My friend and I chatted in a coffee shop enjoying (I thought) our lattes. Mid-conversation, my friend pinched an indent into her foam cup, leaned toward me, and intently asked, "Are you happy? Most Christian women I know … we're not happy."
Her question prompted me to think about happiness—how it comes and goes. In the coffee shop, I felt reasonably happy. I was sipping a yummy mocha latte. I'd met my week's paper-grading quota. However, in my line of work as a teacher, grading reprieves are temporary. Papers pile up as fast as laundry. And I can't enjoy a calorie-rich coffee drink every day, or the creeping scale readout will make me cringe.
But even when I'm sipping black coffee, surrounded by piles of ungraded papers and laundry, I don't consider myself unhappy. I've learned that happy feeling comes when I indulge in four experiences from God.
1. Enjoy Perspective
Some days a raging river of emotion courses through me. My thoughts and actions hurtle like floating debris on a roaring current. I feel agitated. I think, This house is a mess. I work too hard. My husband and kids are ungrateful slobs. I long to act constructively; instead I shuffle from room to room unable to select a project to tackle. So I eat some chocolate.
Another day, gladness seeps through me. I think, I own nice things and live in a sturdy house with people I adore. On that day, I'm inclined to act productively. I make a list, prioritize my projects, tackle them in order, and eat less chocolate.
Emotions defy selection. I can't wake in the morning and slide happiness over my head the way I pull on a colorful new polo. However, I can focus my thoughts. Two Bible insights make good anchors for perspective. The first is the prayer recorded in Psalm 90:12, "Teach me to number my days aright" (NIV). In this psalm God says to me, Look at life this way: Your days are limited. Count them.
I've lived about 18,250 days. If I live to be 75 years old, 9,125 days are left for me.
Limited days cause their value to soar like rockets. Before I counted them, days seemed to stretch on and on. I took them for granted. Some were drudgery to slog through. But counting them recast each day into a gift. Limited days and the details that fill them became treasures.
These gifts considered in light of a second perspective-mooring declaration in Ecclesiastes 12:1, "Remember your creator," inspire gratitude. I've tried to cultivate a habit of thanking God (with the same gusto that I naturally lament not-so-good circumstances) for creating me and his good gifts. When I do, happiness often steals up on me.
2. Hope for Heaven
This life is not all we get. Jesus is preparing an extravagant future experience—heaven—for us. Now, we get hope for heaven. When I neglect this gift, I court unhappiness.
First, things become too important. I devote time, energy, and money to acquiring and caring for them. I depend on them for happiness—which is fleeting, at best. More often things prompt frustration—I spent 30 minutes the other day exuding unhappiness because someone tracked mud on my clean kitchen floor.
When my grandmother died, my father inherited her car. My son Matt (then a preschooler) asked, "Why didn't Great Grandma take her car to heaven?"
I hesitated, searching for words to explain that we don't tote physical things on our spiritual journey to heaven. Before I could answer, Matt said, "I know why. If she took the car with her, it would just fall right out of the clouds."
Not exactly. But, exactly.
Our things won't fit in heaven. On earth we possess, care for, and enjoy them. But like coupons clipped to cut food costs, their value expires. When we recognize this, we can focus on hoping for heaven. Hope for heaven stills the gnaw I feel to acquire and frees me to live by Jesus' words in Matthew 6:19, "Store up treasures in heaven." I do this by devoting time and energy to activities and attitudes that matter beyond time—like kind, generous, sacrificial acts.
Second, it's not always fun here. Earth is not my happy place. I go through hard times. Tragedy assails a friend. I read of cataclysmic travesties: people starving, dying in cyclones, dead bodies dumped into rivers. The senseless grief horrifies me. I cope by remembering that heaven provides ultimate healing and comfort. We will meet God, and he will wipe every tear and eliminate death and pain (Revelation 21:3-5). Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister, says that we'll find that "all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup."
Hope for heaven soothes my angst. When God gives me hope for heaven that is as real as my things, I feel happy.
3. Engage in Praise
Expressing thanks to God generates happiness. Engaging in praise does even more so. The problem is that true praise is like happiness. I can't manufacture either at will. I can read and reread the Bible's praises, but the phrases are like a stock-report ticker tape that rolls past my mind and doesn't sink in. Yet, I long to engage in true praise that rises from my inner being.
I believe that if I knew God intimately, I would praise spontaneously, exuberantly, and always. Yet praising is like dabbling in an unfamiliar, complicated activity. Right now I must clumsily go through the steps: Think about God. Think about his traits.
When I attempt praise, I think about being a little girl and sitting next to my mom in church. As the service—prayers, anthems, and Scripture reading—buzzed around me, I gazed at Mom's hand. With my index finger, I'd lightly trace Mom's fingers, the veins that bulged on the back of her hand. I'd twist her rings and tap each knuckle. The activity lulled me. As I traced the half-moons of mom's nails, the cuticle ridges, the soft skin on the back of her hand, I felt close to her and daydreamed about the day that my small pudgy hand would look like hers.
Like that activity, praise is an intense consideration of God's exquisite attributes—a dwelling on them and a longing to be like him.
But there's more. I remember discovering that my kiss fit superbly in the curve of my baby daughter's nose. Ever after, I delighted to place a kiss there whenever I could catch her. Like that kiss, true praise is a delight-filled response to God's characteristics that fits him and fits me.
God has designed unique praises for us each to offer. A percussionist adds an intricately timed drum tap, cymbal ping, or chime rustle, which adds interest and beauty to music. Perhaps my praise is that small, exquisite addition to the praise that sounds round the world today. I consider God's attributes, and a delighted response rises from my heart to fit him.
Last summer, I tasted scallops wrapped in bacon for the first time. My mouth waters and I long to eat the hors d'oeuvre again. And again. What if praise pleases God like those hors d'oeuvres delighted me? Each day I search for at least three delectable praises that I can offer God.
It may seem like praise is a gift I offer God, but unless he reveals himself and places appreciation in my heart, praise does not rise. He is the match and the flint. I ask him to ignite praise in me. Then the dead part of me basks in God's abundance. And a sacred strain of happiness fills me.
4. Seek His Agenda
While responsible women must maintain a certain level of activity, we can't engage in thoughtful praise if we're always on the go. Some women cram activities into their date books to mute soul-restlessness, to inflate their sense of self-importance, and because the people around them pressure them to do more.
I admit, I do.
But I'm learning to slow down. Psalm 139:16 says that God writes our days. Is everything you cram into a day written by God? Even Jesus depended on God to write his days. Jesus lived with no agenda of his own—only God's. He freed us to follow his example.
We never know exactly what God will write into a day, but his agenda often includes good works for us to complete (Ephesians 2:10)—God prepared them ahead of time—and satisfaction in our work (Ecclesiastes 2:24).
Making God's agenda ours often leads to happiness. Like Debby Read, wife, mom, and professional, says, "Busyness robs me of happiness. I focus on myself and all that needs to be done instead of on the people and pleasures around me. My greatest happiness comes when I'm doing things that I know God has created me to do—but not in a hurried way."
I can't dictate to my heart: Feel happy! anymore than I can demand that Niagara Falls change direction. But when I enjoy God's perspective, hope for heaven, engage in praise, and seek his agenda, happiness creeps up on me. And like I said to my friend in the coffee shop, we don't have to wait for God to give us these gifts. He's already sent them our way. He's simply waiting for us to experience them.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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