Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

The Happiness Mentality


The Happiness Mentality has a uniquely American distinction.  As a first-generation citizen with European roots, I know how suspicious constant-grin Americans appear to others.  Most other humans on this planet can tell that something just isn't genuine, and here's what I think it is:  Christians in the U.S. are constantly pressured to be happy, and people aren't capable of happiness on command.  Requiring happiness is as silly as mandating laughter.  I don't trust people who smile all the time; I'm even more wary about people who smile all the time and yet don't have a sense of humor.


Spiritual abusers also bank on guilt and shame.  Though they would deny it, these leaders believe deep down that being human is itself somehow sinful.  They do not acknowledge our divinely endowed glory and dignity.


Once again, real guilt is good.  As with the woman Jesus met at the well, real guilt helps us realize and deal with the wrong we do, so we can ask for forgiveness, make restitution, and return to or get on a better path.  But false guilt isn't good at all.  For example, some people feel guilty for disagreeing with another person, not because it's wrong but they've been conditioned since childhood to never question authority, upset others, "make a scene," or hurt someone's feelings, and so on.


The point is that feeling false guilt or shame—two hallmarks of damaging religion—leaves us confused and distracted, careening around in a soupy spiritual fog.  It leads a person to depend too much on the opinions of others, which in turn leads to a life that is not one's own, which saps us of cheerfulness, decisiveness, animation, willingness, volition—all fruits of thumotic-born love.


When we become enslaved to the will of others, we begin to live lives that weren't meant for us.  This depletes our ability to make vital and courageous decisions.  Horrifically, we become lost in the very place we've been told we're found; the subsequent tension and anxiety strips us of our capacity to deeply love and cheerfully (euthumotically) give.  We're so unsure about what to do that we become inert; eventually we just wearily sit down.


People who are low on thumos are better suited to play the spiritual shell games of legalism than those who have boldness and courage.  One of the many significant attributes of thumos is that it impassions people to maintain their Christ-granted freedom and God-given dignity.  Timid, inert people often find that it takes too much energy to be bothered by having their freedom and dignity stolen or crushed.  Tragically, many such people find this a relief, because accompanying freedom and dignity are certain burdens and responsibilities.


It could be said that this is a benefit to being cowardly, since you usually don't get shot at if you never poke your head up.  But the cost of this "safety" is incalculable.  Caring so much about what other people think out of fearing disapproval, makes such people putty in the hands of those who mete out spiritual mistreatment.  And the longer low-thumos people stay under such degradation, the lower their thumos becomes and the harder it is to turn the wagon around. 


One of the most damaging results of legalism is confusion and bewilderment toward God's Word.  Frankly, many times I'll come across a Bible passage and suddenly, like the voices of several dysfunctional siblings, I'll hear all the denominational bickering that is built up in my brain.  I hear the party-line polemics arguing and shoving for their position over and against all others.  I see red-faced zealots, rage-filled hard-liners, tight-minded hair-splitters, heart-miserly gnat-strainers.


Honestly, if you get enough of that stuff in your head, you're going to start opening your Bible and find it's like one of those greeting cards that plays a song.  Except it's not a song—it's an all-out brawl of head-religion finger-pointing.  People that bicker and clamor this way do not lead to love; if you listen to them you might begin to find that you don't know what to think.  And when we don't know what to think, we don't know how to act.


I think theological discussions should end by making the following statement:  "We've heard a lot of talk about God today," and asking, "What is one way the insight we've gained will help us love him and our neighbor more?"  We will hear three types of answers:  Nonsense, nonsense that looks true but isn't, and truth.  Asking and answering this question, over time, could help us avoid a lot of misspent energy and the kind of ineffective disorientation that hinders our faith in action.


What should you do when caught in this type of a sticky spiritual net?  In a word, leave.


I'm this blunt for two reasons.  First, because Jesus was this blunt when he said of the first-century Jewish religious leaders, "Leave them; they are blind guides.  If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit."


Second, because I must.  The unfortunate reality is that most people who recognize that their church is abusive either will do nothing or will try to change it.  The former is a disaster; the latter rarely works.  Most spiritually abused people, in their current state, have neither the power nor the ability to strategically and effectively use it.  This evil often is highly entrenched; what really needs to happen is for that individual church to die its own death.


Spiritually abusive leaders usually come from spiritually abusive institutions, and those rarely change unless and until they face extreme desperation: financial collapse, catastrophic health problems, or unavoidable scandal.  Chances are they'll already have heard anything you would say—it won't be news to them.  And some are just too spiritually immature to understand what you're saying.


However, don't miss this:  Most spiritual abuse is not intentional.  We still don't have to like it, but we do need to forgive.  This doesn't mean we pretend damage didn't take place when it did; rather, it acknowledges that if we don't forgive we're like the man drinking poison across the table from his enemy and waiting for the enemy to die.


Resentment mistakes the quarrel for the battle.  I believe that one reason Jesus said to pray for our enemies is that if we don't pray for them, we'll curse them.  Cursing others is loser-speak.  It doesn't generate any light, and it ideas to cynicism, which depletes thumos.


Conversely, forgiveness keeps us vitally alive, which is crucial to our thumos courage.  Forgiveness cleanses our thumos of fear, which allows even more growth.  It also gives us an odd power in the relationship.  Forgiveness is an indicator of an inner strength; as I have noticed during a conversation with a formerly abusive boss, this can put the abuser on his heels, especially when you project a kind, non-threatening demeanor.


Bullies don't know how to deal with this.  They see that the handles they used for past control are no longer present on you.  They move on, and away from you, because your forgiveness makes you harder to manipulate.


One of the unexamined reasons we don't want to forgive is that doing so makes us feel like we no longer have a boundary up against that person.  Forgiving someone makes us feel vulnerable.  But lack of forgiveness actually isn't a boundary—it's unable to keep him from hurting us again, and, in fact, it pretty much ensures that he can.  Courage and wisdom are the best boundary materials.  Because of what it bears—bitterness and resentment, for instance—unforgiveness is fragile, and it's easily exploited by a crafty adversary.


If spiritual abuse has been part of your spiritual heritage, submerge yourself in God's mercy and grace—these are two of the greatest expressions of his love for us.  We can't deeply love others when we're disconnected from God's lovingkindness toward us.  Well, we can, for a short while, straining forward on our own power to temporarily light up a few lives.  But we won't make it on that road for the long haul; legalism is a spiritual undertaker that separates us from God's love.


There's no substitute for experiencing God's inexpressibly profound love, the kind with no strings attached, the kind that makes us want to complete good works for him—not because we're trying to earn our salvation, or because we're afraid of what will happen if we don't, but because we find him so good for our souls that it's a natural expression of our love back to him.  We become reflectors of his love through our heart, mind, and (thumos) strength. 


One final piece of hard-earned advice:  If you have false shepherds in your life, don't think too much about them.  When you do, think like Stephen did and ask God to be gracious to them and forgive them.  Know that in most cases, most of the time, they didn't mean to harm you.


We must forgive, not for their good (most won't even be aware of their transgression against you), but for our own health and well-being.  I do not believe for a second that Jesus wants us to forgive others because what they did was no big deal.  He was too worldly wise to believe that nonsense.  Again, I think this is the primary reason: Hold on to that anger, that unredemptive shadow thumos, and you will be manufacturing a form of soul poison.  You'll be harming yourself, shriveling your soul, and misspending your courageous spirit on a fruitless venture.


Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous FaithNo More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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