I once saw a cynical cartoon in which a man is down on bended knee, saying, "I love you, Cindy. Will you marry me for a year or two?" The joke has a sharp edge to it, of course, because it points to a frightening trend in our society. "Till death us do part" is being replaced by "as long as I'm happy."
I'd been counseling a couple for several months when the wife came to see me on her own one day. Although she'd been married for 25 years, she wanted out. Nothing I said could change her determination; she simply was no longer happy in her marriage. She and her husband divorced, and not long after that she turned up at church again—sitting in the pew with her husband's brother. When she came to ask me to officiate at her second wedding, she wasn't too pleased to hear my refusal. She said, "But it says in the Bible that God wants me to be happy!"
Of course, she couldn't point to a specific chapter and verse. The Bible talks about joy, about contentment, but the Bible doesn't lift up happiness as an ultimate goal.
It's not that happiness is such a bad thing. Who doesn't like to feel happy? The Declaration of Independence proclaims "the pursuit of happiness" as one of the great American ideals, and most of us busy ourselves in the relentless pursuit of happiness.
Happiness is what I'd call a "neutral" value. It's not good or evil, but it's a cultural value that can assault Christianity. The woman who deserted her husband assigned such a high priority to personal happiness that it overwhelmed the Christian, biblical value of marital commitment. She valued her own happiness more than she desired to obey God's commands.
For many Americans, the pursuit of self-fulfillment and personal happiness has become a religion. Even Christians have bought into this religion of self-actualization, pursuing God only because they see him as an agent for happiness. They want happiness, and they think they can use God to get it.
It's hard for us to realize what it cost the early believers to follow Christ. Many had to give up their family ties, their culture, their entire way of life to become Christians. The New Testament never portrays a relationship with God as a path to an easier life. Instead, it was understood as a relationship that would give strength to sustain the believer through even the most difficult times. God's grace isn't there just to make us feel better about ourselves, but to give us power and courage to help us live for God, no matter what happens.
HAPPINESS OR CONTENTMENT?
In our society, we tend to make choices based on what will bring us the most happiness. But in the Bible, God's concept of happiness is much better defined by the word contentment. Remember Paul saying, in essence, "No matter what circumstances I find myself in, I've learned to be content" (Phil. 4:11)?
It's amazing how whiny we can be. Sometimes I think we're a nation of self-pitying snivelers. Circumstances get us down, way down. And "way down" is a place where Christians, at least, don't have to stay. So how did Paul learn to be content whatever the circumstances? He tapped into the power source: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13). It's God who helps us choose love over personal happiness, fidelity over self-fulfillment, serving others over serving ourselves. It's God who provides contentment and even joy as we choose his way.
There are two secret weapons for being content when circumstances make us feel miserable. The first is to remember that God is in control. God has promised to do a "good work" in us, and to complete it (Phil. 1:6). When we're stuck in the muck of the moment, we need to keep our eyes on heaven; it puts things on earth into the correct perspective.
The second secret weapon is to turn our obsession to satisfy ourselves into love for others. Rather than focus on others, too many Christians have bought into the cultural value of individualism. We think personal independence is so great that we no longer recognize the beauty and blessing of shared life. But Christianity is concerned with interdependence. God doesn't tell us to live for our own convenience. One reason he puts us in marriages is to help us find real satisfaction and real joy in serving others. Marriage is the first place where we get to live out God's many commands for serving, accepting, encouraging, forgiving and submitting to one another.
I read in an airline magazine about a London jeweler who designed a ring with a band that doesn't go all the way around the finger. The symbolic meaning of the incomplete circle is that there's always a way out "if you're not happy."
Marriage was never meant to be bent to our individual purposes. That's a shabby counterfeit of the real thing—the God-given opportunity to live out love and commitment to another human being for a lifetime. When we weigh the options, we can trade the pursuit of short-lived personal happiness for the contentment that grows when we shape our relationship God's way.
Gary Kinnaman is a pastor and the author of several books, including Seeing in the Dark: Getting the Facts on Depression and Finding Hope Again (Bethany House). Gary and his wife, Marilyn, make their home in Gilbert, Arizona.
Copyright by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.