I saw something on Facebook the other day that caught my attention. It was a challenge to select a person you know, and starting January 1, to pray for their happiness every day for a month. Sounds like a good idea. I knew immediately who I would choose. This person has been through a season of sorrow and she could do with some happiness about now. And just as quickly, I had another thought. This one had to be from the Holy Spirit because I could not have come up with this on my own, at least not as quickly. “Instead of praying for her happiness, pray for her holiness.” Of course! That is a much better prayer.
God is not as concerned with our happiness as He is with our holiness. If you look at a Bible concordance you will find that the word “holy” is used 650 times in The New American Standard Bible. I did a quick search and found that “happy’ is used a mere16 times, and the word “happiness” is used only four! Clearly God is emphasizing holiness.
Now there is nothing wrong with happiness, and I suppose happiness can be defined in many different ways. I know I am happy when I am surrounded by my family, and as a mom, I am happy when they are happy. For some people happiness may lie in material possessions: money in the bank, a big house, a fancy car….you can fill in the blank here. Again there is nothing wrong with nice things, but I see many people in my psychology practice who have all of those things but they are not happy.
For many of us happiness lies in “if only” and the “as soon as.” If only I had my health I could be happy. I will be happy as soon as I get that job, find someone to love, graduate and get that degree, lose twenty pounds, and so on. If only I had more money, a new car, or no mortgage. We wish our lives away waiting for that thing, person, or situation that will make us happy. Or we spend our lives looking in the rear view mirror, regretting our choices and blaming our unhappiness on the decisions we made. I am not saying that is wrong because most of us have regrets. And we are all only one bad decision away from messing up our lives and throwing happiness away. But defining your happiness or lack thereof on the things we should have done or wish we hadn’t done is a waste. If only things were different we could be happy. I’m thinking of two widows I know who miss their husbands every day of their lives. One has chosen to find joy and purpose, the other cannot find good in anything and is just waiting to die.
Where is God when I am unhappy? When I grieve, when I hurt? Doesn’t He care about my needs? I believe He does, but I also believe His primary concern is for my spiritual needs. God is not some kind of cosmic Santa Claus standing before me to hear my wish list. Instead, I stand before Him, aware of my utter neediness and spiritual poverty. Without Christ and the salvation He brings, I have nothing but a death sentence hanging over my head. Jesus came to bring me right standing with God and everlasting life. So even if I had nothing more than that (and that is a lot!), I should be happy. Jesus said He offers abundant life, so shouldn’t that abundance include happiness?
If God cares so much about us, why do we go through seasons of anguish? Try to get a mental picture of what is making you unhappy, sad, and stricken with grief. An unhappy marriage, estrangement from a loved one, a financial loss, bad news from the doctor…whatever it is. Now picture that thing as a giant anvil and imagine God has placed you upon it and is chiseling away everything that does not look like Jesus. That is holiness in the making!
Are happiness and holiness mutually exclusive? In the 1600s a man named Thomas Brookswrote at length about the connection between happiness and holiness. He claimed that happiness and holiness were one in the same. That the only way to true happiness is throughholiness. Matthew Henry later wrote that only those who are truly holy can be truly happy. When I started thinking about these things, I recalled stories about those who have been imprisoned and martyred for their faith. The apostle Paul and Corrie and Betsy ten Boom come to mind. Every December I do advent readings, and those usually include letters Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison. In a letter to his beloved Maria he wrote: “I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas.” How could he say that from a prison cell? He knew the happiness of celebrating Christmas with empty hands but a full heart.
Every year at this time I look for a verse or a word to claim for the New Year. I think my word will be holiness because God keeps brining it to my attention. I’m guessing I will go through another refining period. And as I think of all holiness means I realize I have much to learn. I’ll keep you posted.