Friday, February 27, 2015

Are Christians Always Happy?

Today several groups I follow on Facebook posted to their newsfeed an article entitled "15 Simple Acts of Charity that we Frequently Forget."  It's a pretty good list, and a good reminder to us all that acts of charity don't always have to be grand acts of heroic virtue.  There are many little things each of us can do every day to be more charitable toward one another, including the things on this list.

I do take issue with one item; or to be more accurate, the way the item is presented.  The first item listed is "Smile! A Christian is always full of laughter and happiness!"  

I don't have a problem with smiling.  Smiling is awesome!  Smiling is one of the easiest things any of us can do to bring a little light into someone else's day (and generally make ourselves feel better at the same time).  A smile when you see someone tells them, "I am glad that you are here with me."  That's a profoundly simple, and profoundly powerful thing.  And I agree, it can be an act of charity.


My issue is the assertion that "A Christian is always full of laughter and happiness."  Put simply, that is a false statement -- and one that I think has potential to cause harm.  Christians are not always happy, and the expectation that they should be can lead many to question the veracity of their faith.  

While the faithful Christians in my life are generally some of the happiest people I know (largely because they strive to avoid behavior that is self-destructive), no one is happy all the time.  Not even Jesus was happy all the time.  Think about when Jesus was turning over the money changers' tables in the Temple.  Think about when Jesus was betrayed by Judas.  Think about when Jesus was being nailed to the cross to die for our sins.  Was He happy at any of those times?  Or was he feeling righteous anger, sadness, or pain?

Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human and that means He experiences the whole range of human emotions -- among them happiness, yes, but also sorrow.  The shortest verse in the Bible is also one of the most profound.  John 11:35 simply reads, "Jesus wept."  The occasion for our Lord's tears was the death of His friend Lazarus, famous for being raised from the dead by Jesus just a few short verses later.
When we consider that Jesus wept, let us appreciate what a profound thing this is.  Jesus, Who is the Son of God; Jesus Who is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity; Jesus Who is all holy and all good; Jesus Who knew at the time of His weeping that He would raise Lazarus from the dead; this Jesus wept.  He did not merely cry, but He wept tears of true sorrow.  Jesus grieved. Why?  Because His friend had died and that is an appropriate occasion for sadness.

So Christians should not equate happiness with holiness, and we should not be afraid to be sad.  The Bible tells us many times not to be afraid.  We are even told to not be anxious (Phil 4:6).  But nowhere are we told not to be sad.  Nowhere are we promised that we will not experience suffering.  In fact, we are pretty much guaranteed it.  Jesus did not say, "Hop on your rainbow pony and follow me."  He said, "Take up your cross and follow me" (Mt 16:24).  Being a Christian involves suffering.  In fact, being human involves suffering.  You don't stop being human when you come to believe in Christ -- you start being a better human.  So perhaps we can say that Christians learn to suffer better, which in a way make sense.

Jesus Christ is the perfect human being, like us in all ways but in sin.  And He suffered more profoundly than any human ever has.  He is our model, then, in suffering.  He did not come to take away all suffering in this world.  Rather, He comes down to our level and suffers with us.  He redeems us by His suffering and by joining our suffering with His, we can participate in that redemption, and so gain a sure hope of eternal beatitude in the world to come.

This idea that Christians should always be happy seems to be repeated more and more often these days.  Perhaps it is because we have a Holy Father who likes to speak a lot about joy.  But joy and happiness are two different things.  Happiness is something that you feel while joy is something you possess.  

We cannot always control our feelings.  Feelings often just happen to us, sometimes with good reason and other times not.  Good, faithful Christians may feel sadness for any number of reasons.  Perhaps, like when Jesus wept, you have lost a loved one.   Perhaps someone you love is suffering.  Maybe you have been through a break-up, lost a job, or failed a class.  These are all legitimate reasons to be sad.  Sadness is an appropriate response to a sad occurrence. Feeling sad does not make you a bad Christian.

Perhaps you suffer from clinical depression and often feel sad for no reason.  That does not make you a bad Christian!

Perhaps you just don't have a cheery, bubbly, happy-go-lucky personality.  Maybe you are more on the dour side.  That does not make you a bad Christian!

But when we are constantly told that Christians should be happy because of our faith in Christ, we may start to doubt our faith when we find ourselves not feeling happy.  This is a shame.  No one need feel that way.  (I want to punch people who tell grieving family members at funerals that they should "be happy" because their loved one is in heaven).  

Everyone prefers being happy to being sad.  And being a Christian has certainly brought me a lot of happiness.  But I have also suffered loss and gone through hard times, and during those times I experienced profound sadness.  Rather than make me a bad Christian, I believe those feelings of sorrow and pain have made me a more compassionate Christian.  Rather than being signs that my faith was weak, those times of sorrow only strengthened my faith because even when I was not happy, I was still able to find comfort in the peace and joy -- yes, joy -- of Christ.

St. Paul tells us that the Kingdom of God is a matter of "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rm 14:17), and James says we should consider even our trials "pure joy" because testing our faith leads to perseverance (Jas 1:2-3).

That joy comes not from knowing that we will always be happy, but from knowing that even when we are not, we are still with God.  Even when we are overwhelmed by sadness, we can still love and be loved by God.  Like holy Job, we can still offer God thanks and praise in our sorrow and so the sorrow does not overwhelm us.

 Sharing a smile is a wonderful thing, and yes, even an act of charity.  But acknowledging someone's sorrow and sharing in it -- this is also an act of great charity.  Let us never shy away from an opportunity to show our love through compassion.

2 comments:

Cyndi said...

This is a well-written and well thought out article, Matt. I agree with you.

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