Abraham Lincoln is said to have observed that “most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Yet it’s pretty clear that happiness isn’t just a choice. There are plenty of reasons to be unhappy. How can a Christian remain happy when the devil works so hard to make us miserable?
From the beginning, our central problem has been sin—not following the rules God gave us to maximize our happiness. Our first parents committed what seems in retrospect a fairly minor infraction. They ate from a tree that grew forbidden fruit. But their deed was a harbinger of worse to come. Once the protection of God’s law had been breached, dishonesty, lust, and cruelty flowered among the members of the human race.
The gift we don’t accept
Sin is still our biggest barrier to true happiness, for one of the consequences of sin is guilt, that unhappy feeling we have when we know we’ve done something wrong.
Perhaps it was a sexual indiscretion, a lie that can’t be forgotten, or an unkindness to someone we love. “It happened many years ago,” one might say, “but it weighs on me still.” “It was a mistake,” another admits. “I shouldn’t have done it. Now I can’t get it off my conscience.”
The Bible offers a comprehensive solution to this problem. It says that God forgives all sins, readily and gladly, in response to nothing more than a simple request. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). There is no sin you have ever committed—even an offense that the law of the land must punish—that God won’t forgive when you ask him to with sincerity and humility. He will erase your sins as thoroughly as if they were consigned to “the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
The problem, it seems to me, is not with God’s willingness to forgive, but with our willingness to accept His forgiveness.
Like an insensitive house guest, guilt often hangs on much longer than it should.
Suppose I’ve carried a 50 pound backpack for a score of miles. When you meet me at my destination, I am complaining of sore muscles and blistered feet.
You say, “Let me help you take this heavy load off your back.”
“Thanks,” I say, “but I can’t take it off.”
“But there’s no need to carry it any longer. You’re here. You can put it down now.”
“It’s mine,” I insist, “and I don’t think even with your help that it can be removed!”
You would think me rather stubborn, wouldn’t you? And you’d be right. Yet that’s what a lot of folks do with God’s forgiveness. “I forgive all of your sins,” Jesus says.
“But I don’t think you can forgive this one,” we protest. “What I did seems so terrible to me. I can’t believe forgiveness is as easy as that. So I’m going to keep holding on to it and feeling bad about it.”
Jesus is able to lift all our burdens and give us spiritual and psychological rest. Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Please note that word gift. There’s no other way to receive God’s forgiveness than to accept it as a gift! So why suffer? Let God forgive you and lift the weight of guilt from you!
The trouble with families
If you were to ask me, “What diminishes human happiness more than anything else?” I would have a ready answer: difficulties with the people we love. We want to see our children grow up happy and successful. We want kind and supportive relationships with our spouse, parents, and siblings.
Too often that doesn’t happen.
Our children, especially, can break our hearts. I remember talking with a woman whose son had been arrested for a drug offense. “We tried so hard to raise him right,” she said. “Why did he do this?”
I have some cautionary news and some reassuring news. The cautionary news is that God has given your loved ones the same freedom of choice that you have. He or she can choose a righteous path or a self-destructive one. God values human freedom so much that He won’t force anyone to do what he or she chooses not to do.
The reassuring news is that God understands your loved ones intimately, and in response to your prayers He can influence your family in profound ways. God is the master psychologist. With prayer, I’ve seen marriages healed that everyone thought were beyond repair. I've seen children and parents learn to love one another again. I’ve seen God bring Prayer, the Bible says, is “powerful and effective” (James 5:16). He who gave His own Son for our salvation will exert all His power to make our families happy. Just ask Him!
A frightening world
Irene’s living room was comfortable and calm. Irene was neither. It showed in the lines on her face, in her voice, in the nervous fidgeting of her hands. “My children are traveling overseas,” she said, “and I can’t stop worrying about them. I hear of bombs, hijackings, hurricanes, earthquakes, deadly diseases. Who knows what could happen to them?”
Fear and anxiety are at the root of much of our unhappiness—and not without reason. This earth isn’t a peaceful place. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” Jesus said. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:6, 7).
First, please remember that even though such things happen, our fear of them may be exaggerated. Because we can now instantly communicate troubling events from every part of the world and concentrate them into five-minute news broadcasts, many of us feel in danger. But remember that everyone on this earth lives under the promise that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). Clearly God protects most people from most tragedies most the time.
Still, there are real reasons to be frightened. Which is why we’re surprised when Jesus calmly says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). Really, Jesus? When wars, terrorists, tsunamis, and earthquakes can kill thousands, you say we shouldn’t worry? Why not?
His answer is one of the most important truths in all of Scripture: “In my Father’s house are many rooms, . . . [and] I am going there to prepare a place for you. . . . [So] that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2, 3).
There are plenty of reasons for all of us to be unhappy. But there is one big reason for every Christian to be very happy indeed. All our fears and worries fade in the light of it. The reason is that this anxious and sometimes tragic life isn’t all there is. Death is not the end. Jesus has a place prepared in heaven for those who trust him.
“In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus warned “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He overcame the world, and everything that makes us unhappy, when he stepped from his grave on the first Easter morning.
It may not make sense—Paul calls it a peace “which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7)—but those of us who know that our eternal life is assured need not be afraid of anything.
What could possibly make us happier?