Peggy Noonan currently writes for the Wall Street Journal. She was at one time the speechwriter for Dan Rather for his radio program, as well as being a special assistant to Ronald Reagan in the White House. She wrote an article about fifteen years ago called "You'd Cry Too, if It Happened to You" that was published by Forbes Magazine. What she had to say in her article, at least this portion of it, was apropos to the very issue that we're addressing—our cultural value on being happy. She says:
We weren't put here to be happy. Somewhere in the 70's or the 60's we started expecting to be happy. And we changed our lives, left town, left families, switched jobs, if we were not. And society strained and cracked in the storm … I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is over rated. We've lost somehow a since of mystery about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, broodish, and short one. We're the first generations of man that have actually expected to find happiness here on earth. And our search for it has caused such unhappiness. If you do not believe in another higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe this is your only chance at happiness, if that is what you believe, then you are not disappointed when the world doesn't give you a good measure of its riches—you are despairing.
We expect to be happy. And while I don't want you to think that happiness is a bad thing, I want to point out that our culture has dictated to us that not only are we supposed to be happy, but we deserve to be happy. Life owes it to us to be happy.
There's another interesting article called "The Conspiracies Of Happiness," in which the author says this:
We often collude to maintain many conspiracies about happiness that have us believe that happiness comes from outside of us. We're promised instant happiness for simply buying the right toothpaste or drinking the right beer. We know from our own experience that more material things do not bring us happiness. We remember how quickly the happiness of a new job, a pay raise, a new house or a new car, an international holiday wears off, often leaving us feeling empty and needing something bigger and better.
If only …
Here are some common happiness conspiracies: if I only had more money, I'd be happy; if I was only more famous, I'd be happy; if I could only find the right person to marry, I'd be happy; if I only had more friends, I'd be happy; if only I wasn't physically disabled, I'd be happy; if only someone close to me hadn't died, I'd be happy; if the world was a better place, I'd be happy. I suppose it's a game we've all played at some point in our lives: if only this, if only that, then my life would be different and I would, in fact, be experiencing this thing we call "being happy." We have this insatiable craving to be happy, even if that means finding some obscure—even evil—way of entertaining ourselves.
This issue of happiness calls for us to ask some important questions like, Does what's going on in somebody else's life have anything to do with whether of not I feel happy at the moment? Do you ever notice how quickly what goes on in someone else's life can change your mood? An acquaintance of mine was traveling on an airplane, and the man sitting next to him had ordered a special meal. The flight attendant brought the man his meal and asked him if it was, in fact, the meal he had ordered. He said yes. A few minutes later, they began to distribute all the rest of the meals to people on the plane. And guess what? They all receive the same meal. I find that hard to believe, but it's true. When he realized that everyone was getting the meal he had asked for, he rang for the flight attendant and complained, "I ordered a special meal." She said, "You got a special meal. Is this not the meal you ordered?" "Yes, but everybody got the same thing I did."
Have you ever been perfectly satisfied with something until you looked across the fence to see that someone had something just a little better? Do you really believe that a change in your own circumstances would cause you to be happier?
A survey in Good Housekeeping magazine showed that the United States ranked only 16th in the percentage of citizens who say that they are very happy, compared to 65 other countries. We seem to have gotten the message that happiness is out there in the right job, perfect mate, the $50,000 SUV, rather than inside of ourselves. We've trained ourselves to think in terms of "If only": If only my spouse would, if only we could make, if only I could stay at home. We spend our time trying to make these things come true, only to discover that if they were to come true, we'd need a new, "If only."
Discontent and deserving
Is there anything that comes to mind when you think about being happy that would describe this cycle we seem to be in, whereby we never quite seem satisfied? I have two words for you to think about. The first one is discontent. We live in a world that is designed to create discontent. Part of that is very positive—discontentment can show us ways to improve who we are. We even promote that in the church and call it discipleship. Take a look at Jesus, and then take a look at yourself. Recognize that there is improvement that could be made in your own life. So not all discontentment is bad. But has someone else's stuff, or some idealistic expectation created in you a sense of discontent?
This kind of discontentment is not new. Wasn't it Even who said: "Wow, this looks like it would make me as wise as God. Why, I think if I took a bite of this, I'd be just like God. I would become something better"? Satan immediately established discontent in the garden, telling Adam and Eve that they weren't good enough as they were. And look at Israel: Israel took a look around at the rest of the nations and said, "Wait a minute. They've all got kings; we don't have a king."
Has seeing what someone else has ever created in you a spirit of discontent that destroyed your happiness? Or maybe there was some ideal out there that you had created—some key to happiness in life—but down deep in your soul, when your really honest with yourself, you know life will never be like that. These sorts of ideals breed consistent dissatisfaction, or discontent.
The second word that comes to mind is the idea of deserving—the idea that, frankly, God owes us. We have come as a culture to believe that we deserve to be happy—that nothing bad should ever happen to us. But I think this culture has sold us a bill of goods. My greatest dream and achievement is not to be happy.
The joy of serving
If happiness was our greatest ideal, our greatest blessing, how in the world is it that the Son of God could ever come to earth and live among us and die for us? Suffering doesn't fit in the category of happy. Dying for something you don't deserve doesn't fit in the category of happy. Yet Scripture is abundantly clear in Hebrews 12 that Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame. You mean there is something greater than happiness in this life? Yes, there is.
One of the things so important in the life of a disciple—if you want to genuinely experience what God is looking for in your life—is to stop thinking all the time about happiness, and think about service. Maybe that's a hint as to why Jesus was able to do what he did. Someone else was on his mind—someone besides himself.
For those who come to me and say they aren't happy, I offer two suggestions: serve more and give more. That doesn't necessarily mean financially, but give more of yourself, and serve more. The Wall Street Journal has reported that people are becoming more and more philanthropic. They're not doing it because they are Christians; they're doing it because they're finding great satisfaction in giving more—a higher percentage of their incomes. There are people out there who are really stretching themselves to be able to give. There's just something about giving of yourself—pouring yourself into someone else—that matters.
A change of desire
Let's look together at the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs 19:23 reads: "The fear of the Lord leads to life, then one rests content, untouched by trouble." The awe—the fear of the Lord—surfaces all through Scripture as a foundation to respecting God, honoring God, worshiping God, and finding our focal point in God. What about the statement that you will be "untouched by trouble"? Do not hear that you will not have trouble. You'll just be untouched by trouble. You will find yourself dealing with trouble differently, simply because you have your focus elsewhere. Life is really messy. But those who have Christ and who focus on worshiping and respecting God remain untouched.
I got an email from a friend this week whose father is in very bad health and is an unbeliever. While suffering through this, my friend is also dealing with the prospect of a second miscarriage. Yet in all of this, my friend signed his email "Resting in Grace." He is untouched. It's not that there's no trouble; it's that the trouble is not hindering him from being the person God desires him to be.
Let's read Proverbs 23:17: "Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord. There is surely a future hope for you and your hope will not be cut off." Do you hear the instruction here? It's such a practical statement. Don't envy somebody else. Particularly here, don't envy sinners. The difficulty we face as human beings is that the other side of that fence really does look better. I have yet to see anybody give up what they had for something they thought would be less than what they had. We often believe that what someone else has is better than what we have, because we don't understand the reality of what is going on in someone else's life as well. I would venture to say that all the people whose lives we envy are dealing with the very same issues that we are. We get caught in this trap of envy, yet what we're after is not what this life can provide.
Have you noticed how few songs in recent years have been about heaven? And how many of them have been about now? But this life is not what it's about. The Proverb writer reminds us to make sure we think about the future and recognize that we have a hope that is bigger than whatever life gives us here.
Let's look at one final text. Psalm 37:4 says: "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart." The Psalmist doesn't say the Lord will give you whatever you want. He says he will create in your heart desires that are appropriate. When you delight yourself in God, you're going to discover that the things you use to long aren't a distraction anymore.
I have read so many articles, found so many quotes, seen so many websites about happiness, and it has finally dawned on me what every one of them is saying: It's about me. If you do this, you'll be happy; if this happens you'll be happy; if you change this about yourself, you'll be happy; if you look inwardly, you'll be happy. Every one of them. As I pondered this, I was drawn again to Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name." If you don't turn outward, if you don't turn upward, I can promise you one thing: you are going to be unhappy. Your circumstances will always be changing; something will always happen to upset the equilibrium, and you'll wake up to a cloudy day. But if you look upward and outward and you make it your life goal to bless the Lord—to bless the Lord—with all of your soul, then it will not matter what your circumstances are. You will have what God intended for you to have—his peace and contentment in your life at a level you will never be able to explain. You will experience the peace that passes all understanding if your one passion is God and not yourself.
Chuck Sackett preaches at Madison Park Christian Church in Quincy, Illinois, and teaches Ministry and Bible at Lincoln Christian College and Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois.