This woman. Two minutes with her and you want to be best friends with her forever. She once flung open a door and surprised me with a dozen roses and the most lilting, lyrical laughter and her joy is the most contagious I’ve ever known. Lisa Harper — who’s been accused of being “happy” her whole life — felt compelled to study the theology of happiness in Scripture and discovered that not only does God literally define Himself as happy but that He’s called us to a covenant state of holy happiness too – that is, deep fulfillment and contentment in His presence and divine goodness – regardless of our circumstances. Lisa’s personal story includes such happiness hijackers as sexual abuse, the death of loved ones, and heartbreaking failed adoptions; yet she’s learned that true Biblical happiness is not the absence of sadness. It’s a grace to welcome Lisa to the farm’s front porch today…
A dear friend of mine lost her thirteen-year-old son in a tragic misadventure in their backyard recently.
He was a bright-eyed, fair-haired, mischievous, Huck Finn type of kid— not yet fully grown.
He was more like a man-child filled with promise of who he was to become.
Those of us who gathered at their home in the hours and days following his death were soft- spoken and red-eyed, deeply jarred by the terrible sadness of it all and deeply concerned about our friends and their younger son who lost his very best friend in the whole world.
A few days after the tragedy, another friend and I were standing quietly in their driveway—we’d done what we could for the moment and were just waiting to see if another task presented itself—when she asked softly, “This shouldn’t have happened. It’s just so horrible. How will they ever be happy again?”
It was more of a compassionate observation than a question, and I wasn’t about to sully her empathy by saying anything out loud, but the gist of her question has reverberated in my heart since: “Is it possible to be happy after horrible things happen to us or to those we love?”
Children shouldn’t die before their parents.
They shouldn’t be born with devastating birth defects or cancer or cerebral palsy.
Families in minivans shouldn’t be killed by drunk drivers.
Moms and dads shouldn’t stop loving each other and spew hatred and discord during their divorce process.
Friends shouldn’t become enemies.
Sex shouldn’t be abusive. Earthquakes shouldn’t wipe out entire villages. Pastors shouldn’t have affairs and leave the whole congregation feeling stunned and betrayed. There should be no such thing as a suicide bomber.
None of this seems remotely congruent with the idea of real, recurrent happiness, does it?
Yet all we have to do is turn on a television, scroll through social media, or poll the people in our neighborhood for proof that it happens Every. Single. Day.
Before you finish reading this sentence, someone else, somewhere else in the world—or possibly even one of your dear friends—will experience something tragic.
Their personal version of: this shouldn’t have happened.
Frankly, dear reader, I’m sure something that “shouldn’t have” has happened to you. Because we live in a broken world.
One that was marred from the start when Eve got deceived by a slithery liar and stepped out of the perfect existence God created for us in Eden. After that evil snake named satan (I refuse to capitalize his name, and thankfully my publisher agrees wholeheartedly with this minor grammatical mutiny) hissed his first lie, nobody had a chance of getting out of here unscathed.
Therefore, since life as we know it is inherently flawed and culture is a poor conduit of true, soul-satisfying happiness, where does that leave us?
Should we despondently hurl every book and DVD that includes the concept of happy into a raging bonfire? Should we forgo sitcoms with laugh tracks and only watch nature shows where the cheetah actually catches the limping baby antelope?
Is it possible for happiness, sadness, and even “badness” to coexist?
And if so, how do we orient our lives to be authentically joyful while not ignoring or becoming immune to the calamity and chaos around us and sometimes in us?
The key to hanging on to our happy—our deep sense of fulfillment, contentment, and delight—when horrible things happen is to recognize this:
Real, God-imbued happiness is not the absence of sadness or badness. Rather, it is hanging on to the truth of His sovereign goodness regardless of what’s going on within or around us.
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that happy and sad are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, these two passages from Proverbs and Lamentations, as well as several others, imply they’re more like two sides of the same coin:
Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief. (Prov. 14:13 esv)
My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:17–23 esv)
To forget what happiness is and remember the hope we have because of God’s steadfast love . . . that’s the poignant paradox of Christianity.
Delight and despair absolutely coexist. They ebb and flow like the tides.
Grief may surge while happy hangs back a bit, and vice versa.
However, in Christ, each wholly exists in the heart of mankind.
Circumstances may prompt one to rise to the occasion and eclipse the other for a while.
And our personality bent may compel us to manifest one more readily than the other.
But the proverbial bucket that dips into the well of our souls has the potential to scoop up both genuine joy and profound sorrow.
Lisa Harper is a master storyteller with a masters of Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary. She’s lauded as an engaging, hilarious communicator as well as an authentic and substantive Bible teacher. She’s been in vocational ministry for thirty years and has written fifteen books and Bible study curriculums but says her greatest accomplishment by far is that of becoming Missy’s (her adopted daughter from Haiti) mama!
In her new book, The Sacrament of Happy, she reminds us that God is good, He does good, and He calls us to enjoy the divine gift of happy in light of His sovereign goodness. And this project puts its money where it’s mouth is because a portion of the proceeds for every single book sold through July 31, 2017 will go to support a large sustainable garden to help eradicate malnutrition in the rural village of Neply, Haiti, where Lisa’s adopted daughter, Missy, was born. Lisa desperately wants you to know that happiness is a calling and a gift of God and reminds you that God is good, He does good, and He wants us to be happy!
[ Our humble thanks to B&H Publishing for their partnership in today’s devotion ]