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This week, consider: Is joy somehow more spiritual than happiness? Are happiness and holiness inherently at odds? How do sadness and happiness intersect in the life of faith? Join Jennifer Dukes Lee, author of The Happiness Dare, in exploring what Scripture has to say by reflecting on these five devotional readings.
“Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven.” (Matthew 5:12)
Two years ago, I never would have spoken this sentence aloud: “I want to be happy.” I would have thought it, and secretly, I would have wanted happiness. But I would have been scared to admit it. I would have told you that I wanted joy instead. I would have told you that God cared more about my holiness.
For most of my life, I’ve been a happy person. But somewhere along the way, I had lost the fullness of my happiness. During those times of unhappiness, my great comfort came in believing that God didn’t care about happiness anyway. I figured, If I can’t be happy, I’m still good with God. My holiness, then, became an excuse to stop seeking happiness.
This is a tragic error of Christians everywhere. So many of us wrongly believe that we have to pick one or the other: happiness or Jesus. There is a third option: happy holiness.
Our inner desire for happiness isn’t a sin. It’s a desire planted in us by God. Scripture doesn’t pit holiness against happiness. In fact, Jesus gave us a beautiful picture of true happiness when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). When he delivered that sermon, the first word out of his mouth was happy: “Happy are those who . . .”
The word for “happy” in Scripture is the Greek makarios. Some translations use the English word “blessed” whenever makarios appears in the New Testament. But other translators—aware that makarios comes from the word makar (which means “happy” or “blessed”)—translate the word to “happiness” instead.
When we desire happiness, we aren’t heretics. In important ways, we are seeking after God’s own heart.
“Be glad; rejoice forever in my creation! And look! I will create Jerusalem as a place of happiness. Her people will be a source of joy.” (Isaiah 65:18)
Religion can be an overridingly serious business. Now, I am serious about my Jesus. But so many of us have grown up on a steady diet of “thou shalt nots,” in which our religious teachers showed us what was off-limits rather than showing us how we might flourish in God’s love. Some of us grew up believing that we were meant for martyrdom more than merriment.
We’ve sat under teachings that created a dichotomy between holiness and happiness. Happiness seemed off-limits, even sinful. But take a walk through the pages of Scripture. Flip through the pages, and watch how words like happy, glad, feasting, pleasure, joy, and delight flash in front of your eyes.
Even when the words aren’t used explicitly, we know inherently that nearly every page of Scripture reveals the reason for a human being’s deepest happiness. On the pages of our Bibles, we see a faithful God, a sovereign God, a loving God, a delighting God, a listening God, a saving God, a redeeming God, a God who is “for us”—even a happy God.
“Be glad; rejoice forever in my creation! And look! I will create Jerusalem as a place of happiness. Her people will be a source of joy” (Isaiah 65:18). What kind of God creates Jerusalem as “a place of happiness?”
Our happy God. That’s who.
“When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over. ‘A host always serves the best wine first,’ he said. ‘Then, when everyone has had a lot to drink, he brings out the less expensive wine. But you have kept the best until now!’” (John 2:9–10)
We’ve been taught how to suffer like Jesus. To be sure, Scripture reveals a suffering Jesus. But the Scriptures also reveal a happy Jesus. Jesus’ first miracle wasn’t at a grave site. It was at a party.
Back in Jesus’ day, weddings were a big deal. The wedding reception wasn’t a four-hour shindig with bell-shaped mints, a punch bowl, and a disco ball. The party lasted for days. It was considered bad manners to exhaust the supply of food or wine. But something embarrassing happened at the wedding in Cana. The hosts ran out of wine. And Mary, the mother of Jesus, found out about it. So she marched over to her son: “They have no more wine” (John 2:3).
At first Jesus said it was not his time to perform miracles. But then, for some reason, he reconsidered. He ordered helpers to fill jars with water. He then turned the water to wine—the best wine.
Jesus gladdened a wedding. Jesus was the life of the party.
Jesus was the kind of man who didn’t despise parties, jubilant crowds or noisy children. He was regularly in the company of friends. He enjoyed the dinner table. Imagine the happiness at the occasion of a child’s healing, at the side of Lazarus’s tomb, at the home of the Emmaus travelers. See Jesus, surrounded by children, when he said, “Let the little children come to me.” What child would ever draw near to a killjoy Jesus?
Examine Scripture in light of Jesus’ character of gladness. When we do that, we discover that happiness isn’t unholy after all. It’s just misunderstood. Scripture reveals a Jesus who delights in people. Today, let us delight in him.
“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” (Psalm 56:8)
A few nights ago, our family gathered to watch the Pixar animated movie Inside Out. In the movie, viewers are taken inside the mind of a young girl named Riley. Inside of Riley’s head, we meet the emotions influencing her: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. All of the emotions are animated characters with their own sets of strengths and flaws. Joy, a lighthearted optimist, sees it as her personal mission to keep Riley happy, and she tries hard to prevent Sadness from gaining a foothold.
My favorite part of the movie happens when Joy has a startling revelation. She realizes that without Sadness, the little girl whom they inhabit would never have been able to navigate the hardest moments of her life. In that moment, Joy begins to weep.
This is what I know: Happiness weeps. Happiness knows the taste of salt in our tears.
Happiness—genuine happiness—allows space for a person to be sad.
If you are crying today, that doesn’t make you an unhappy person. It actually makes you more like Jesus. You know why? Because real happiness can’t happen apart from knowing that Jesus wept. Real happiness acknowledges that the same God who created the salt in your tears is the very God who bottles every one of them up.
The Bible reminds us that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. But still, we grieve. Happiness doesn’t deny our pain. It holds it gently. Happiness doesn’t ignore the hurt of the world, but it makes a space to sit quietly inside of the ache.
“One of them, when he saw that he was healed, came back to Jesus, shouting, ‘Praise God!’ He fell to the ground at Jesus’ feet, thanking him for what he had done. This man was a Samaritan.
“Jesus asked, ‘Didn’t I heal ten men? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?’ And Jesus said to the man, ‘Stand up and go. Your faith has healed you.’” (Luke 17:15-19)
Some people might say that happy people become thankful people. But perhaps it’s the other way around: It’s the thankful people who are happy.
I saw the power of gratitude recently after my dad went through a health crisis that resulted in a partial amputation of his right leg. A few hours after surgery, our family packed into Dad’s hospital room. Through tears, I listened as Dad detailed a long list of all that he was grateful for: his family, his doctors, his faith.
He didn’t focus on what he’d lost—“If only I had both of my legs.” He focused on what he still had. Dad’s doctors believe that his attitude had a profound effect on his healing—and his happiness.
Gratitude is powerful. Gratitude acknowledges the goodness in our lives as they exist today, not as we wish them to be.
Will we be the lone leper who comes back to thank Jesus? Jesus healed ten people in all. Imagine their happiness! Imagine the spring in their steps as they skipped away from their healer, eager to live a new life. And skip away they did. Nine of them walked on, backs to Jesus, without so much as a thank you.
All but one.
All ten lepers had reason to be happy. But only the one who offered gratitude experienced a more potent kind of happiness.
Think of gratitude-based happiness as multiplied happiness. When we stop to say thank you, we bring delight to the Giver. Furthermore, we are given an extra happiness tied directly to our gratitude. Our thankfulness is more than the polite response for a gift. It’s the heart-moving response that stretches all the way to the Giver.
Jennifer Dukes Lee is the author of The Happiness Dare. You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @dukeslee. Take her quiz at www.TheHappinessDare.com and discover what truly makes you happy. This devotion is adapted from The Happiness Dare copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Dukes Lee. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
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