Beliefnet
Leaving Salem

“Christians ought to be the happiest people in the world!” I’ve heard this line used more than a few times in my life. The happiness experts would like nothing more than to slather the faces of the faithful with smiles as permanent as those found on a marionette.

Now, I have no problem with happiness. I’m all for it. But this gushy, saccharine-sweet, over-used maxim? Well, I think it is ridiculous. I heard enough of Bobby McFerrin back in the 1980s. None of us are single-emotion droids. We know that life is much more complicated than manufactured happiness fronted by artificial smiles.

Happiness can escape your heart as quickly as you read the morning headlines of the local newspaper. The smile, fixed on your face by the cheerful pastor on Sunday, will get slapped off just by stopping to pay for a few gallons of gasoline on the way home.

The bliss, born out of a rousing church service or a toe-tapping song, will blow away on the wind of the next argument you have with your wife or husband. Happiness is not permanent. Life is a perplex mix of good and bad times, of pleasure and disappointment. To say otherwise is to fail to tell to the truth.

Still, I get the impression from some in the Christian universe that to experience anything other than unadulterated joy is somehow, failure. Subtly, if not overtly, we are told that God’s primary plan for our lives is to make us happy, keep us high on life, and maintain our satisfaction.

Such talk reduces God to a genie in a bottle, awaiting that gentle rub from those of us who own him. And faith is cheapened beyond recognition; the goal becoming a self-centered, selfish exercise in getting all we can get out of it.

My youngest son recently had a birthday. We had a magnificent celebration. But a few days before his actual birthday the cards began to arrive: From grandparents, family and friends. I pulled one of the first out of the mailbox and called the birthday boy to the kitchen table.

He excitedly tore the envelope to pieces. Then he held it open to me and asked, “What does it say, what does it say?” I read, “It says, ‘Happy Birthday Braden!’” He looked at it for just a moment and said, “There’s no money in it.” He threw it in the floor and returned to whatever he was doing before.

My wife had a birthday in recent months as well. She too had gifts, cards, balloons and a party. Yet, there was a dramatic difference between mother and son: My wife could not have cared less whether she received a single gift.

She has lived long enough to know that life itself is the gift. Twenty dollar bills stuck between pieces of paper, brightly wrapped gifts from friends and family, ice cream and cake, food and drink: These are all wonderful.

With a little maturity, however, we discover that as wonderful as all this is, this is all unnecessary. To be given life, life for another year, another day, is joy enough and reason enough to celebrate. The gifts and the money, well, these are icing on the proverbial cake.

Seeking personal happiness with a “what’s-in-it-for-me” brand of faith and a “make-me-happy-at-all-cost” kind of God is a recipe for disaster. Such faith, if it can even be called faith, operates like a narcotic to make us forget our troubles. It turns the believer into an addict.

Joy becomes as volatile as a changing tide. Moving experience to experience, televangelist to televangelist, next big thing to next big thing, the adherent of his kind of faith is trapped at the end of the driveway waiting for the mailman to bring the next card filled with just a moment of euphoria.

Faith is more worthy than this. God is bigger than this. Joy is more constant than this. Seeking the Object of our faith, not just what we can get out of it, is the higher path. And, ironically enough, it is the path to genuine happiness.

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