Last week, the Roundtable Counseling blog started a mini-series on the most common questions raised by counselees, starting with “Why can’t I be normal like everyone else?” This week, we turn our attention to a related question:
Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?
This question is never said in response to a moment of discontentment. No, when someone asks this question they have been unhappy for long enough that they have begun to despair. They’re frustrated with life: long bouts with illness and disease, difficult relationships, wounds from the past. Of course you are unhappy! Look at how hard life has been. Look at what is going on in your life. Unhappiness is reasonable under such circumstances.
A friend of mine who once asked this question was feeling disqualified in her faith because she was not as happy as her atheist sibling. I asked her, “Where do you get the idea that happiness is the thing that proves our faith true?” I think she was both encouraged and challenged by this question. Encouraged, because she realized her struggle with depression did not disprove her faith or her Christian witness. My friend was going through life feeling disqualified to share her faith because of an unbiblical assumption, that is, that happiness is the standard by which everything is measured. A common assumption of our culture is, “If something makes you happy, it is good and true; if something makes you unhappy, it is bad or false.” But my friend was also challenged, because now she had to ask herself the question, “If happiness is not what proves or disproves my faith, then what does?” This is exactly the kind of question we want to ask. Biblical counseling, by revealing this kind of unbiblical assumptions, not only gets us asking the right question, it also takes us to the only trustworthy place for answers: The Word of God.
Behind the question, “Why can’t I just be happy?” hides an assumption similar to my friend’s: happiness as the purpose of life. But notice Paul’s counter-intuitive summary of God’s purpose for us in this life: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). In other words, God’s will for us in this life is not to develop our happiness but our holiness. Just by looking at the word “sanctification” we can see that this is true. Sanctification is the process of being made sanctum, which is Latin for “holy,” not “happy.” We’ve bought into the cultural misunderstanding that life is about the pursuit of happiness, but biblically speaking, life is about a pursuit of holiness. Note, Paul did not say God’s will is simply “your justification,” that moment in which we are declared righteous before God. No, God’s will is “your sanctification,” the lifelong process in which the Holy Spirit makes us like Jesus.
But it is not only our culture’s fault that we have such assumptions. We must also recognize our role in the matter. In their right place, there is nothing wrong with desires for things like marriage, food, and sex. The same is true for the desire for happiness. But if one of these “wants” becomes a “need,” then we are in trouble. There is a world of difference in humbly and gratefully asking the Lord to give us a spouse and demanding the Lord to give us a spouse because it is our right and our due. Likewise, the desire for personal happiness can easily become a demand for personal happiness. When that happens, our heart is hijacked by the inordinate desire, no longer piloted by the Lord but by a false lord, in other words, an idol. What do you need? What do you want? There is a radical difference between wanting and needing! Our answers to those questions reveal the functional gods of our lives.
But isn’t “joy” a fruit of the Spirit? Indeed, joy is a fruit of God’s Holy Spirit, which is another way of saying that joy is a part of being like Jesus. Yes, we are commanded to “rejoice always.” Paul even says that “we rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom 5:3). But biblical “joy” is a far cry from personal happiness. True happiness, what the Bible calls “joy,” is far less about ourselves and far more about the Lord. What most of us mean when we say “happiness” is satisfaction in present circumstances. It means we are happy about the way things are going in life – the friends we have, the jobs we work, the money we earn. But as Christ said, these are things that “moth and rust can destroy and thieves break in and steal.” Joy has to do with God’s kingdom, finding satisfaction in the treasures we have in Christ. Happiness is totally dependent on shifting circumstances; joy is totally dependent on the work of Christ, which is finished and unchanging.
So let’s apply this in the ordinary context of marriage. Joe and Susie come into the counseling room with the complaint of being unhappy with their marriage. When pressed further, they admit that what they really mean is their spouse is not fulfilling their desire for personal happiness. Like we said above, Joe and Susie’s perceived need for happiness is actually a desire that has become corrupted into a demand, which distorts their entire relationship: the way they think, speak, and treat one another. Joe will be happy with more sex, more free time, and less nagging. Susie will be happy with more service, less demands, and a bigger house. Now, there is legitimacy to some of these desires. But there are two problems: (1) these are not just simple desires but self-serving demands and (2) the primary purpose of marriage is not the personal satisfaction of the individuals but the sanctification of the couple.
Joe and Susie, like all of us, must be reoriented to the truth that God’s purpose for our lives – especially marriage – is sanctification. When marriage becomes about the Lord, all kinds of things begin to fall into place. As their marriage becomes about growing in Christ-likeness rather than happiness, Susie becomes less nagging and Joe less demanding. Gradually, as “happiness for me” is replaced by “holiness in us,” they begin to find each other’s expectations less burdensome and each other’s shortcomings less frustrating. Joe begins to serve from the heart. Susie begins to forgive from the heart. This kind of growth is what we mean by “sanctification,” and “growing in holiness.”
Are Joe and Susie happy? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s alright (even though it doesn’t feel alright!), because they are right where God has called them to be, growing in Christ-likeness. And most importantly, rather than being a means to personal happiness, Joe and Susie’s marriage begins to be a holy, joyful reflection of Christ and the church.