Unhappiness: A Tempting Choice?
by Sarah Phillips
"And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit." Acts 13:52
"Always be happy. I see you out there with your solemn faces and hands folded like this, and perhaps you think this is holiness. This sad, solemn-ness is not really holiness. Always be happy wherever you go; God is good."
These are words spoken by a priest from India at a recent retreat. No doubt, this priest is well-versed in the theology of redemptive suffering, so his words gave me pause. What does he mean by this? Is it even possible to be happy like this?
Later, in a discussion with my father, he mentioned that family counselors like my stepmother often encounter challenging clients who are married to their unhappiness. In other words, these individuals are so comfortable with their misery and dysfunction (born out of very real hurts, no doubt) they don't even want to be happy anymore.
Pondering all this has rearranged some of my thinking on faith and happiness.
Perhaps you've heard this common saying in Christian circles: "God doesn't promise us happiness here on earth." From what I've encountered in my studies of the Bible and theology, the statement is factual.
I used to interpret this fact as an indication that God just doesn't have happiness in his plans for some (and I was likely one of those people, right?). But as I am reflecting on Fr. Andrew's words and my stepmother's clients, it hits me. Perhaps God doesn't promise happiness because it's not his place to give it. In other words, perhaps happiness is part of God's plan, but it's something we also must choose on our end.
Think about it. Have you ever met that person who "has everything" but isn't happy? I knew a person like that. He possessed uncommon intelligence. He had a loving family, wealth, and opportunity. But he seemed gifted at finding the dark side to everything. And I mean everything. He suffered from incredible cynicism and depression. Let's put the possibility of a chemical imbalance aside for a second and ponder this truth: God has the power to bless us, but it's up to us to be happy about it.
I don't say these things to cause pain or make anyone feel guilty for not feeling happy. Trust me, I've had plenty of dark periods where happiness seemed like a joke. I firmly believe it's okay to feel unhappy sometimes. Jesus didn't always feel good either, and it's safe to say there was nothing wrong with him.
Still, it's important to remember that there is a danger in wallowing in darkness for too long. There is a great temptation to become attached to our sadness, our victim-hood. Our cross, instead of drawing us closer to life in Christ, ends up bringing us closer to spiritual death when we do this.
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis explores this idea that we can become too attached to our brokenness. He sets up a fictional scenario where souls in hell get a second chance at heaven. But they ultimately do not choose heaven - they can't even enjoy heaven - due to their excessive attachment to hell.
This seems downright crazy, but it's not any different than the clients my stepmom sees every week. And it's a very real trap we fall into every time we hold too tightly to our hurts and sorrows instead of releasing them to God.
Lewis warns, "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell."
But then what do we do with all the bad things in life? Certainly, we will feel sorrow and loss - we should feel sorrow and loss when bad things happen. How then do we avoid getting trapped by tragedy? How do we let go of the comforts, the "intimate souvenirs," of life's little hells? Lewis has more to say about that, and I will end here to ponder his words:
"'Son,' he said, 'ye cannot in your present state understand eternity... That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, 'No future bliss can make up for it,' not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say 'Let me have but this and I'll take the consequences': little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man's past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man's past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why... the Blessed will say 'We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,': and the Lost, 'We were always in Hell.' And both will speak truly."
Intersecting Faith & Life: Have you held on to unhappiness for too long? Is your sadness, guilt, anger, or bitterness tempting you to sin or obscuring your faith? Ask God to help you let go of destructive thoughts or behaviors.