Which Happy?

Marc Chagall, "Abraham Slaying Isaac"

Recently, Elizabeth and I had our first childbirthing class. It was interesting; given my personality, I loved the details about biology and grimaced my way through the doula’s rants about hospitals and glowing endorsements of homeopathy. (Side note: I have no problem believing in demons, resurrection, or a dude walking on water. But homeopathy? I often wish its proponents would drink one part arsenic diluted in one million parts water – only a threat if homeopathy works.) That aside, one thing that stuck out to me in the class was a discussion of the pain that accompanies childbirth. Within the curriculum, what was stressed was that this pain wasn’t like the normal pain our culture teaches us to avoid. Rather, the pain of childbirth was good pain, a pain that was worth it.

There is a true happiness that can only be birthed through hardship – through pain. For whatever reason, this thought keeps forcing its way to the front of my mind. There seems to be two camps in the discussion of Christianity and happiness. One says that God wants you to be happy; while meaning well, these folks often end up promising you sports cars or saying you should probably abandon your less-than-perfect marriage. Hey, God might say that’s wrong, but he couldn’t mean you shouldn’t do what will make you happy. In response, other Christians insist that no, God doesn’t want you to be happy at all. They instead recommend a regimen of discipline and guilt-driven obedience suggests everything short of buying a whip and becoming a flagellant.

I’ve never been able to join either camp. The happy-Jesus crowd have no place for crosses or a faith that gets you fed to lions; the dutiful martyrs miss the earthy joys and heavenly raptures with which the heart of Scripture pulses. The real problem, I think, should be highlighted by the question “which happy?”

Not every happiness is created equal. If I maxed out our credit cards and ignored tomorrow, there are any number of things I could do that would create happiness – go on a long vacation, buy cool new toys. But this happiness is fleeting; it is trading immediate gratification for long-term loss. This is obvious in such an illustration, but it often isn’t that simple. We humans are misguided in how we balance the equations of joy – we see only what we crave, and not what it costs us.

We often also confuse happiness with economy. Here we don’t miss the cost; rather, it is what comes to dominate our field of vision. We expect the greatest joy to come from the thing easiest to attain. If something involves suffering or sacrifice, we refuse to walk that road because, hey, aren’t we supposed to be happy?

Yet many of the deeper happinesses in our world require this sort of sacrifice – the pains of labor, the discipline of self-development, the cultivation of virtue. We love to read popular biographies of athletes and performers who talk about sacrificing it all so they can slam dunk or master the guitar, and then we put down those books and kick back to watch TV or play Guitar Hero. We think it’s great that there are such giants, but we fail to see that the truth is the same for all of us – the greatest things we can aspire to have the greatest cost.

This begins to get at what we find in Scripture. Living as true humans in this world – as humans in right relation with God and what He has made – is hard. It will cost us everything. It is easy to try to build boundaries around this costliness, even when we aren’t aware of it, even when we feel we have good reasons. The ultimate result of our sacred/secular dualism, of our limited understanding of Christian duty, even of our discussions of “grace” when left undefined, is the removal of the burden of the cross we are all called to bear.

I am not here advocating sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake; there are false asceticisms which ask us to deny things God permits, and these must be opposed. However, even these asceticisms can be a way to avoid the true burden. Teetotalling can be easier than moderation, poverty can be easier than serving God with our wealth, chastity can be easier than dealing with the complexities of marriage (I’m not suggesting any of these choices are always bad; simply that they can be). If we don’t find some part of ourselves cringing at the call to follow Christ, if we don’t find ourselves tearfully on our knees begging God to tell us how He can ask this thing of us, we have probably missed the point.

Yet this isn’t to say that God wants us to be miserable. The crazy thing about the Christian message is that it teaches that true happiness lies through (and at times in the midst of) these impossible costs. It is in surrendering our dearest cravings of the flesh that we will find our truest desires satisfied.  It is in dying to the earthly man that we taste the sweet fruit of Eden which true humanity is meant to savor. It is on Mount Moria that God’s promises of blessing to Abraham reach their grandest proclamation. Happiness is not a binary equation, but rather a part of the spiral of sacrifice: we get more of it by giving it away.

This insistence on costly happiness might seem pedantic or obvious to some, but its implications are enormous. Let me offer a few:

1) Many Christians feel the bizarre need to deny that there is anything desirable in the world. They want to pretend like wealth is repulsive and an attractive member of the opposite sex is unappealing. This neurosis never ends well; either the Christian ends up teaching themselves to hate things God has made good and become a shriveled parody of a human being, or they realize there really is some measure of happiness on offer in the world and jump ship on the life of discipleship. Instead of this irrational denial, we need to recognize that the happiness found in the world, while attractive, is smaller than it first appears, and that the happiness found in Christ is far greater. It’s C.S. Lewis’s image of children making mudpies in the streets because they can’t imagine a holiday by the sea. The proper approach to the world’s pleasures is not to bury our heads in the sand. Rather, we must first deconstruct the mythology which claims they are the greatest happinesses we could find. Then we must fix our gazes on the deep joy found in Christ’s kingdom. To take a common example: we don’t need to pretend like a one night stand is unappealing. Rather, we need to recognize that, as fun as it is, it’s just an orgasm and a perpetuation of loneliness, and this can’t begin to match the richness and texture of two lives woven together in covenant union.

2) We must reclaim the costliness of Christianity. Many Christians seem to have a shallow, unremarkable Savior because they’ve never felt even a splinter of the cross he asks him to bear (and at times are instead bowed under humanly devised instruments of torture which don’t hold the promise of resurrection at the end. Remember, I’m not advocating asceticism, but discipleship.) Our calls for the world to turn from its “evils” ring hollow when all we’ve turned to is a life of comfortable self-righteousness. Our claims that it is “Christ working in us” are meaningless when its really just a judicious application of guilt and willpower.

The life of Christ-like love must be our model here. In love, Jesus sacrificed his prerogatives, power, security, dignity, and ultimately his life. He did it to move into relationship with human beings, to serve them, and ultimately to bring them to Himself. This is the shape of Christian sacrifice; it is done in relationship, in service, in treating others as more important than we are. By replacing the two great commandments of love with license or petty legalism, we have missed out on the costs. And, by missing the costs, we have also missed the glory. We have allowed ourselves to keep our comfortable idols, and it is little wonder that the grandeur of God seems diminished, because we keep confusing them with Him. We keep trying to resuscitate the old man, refusing to plant him in the ground, and so we have never seen our new humanity blossom and grow.

It is the hunger for this glory that should drive our lives as Christians. We need to start honestly asking which happiness we seek – one that is small and fleeting, or one that surpasses all we could hope or want. Yet if Christ becomes our desire, the only way to seek Him is to follow after Him, and this means walking toward the cross.

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