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Happily Ever After?

Happiness comes and goes. I'm looking for something that lasts

Down in Georgia they have a saying: "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." It's a reminder that one person's moods affect the entire household, but indirectly it points to a larger problem. The truth is, Mama never can stay completely happy, and neither can Daddy. In short, ain't nobody happy for long.

I know some people who seem to be perpetually cheerful, and others who have learned to take joy in even the small pleasures of life. But that's not the same as being "happy."

Happiness is something most people pursue, and it's a big element in bringing couples together. How many marriages were born in the sincere but naive promise: "I'll make you happy"? Unfortunately, that's a commitment that can't be fully kept, and the attempt can become an impossible burden to bear.

My wife, Leisa, and I never promised to make each other happy. But after ten years of marriage, I found I had somehow assumed responsibility for her happiness. If she woke up in a bad mood, then somehow it must be my fault. If our plans didn't work out, I surely must have contributed to her disappointment. If the furniture we bought turned out to be uncomfortable, if the car we bought turned out to be a lemon, I felt bad that my wife was displeased.

I don't think Leisa was expecting me to make her happy in every way. I was the one with unrealistic expectations. In any case, it all came to a head one day not long after we'd moved to another state and built a beautiful new home. I'd made a difficult job change, taken on considerable debt and put my graduate degree on hold at least in part because I knew she longed to get out of our cramped housing situation and live like "normal" people.

The new job wasn't going well, so you can imagine my reaction when Leisa began to find fault with what I'd thought was her dream come true. The yard was poorly landscaped. The master bath window was too big. The white kitchen floor never looked clean.

I came home from work exhausted one night and asked how decorating was going. When she expressed a mild complaint about a minor flaw of the house, I exploded.

"Can't you ever be happy?" I said accusingly. She was taken back by my vehemence, and before she could reply, I said, "From now on, I give up trying to make you happy. Never again will I take responsibility for your happiness."

You can imagine the battle royal that followed. It took us a while to sort things out, but in the end I realized something good had come out of the confrontation: I'd set myself free from the bonds of my own unrealistic expectations. I couldn't keep my wife happy. I couldn't even keep myself happy. Happiness was too perishable a substance; it couldn't be kept in the cabinet and dispensed daily like vitamins.

When I gave up on the pursuit of happiness for my spouse, I discovered that something much more satisfying could be cultivated. I mean, of course, the spiritual fruit of joy.

Eternal Happiness

Have you ever tried to define happiness? What most of us call happiness is related to contentment, which has the same root as the word "contain." To be content is to possess something we've desired as a good. To be happy, then—at least for a time—is to be satisfied because we've obtained something we've desired.

In this sense, happiness is not so much a feeling as a state of being that results from acquisition. No wonder we often describe our wedding day, or the day our first child was born, as "the happiest day of our life." We deeply desired to be joined to that man or woman; we longed to hold a child in our arms. And on that wonderful day, we finally possessed what we had earnestly sought.

But the first major fight between newlyweds takes some of the glow off those wedding bands. Later, that cooing bundle of joy wakes up screaming every hour on the hour through the night. Or worse: A spouse becomes violent; a teenager ends up in prison. Great or small, happiness comes and goes. The summer of our bliss turns into the winter of our discontent.

It makes sense, then, to enjoy the happinesses of life as they come. But, at the same time, it's obvious why the pursuit of happiness is the unhappiest of pursuits. Such a state of contentment is at best temporary and fragile, dependent on our changing desires and circumstances. The conditions for happiness aren't always under our control; we can't always have what we want.

Is there, then, no genuine and enduring happiness? Of course; it comes with the possession of that true and ultimate Good—God himself—who makes other goods pale by comparison and who can never be lost. The full and eternal happiness of heaven will blossom from our being continually united to God in love while we remain on earth. Happiness comes from possessing God fully and being possessed by him fully. But for now, because our love is imperfect, even our happiness in God is imperfect.

So in the meantime, what can we pursue, if not happiness?

The Love Encounter

Folks often speak of happiness and joy as if they were the same thing, but that's a mistake. Joy brings us pleasure just as happiness does, but it doesn't depend on acquisition.

We find joy in the sense of delight that comes from being in the presence of someone or something we love. It's based on our encounter with something. Happiness possesses; joy appreciates. Happiness grasps; joy beholds.

When Leisa and I vacation at the beach and wake up to view a glorious sunrise over the ocean, the pleasure we feel at the sight isn't happiness. We can't possess the sunrise. We know the streaks of crimson and gold will fade quickly; we don't have the satisfaction of having acquired them for ourselves.

Still, the sunrise gives us joy. Looking out over the waves, we're delighted simply by encountering such beauty. We behold something good, we love it, and we feel an inner sweetness in the presence of what we love. More wonderful still, since we know and love our Creator, we find a deeper sense of joy in admiring the handiwork of Goodness himself.

See, just as the ultimate happiness comes from possessing God, the ultimate joy comes from beholding God. Our joy will be full in heaven, when we will forever behold the face of God (see 1 John 3:2). In the meantime, God is wooing us, drawing us with glimpses of goodness in this world that point us toward him as their Source.

To cultivate joy in marriage, we look for God at work in the one we love. His fingerprints are everywhere: in that wedding ring, scratched, but irremovable; in the wildflowers gathered for the dinner table; in the swelling voice in the shower, off-key but enthusiastic; in the mended clothes, the repaired appliance, the toddler's hurt finger healed with a kiss. When we turn our attention to what's good and precious in our home, when we search out and appreciate the beauty of marital love in its daily, earthy tokens, we gather God's treasure, one jewel at a time.

Even on the unhappiest day we can find a reason for joy.

Paul Thigpen is assistant professor of religious studies at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. He and Leisa have two children.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Joy; Marriage; Marriage Struggles
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 1997
Posted September 12, 2008

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