I’ve seen lots of stuff written about happiness recently. About making our happiness a goal in life — rather than chasing wealth or material possessions. It also appears to be a sin when you are not happy. (People become unhappy about not being happy because they should be happy! You must have done something wrong if you are not happy…)
Some parents too seem to think that their goal in life is to ensure their offspring’s happiness. If they are unhappy then these parents have to put things right, by removing the source of unhappiness, or by ‘kissing it better’.
Dealing with setbacks
In contrast, a grandmother I talked to recently told me how she had talked with her 13-year-old grandson. His sports team had lost an important game after a series of wins. She said to him that it was tough that the team had lost, but good things could come out of that. Everyone needed to learn to deal with failure, she said. She told him that his father who had become an alcoholic and estranged from his family, had never learnt to deal with failure. When he was made redundant and lost his job he began a downward spiral that ended up in alcoholism. It was not this boy’s happiness the grandmother was concerned about, but rather how he handled losing an important game.
Happy or hapless?
Seeking happiness can never be a goal in itself. Always it is a by-product of some ‘happen-stance.’ The root word ‘hap’ conveys the idea of chance; we are ‘hap-less’, when something untoward occurs.
We experience happiness when events, people, places or serendipities provide us with some degree of pleasure or satisfaction, or maybe when we are doing our own thing. And people who are happy tend to be cheerful and positive, and are good to be around. It is natural to want to be happy.
Learning from major setbacks
It’s now over seven years since the first of the Christchurch/Canterbury earthquakes. Younger children are arriving at school fearful and anxious, older children and adults are experiencing mental health issues in unprecedented numbers. One of the strategies being promoted to prevent such distress is that of developing resilience — giving people the means to handle difficult times and to come through them, stronger and more able to cope.
It's a worthy approach. But it doesn’t seem far removed from the stoicism and resignation of previous generations who weathered the wars and Great Depression of the 20th century. Resilience has an important place — but there can be more to it for a Christian when dealing with setbacks and even trauma.
Instead the Bible talks about joy. Joy? Yes, the joy Paul and Silas knew, who when they were thrown into jail, could sing hymns of praise with joy — because their God was with them. There are many similar stories of Christians down through the centuries who have experienced unmitigated joy when their situations were completely dire.
It is only the Spirit who can bring joy when circumstances are totally against us. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit and it is much deeper than mere happiness. Joy is not dependent on what happens. It includes resilience, because there is a deep trust in a God who is able to deliver on the promise “that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us…”
A couple of weeks ago we lost a good friend to cancer. Before he died he knew that he stood on the threshold of unparalleled joy. Yes, we mourn the loss of his friendship here on earth, but we rejoice with him in the new life he has entered into. Friends of ours who faced a similar loss when a family member was killed suddenly in a car accident, wrote: “Our hearts ache, but we have the joy of the Lord.”
Happiness comes and goes — like the weather. But the deep joy that only the Spirit can give is something to be prized and shared, because it is a gift that can come only from the Giver. Far better to seek the Giver, than to be preoccupied with the pursuit of mere happiness.
Liz Hay is grateful for the little joys in life as she takes some time out at her mountain home in the Canterbury foothills. A recent visit from friends not seen for 20 years has also brought much delight.