We were having dinner with a new friend a few evenings ago. A Malaysian, he shared about his time in Melbourne. It was a significant time. He went to university there. He found the Lord/the Lord found him, there. He was part of a dynamic growing church in Melbourne which did so much to nurture his faith. Now he was back in Malaysia, working, and trying to find his feet in a number of key areas in his life. And so we asked him why he hadn’t stayed back in Melbourne. That was when he told us that if he had remained in Melbourne he would have been happy, but not much more. He believed the Lord wanted him back in Malaysia and so he came back.
His answer blew us away because it was both unexpected, and unexpected from one so young. (He is in his twenties.) When you get to my age, you probably would have come to realize that happiness is overrated. But we didn’t expect such wisdom from one raised in the hedonistic atmosphere of modern consumer culture where many assume that happiness is a right. (The young continue to amaze me and give me so much hope for the future.)
In a review article in Utne Reader, Julie Hanus reminds us that:
As recently as 50 years ago, Americans considered sadness a normal response to social circumstances: I am sad because something in the world is not right. The emotion was appreciated for its transformative quality. It could inspire resolve, help people patch up their lives, help them correct wrongs, and in some cases, promote greater connection and community. Today, for every tear shed there seems to be a self-help book enshrining our unalienable right to happiness. (“Embracing the Blues,” Utne Reader, May-June 2008, p.67)
The Bible has always recognized happiness as “a by-product of a greater value.”
Any person who makes his own happiness to be the top priority of his life will experience only frustration. Jesus clearly indicated that anyone who selfishly grasps his own life actually forfeits any chance of experiencing real life. (Creath Davis, “Happiness,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, Editor, Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Book House, 1984, p. 493)
Jesus was asked as to how one could inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25). I understand “eternal life” here as referring, not just to some idyllic state after death, but also to a quality of life, a full life, a joyful life. Jesus answers by affirming that true life consists of the two primary loves: to love God and to love neighbour, and to express those loves by sacrificially caring for others (Luke 10:25-37). Happiness then is a byproduct of being in right relationship with God and with neighbour, and in blessing others. This is affirmed by other parts of Scripture where we are also taught that happiness comes from being in right relationship with God (Psalm 144:15), and from having mercy on the poor (Proverbs 14:21).
This is one of the secrets of life: Chase happiness and never find it. Pursue a right relationship with God and live for others, and you get happiness thrown in. And if this is true, then sadness has a place as well.
As Hanus reminds us, sometimes sadness is a reminder that something is not right with the world. We remember Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus His friend (John 11:35). We remember Him weeping over Jerusalem when He realized what horrors the inhabitants were to experience (Luke 19:41-44). If we are people who truly love God and neighbour, there will be times when we weep over the sad condition of our broken world. Like the rest of creation, we groan “as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8:22 TNIV)” while we await the coming of the new heavens and the new earth, where there will be no more tears (Revelation 21:4). To belong to the community that will inherit the realm of “no tears” is to belong to a community that weeps because we are not there yet.
Hanus also points out that sadness can also have a “transformative quality.” It can help us grow and mature. Paul would agree. In 2 Corinthians 7:2-13, he notes that a letter he had written had saddened his readers but he does not regret what he did because the sorrow led to their repentance. There is a godly sorrow that “brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret… (2 Corinthians 7:10a TNIV). We note that Paul also mentions a worldly sorrow that leads to death (v.10b). We think of Judas, saddened by his betrayal of Jesus, who, instead of repenting, chooses to take his own life (Matthew 27:3-5). Sorrow, by itself, may not have much value. We need to sorrow for the right reasons and respond to sorrow in the right way. But sorrow has a place in our life this side of heaven.
So I applaud my young friend for making a key decision that revealed that the pursuit of happiness was not the true north of his life. I am sure there are times when he wonders if he did the right thing. Life is tough. This is one of the reasons we are committed to the ministry and the practice of friendship. When the going gets tough, the tough need true friends to walk with.
Therefore, where we can, we want to encourage our friend in his journey of obedience. And if the occasion presents itself, I will try to tell my young friend that if he had chosen to remain in Melbourne, just to be happy, he may have found that he may not have been happy in the end. But by choosing what was for him the more difficult path, he will discover God, and growth, and joy. That’s life.