in the midst of pain, oppression, and poverty. Christians, above all other peoples in the world, can be the most realistic about sorrow because we know about sin, the most balanced when emotional earthquakes threaten our spiritual foundations because we know Christ, and the most sane about the realities of our human condition because we are loved by God. Christians, above all other peoples, can experience true happiness.
Jonathan Rice is the Senior Editor of InterVarsity’s Communications team.