Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Should Christians Be Happy?
I feel a little strange even talking about happiness at at time like this. I was working on this posting yesterday when the horrible news about Haiti came in. Because I'm on an earthquake response team, I've been very busy since then. I don't think I will be going, unless I am really needed, because I just got back from Nepal and need to be at work. But I will go ahead and post this. I hope that no TV preacher says anything stupid about "why" the earthquake happened.
The more I have thought about this concept over the past few days I realize that the exercise it is about as futile as trying to grasp a warm Chinook wind with both hands.
It is even hard to define what happiness is. Is it just the lack of suffering? Is it the fulfillment of emotional pleasures? I asked Denise while we were sitting in the hot tub the other night and she said she thought it was contentment. It really gets difficult to frame into a usable contemplation. Is it even a mood? I honestly believe that someone can be happy and depressed at the same time because depression is an emotion and I think that happiness transcends that. What I’m trying to say is that depression and happiness are not polar opposites. I don’t think it was true with me, but I’ve had patients who report that they have never been more content . . . nor more depressed.
The other great problem is that Evangelicals are chronic liars. How could you even measure if they are happy or not? If you did a survey, especially if you did it in the context of a church, the response to the question, “Are you happy” would be a resounding “Yes. Of course! We are Christians. All Christians are happy. We have the fruit of the spirit of joy.” But, and I’ve said it many times, that I think the Evangelicals (because I was one) lives in a altered reality . . . Alice on the clean, but insane, Victorian side of the looking glass.
So I end this thinking by coming at the question from an entirely different direction. Is there anything unique to American Evangelicalism (I know that I’ve drifted from my original question about Atheists Vs Christians to Atheists’ Vs Evangelicals) that makes us more, intrinsically, unhappy?
I think there could be. While the good news of the gospel is that we have been washed clean, thus the inherent fear of low self value as been fixed once and for all, in reality, Evangelicalism brings with it a lot of (what I consider extra-Biblical but cultural) baggage that is counter-productive to fulfillment and contentment.
Firstly, Evangelicalism has an unrealistic standard that everyone must aspire to . . . but no one truly realizes. For men, there is this life-long belief that a good Christian man is sexually pure, without any polluted thoughts. Virtually no man lives there, thus all carry this deep, chronic, guilt about that. I think women must have an equivalent. Since I’m not a woman I can only guess.
I do remember that during our early days of our marriage Denise struggled with an “addiction” to Soap Operas. I don’t think I ever understood why that bothered her so much. At the time I assumed it was an issue of time management. Rather than doing her house hold chores like ironing (and she was a stay at home mom at the time) she was sitting on the couch watching Days of Our Lives. But I later realized that it was much deeper than that and is why I saw her brought to tears when she was tying to fight its allure.
I think she knew that she felt drawn to a romantic fantasy world, where men were handsome knights in shinning armor that swept women off their feet and carried them to paradise. It wasn’t about lust. She didn’t want to see them naked (I don’t think). But it was a amorous other reality, that drew her. She knew that I would never be that idealized matador. I think she could not express this addiction to me in such words, in the same way I could express my thoughts with her, because she was afraid it would hurt me. I was not that six foot six, tanned man, with a six pack, driving a sports car and dominating all conversations with poetry and intelligence . . . all with a Latin accent.
But those are just two examples. I also think of the pressure that Denise has always felt to be the perfect mother and wife, and me the perfect father and husband. It is magnified if we are “Focus on the Family” Christians. It is a bondage that no mortal can bear. I have known plenty of men and women who pretend and pretend well, while in their private places they suffer in an ominous isolation. But even in the pretending there can not be contentment because I think down deeply there is the self awareness that you are a total fraud.
I think too that the church, with a small “c” uses guilt manipulation to put a yoke around the necks of church people. They are not supporting the programs the way they should. They are not living up to the expectations of the pastor or the board. The self esteem of the pastor, only because they are human, are all wrapped up in having successful programs at the church they run (and run is the proper word in most cases).
Last week I heard almost word for word the same lecture from two different Christian sources. The first was a pastor on Christian radio. I have never enjoyed Christian radio because of all the nonsense that you hear (“You can buy DVDs how global warming is the first step of the Antichrist is using to take over the world,” etc.). But lately, I’ve gone back and to listen to pastors, especially those who don’t talk with a southern draw and speak without furious screaming. I sometimes think I’m too cynical and I go to these radio pastors, hoping to hear something healthy and reassuring (that they aren’t all nut cases) . . . but rarely do.
This pastor, who wasn’t screaming but did talk with a Texan accent, was speaking on the dysfunctional family. Since he comes on at lunch time, I listened to him several days in a row so I got the main points of his message.
He spent the majority of time simply illustrating dysfunctional families in the Bible. Then each message would end with enticements to get on their mailing list (which as an ex-missionary means a target for being a potential donor. We were taught, “once on your mailing list, always on your mailing list”). Finally on the third day, he got to the point of how to over come or avoid being a dysfunctional family.
I thought for sure he would have some psychological insights to healthy family living. His main point, however, was that you should be in church every Sunday morning. “The dysfunctional family doesn’t go to church, the functional family does because by going to church they put God first.”
These pastors always twist “being in church” by assuming if you are not, then you are sitting around in your boxers snorting cocaine with your kids and gay lovers. If you listen, you will see that they actually believe there is magic pixie dust over the threshold of the church door that when you go through it, you are a better person.
I am not a Sunday morning couch potato so I think I have the right to talk about this. I may miss church once or twice a year and it has been the same for the past 50 years. So, unlike some emerging church people, I am not trying to defend my church-avoidance behavior. But church attendance has been one of those yokes that are put around the Evangelical’s neck. I wonder how many people really go to church because it fulfills them in some way.
For example, imagine that Jesus Himself appeared, and no one had a doubt that it was Jesus, and he proclaimed that “the age of church going is over. You no longer have to go to church to please me. I am just as please with you when you are sitting on the couch in your boxers and reading the Sunday morning paper.” How many people would continue to go? I bet people would stay home in droves.
My pastor repeated the same message of this radio pastor the following Sunday. He could not understand how someone could claim to be a Christian and not be seriously engaged in the local church. He has said that many times.
Of course the only Biblical argument for mandatory church attendance, without seriously twisting scripture, is the need to meet together or to avoid not meeting together. But this is where I agree totally. We need to meet and I think our contentment is closely connected to the relationships that we have, especially honest, accepting relationships . . . not sitting on hard pews listening the lecture and never talking to each other.
The last item that may support the notion of Christians not being truly happy is the Christian concept of the denial of the self.
I always write these things in a hurry between this or that and once again, I wish I could do a word study on the denying of yourself. I do know that it is mentioned by Christ, but I would like to see the context. I have a strong feeling that the Church’s Gnostic Dualism, has perverted it and turned it into the same brand of “denying yourself” as the Buddhists practice (who, in a very dualistic way, believe that this physical earth is a place to transcend and escape . . . not something to embrace as created by good and loving God).
Maybe I will stop here and think about this more. Maybe I will get the time to re-read a few passages and come back and finish up this idea in one more posting.
Posted by MJ at 4:01 PM