The Danger of Happiness

Posted: March 18, 2013 in Future, God, Life, Personal Growth
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A note to my readers:  the following post is an excerpt from a book I’m currently trying to finish up called How Not To Miss God’s Moving.  The danger of an excerpt is always that it may  not make as much sense out of context as it should, but I have posted it here primarily because I think the discussion of joy vs. happiness is an important one.  As for the role of happiness or joy in causing us to miss God’s moving…that’s a larger discussion that may not make as much sense with what I’ve included here.  Stay tuned for more on that!

Bitterness is not the only thing that can make us lose our focus and so miss God’s moving.  Sometimes we lose our focus and miss God’s moving because of joy.

Well, perhaps joy isn’t quite the right word for what I’m talking about here.  Maybe happiness speaks more directly to what I have in mind.  As I see it, joy is best understood as an experience of contentment that transcends our circumstances, whereas happiness is deeply rooted in our feelings about a particular set of circumstances.

This distinction can be overdone and I will be the first to acknowledge that there is considerable overlap between the two terms in common usage.  I must also acknowledge that one cannot always read this kind of distinction into the two different terms as we find them in the Bible; the Greek and Hebrew terms for “joy” “happiness” and “rejoicing” are often used interchangeably.

However, it seems to me that we need to be able to distinguish between two different types of gladness – the one circumstantial, the other transcendent – and these two words will serve that purpose in many instances.

Why do we need to be able to distinguish between types of gladness?  Simply because there is a gladness which depends on what is happening now and a gladness which depends on what we know will happen…but which we may not yet have seen fully realized.

On a very superficial level we experience this distinction daily.  I am rarely happy about getting out of bed, but I can be joyful about arising if I look forward to what the day holds.  I am never happy about cleaning my office, but I can be joyful about the process because I look forward to a clean workspace.  I am never happy about working out, but I can be joyful about going to the gym because I look forward to being better able to enjoy hikes with my family this summer.

Spiritually speaking, this distinction in terms is even more necessary, simply because we regularly face circumstances in this life which we do not like, but which we must approach in light of what God has promised.  We are told, for instance, that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).  In other words, God will bring good out of even the worst of our circumstances and we must somehow learn to approach our present circumstances in light of this coming redemption of them.  We need not be happy about what is happening, but we must take joy in what God will do with what is happening.

This is not simply an optional approach to difficult circumstances.  It is a command.  In James 1:2 we are told to consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.  James goes on in this passage to speak of the good things that he knows God brings out of such trials.  I do not believe he is calling us here to take pleasure in, or be happy about, the trials themselves, but to rest in a more transcendent joy which depends on the coming redemption of them.

That is why I say that we need to make this distinction between joy and happiness.  It is possible, though it is never easy, to have joy even in very difficult circumstances, but happiness, by its very nature, is confined to those circumstances which we find inherently pleasant.

The problem is that, for most of us, the distinction between joy and happiness is a very slippery one, simply because we cannot see beyond the present moment in any meaningful sense. We find it very difficult to be content when things are unpleasant, even when we understand that those circumstances are transient and insignificant, pale shadows to the greater glories God has promised are coming.

The root of the struggle, I think, is not that our present circumstances are larger than coming glories, but only that they are closer.  Put your hand close in front of your eyes and you will find that it blocks out nearly everything else. Your hand, of course, is quite small compared to the room you’re sitting in right now, but if it is brought close enough, it eclipses even the things which are many hundreds of times larger.

Consequently our circumstances exert an unjustifiably great influence on us, robbing us of a lasting joy simply because we are not happy about this one present moment.

But I digress.  My point is not that unpleasant circumstances make it hard for us to see God moving, though that is true enough.  My point is, rather, that all circumstances can cause us to miss God’s moving.  This is true for unpleasant circumstances, obviously, but it is just as true for pleasant ones.  And so I say that sometimes we lose our focus and miss God’s moving because of happiness.


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