Lesson 11 — Optimism: Happiness and Healing
Back when I was a teenager, I distinctly remember many times a particular girl, when she would host AY, would invariably begin with asking if everybody was happy to be there. Just before she moved on to whatever she was going to say, she would add, “Yes, we’re always supposed to be happy, because we’re Christians!” She just rushed through it, as if it was something she had to say. And boy did that get on my nerves. It seemed so vacuous. So artificial and empty. “This is not what Christian joy is supposed to be,” I thought.
Some years down the road, in college, there was a guy who attended my church who’s philosophy of Christian happiness went something like this: “Fake it ’till you make it.” Pretend to be happy until you actually become happy, and thereby fulfill you’re Christian duty of happiness. That sort of happiness wasn’t it either; it was too skin deep, fleeting, and, again, artificial.
Then just last year, I was having dinner with a friend, and he told me something that shocked me: over half of the students at my law school, at one time or another, were or would become clinically depressed. More than half?! Most of my friends, who I talked to and hung out with every day, are or are going to be depressed? Now certainly not very many of those peers are Christians, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the numbers for the people who at least identified as Christian are similar.
Clearly it’s not wrong to be unhappy at times, or even depressed. Jesus Himself bawled at times (see, e.g., John 11:35). And can you imagine the depression that must have been in Jesus’ heart that caused the very Son of God to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). Somehow, I don’t think the right thing to do was to come up to Jesus when His good friend had just died or when He was bearing the sin of all mankind and say, “Hey, you’re a Christian, you’re supposed to be happy!” or “Fake it ’till you make it, Jesus!” I’m unconvinced that would have solved His problems.
What then? How should we approach Christian happiness? I think we should take joy seriously. We shouldn’t mess around with it, make it a make-believe creature, or speak of it lightly or without serious thought. We should pursue happiness with all our might and ensure that its roots are both deep and lasting; for in pursuing God we cannot but help to pursue our own ultimate joy (even if it means distress for a season).
David struggles through his depression in one of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 42. I highly recommend you go and read it, prayerfully. Do it now.
OK, welcome back. You see the hurt in David’s words. But notice how he addresses it. Twice in the same Psalm, he says,
Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.
Do you see what David is doing here, in the midst of his depression? He’s speaking to himself; he’s preaching to himself. Many of us are told that we should “listen to ourself” and go with what our “heart,” emotions, or mind is telling us. But David isn’t satisfied with moping around listening to himself. He takes command and speaks truth to his very soul, unsatisfied with his soul dwelling on untruths that lead to lugubrious thoughts.
But what should we say to ourselves? Certainly we can say things that will only make things worse (i.e. “It’s hopeless. Give up.”). Other times, we can say things that will lift our spirits and make us feel content, but because they aren’t true or aren’t firm, it is a false happiness. This is what the foolish rich man does in Jesus’s parable found in Luke 12:16–21. He decides to solve his problems by hoarding his wealth, “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.'” But this peace and happiness was temporal, and his merriness quickly transformed into the pall of death.
Instead, we must constantly speak Godly truth to our own souls. This, I’ve found, is the true happiness that is genuine and lasting. David does this by (1) remembering the joy he experienced in worship, being assured that this joy will come again (Psalm 42:4), (2) focusing on the glory and might of God, trusting in faith that He will bring him through (vv. 6–7), and (3) praying to God and singing in thanksgiving and praise (v. 8). Stirring up the genuine joy is about convincing your heart concerning the truths of God, which offer hope for today and tomorrow and thanksgiving for days gone by. These are solid, unchanging truths. They are written all over the Word, on our lips when we sing the hymns of old as well as the new song, and on our hearts as the Spirit prays through us. This hope is the source of the “merry heart [that] does good like medicine” and the cure to the “broken spirit [that] dries the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22).