Christians are not as happy as they should be, given reality.
For a while I wrestled with some nagging thoughts that were far enough in the back of my mind that I could not quite articulate them. They would wake me up in the middle of the night and rob me of rest, but they would never show themselves. What I know now is that I was living in some contradictions with which I had not come to terms. The reason Christians (and nonChristians) are not happy is that we have contradictions that must be worked out.
I believe that the vast majority, perhaps 98% of all people I have met, are living this way. They just don’t realize it. They know they have some problem, but to diagnose it would require some sacrifice. First of all, thinking is hard, so most people do not do it. They medicate. They search for fulfillment. They envy. They boast. They yearn for “likes” on social media. They worship all manner of idols in order to get around that feeling of nagging contradictions. Or, they try to be religious and please God, which doesn’t work for reasons I’ll explain later. But one thing they will not do is truly think about the problem of life, and why, if they know what they say they know, are they so bleh about life, or even downright sad about it.
But that just isn’t me. I have to think. The less peace I have, the more I feel compelled to do it,
because the contradictions and the unrest that goes with those contradictions are unbearable for me.
They were unbearable for me before, but now that I understand what they mean, they are excruciating. I believe that a contradiction is some sort of lie, an evasion of the truth, that causes us to be fragmented, disintegrated, not whole, not confident, not peaceful. Christians live this way all the time.
And because Christians live this way all the time, they are not living the abundant life.
They know that Jesus said that he came that we would have life and have it abundantly, but they have no idea what it means, and they feel a nagging guilt about it, and a nagging fear that they might not be the real deal.
They gravitate to teaching from those who say life is awful, and the more awful it feels, the greater your chances of getting to heaven. They gravitate to teaching that says life is only suffering. To suffer is to be like Jesus. The more you suffer, the more you can hope that you might be saved. This is nefarious, because it is a half truth, which is the hardest kind of lie, because it is so tempting to swallow whole. It feels good, because it validates your experience with a kernel of a true sounding explanation. In this case the half truth it is that suffering is indeed a part of a good life. Our hope is that even though we suffer, and sometimes even as a result of it, ultimately it is supposed to feel amazing to be alive. Sometimes it is amazing because things are good. We are winning, happy, and blessed with abundant provision, health, and good relationships. God in fact gives us the tools to achieve those things.
But at other inevitable times, we are not experiencing those things. Rather, we are experiencing the fact that the world is fallen. We might be sick, broken, broke, suffering loss, losing at the game we’re playing, a victim of some evil or disaster. The secret is that even in those times we can feel that we are living the abundant life that Jesus promised. How? By truly understanding how God has created the world and how he has created us to operate in it.
We can actually be…happy. No matter what. If you are uncomfortable with that word, then use “Joy.” It’s more biblical sounding. The secret lies in a parable that I’m sure is often misunderstood and applied in the opposite way from which it is supposed to be. The Parable of the Unworthy Servant.
7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk 17:7-10).
You’re thinking, “I don’t get it. What is in that that would make me happy?” I’m glad you asked.
I have said already that Christians suffer because they have not realized that they are holding various contradictions as beliefs. One of those contradictions is that they think that life for the Christian is that we live our lives trying to please God, and then he will owe us some kind of thanks. The unworthy servant in the parable needs to understand that nothing is owed him. He is just doing his duty.
“OK,” you might be saying, “But so what? Why should that make me happy?” I know it’s difficult, but for now, just imagine the unhappiness of someone who expects to be constantly rewarded, thanked, praised for his or her work for someone. When they don’t get it, they will generally have to think one of two ways: 1) “How dare they not thank me, or reward me. Here I have been bending over backwards to serve them, and this is the thanks I get? Thanks for nothing!”
This is not a good way to think about God. It is called self-righteousness, or pride (The bad kind of pride. There is a good kind, but it is tricky and we’ll talk about it another time). But self-righteous people are not the unhappiest Christians, if they are Christians at all. The unhappiest Christians are those that think in the second way: 2) “God says he’ll reward me if I live right, pray enough, give enough, help enough, worship enough, serve enough, and, most of all, love enough. But since I don’t seem to be getting any reward or praise from God or even man, I must not be doing anything enough! Ugh! Life is so hard. At least I can say that my life is hard. Maybe that will earn me something. At least if my life is hard enough, if I am sad enough, I can probably, maybe, get to heaven someday.”
These people make up the majority of the church, especially pastors. I know very few of us pastors that do not look at the paltry fruit of our ministry as a sign that we are not doing enough for God. Well, at least we can be messed up and depressed about it. Maybe that will make up for the fact. This is all a contradiction because we never say these words consciously. What we say is what the Bible says, Jesus came that we “would have life, abundantly” (Jn 10:10). “Rejoice always” (1 Thes 5:16). But we know deep down that we don’t believe this. Our emotions betray us.
But look again at the parable. Why would Jesus tell us that it is good to say, “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what is our duty”? If I’m unworthy of reward, then I am less apt to be looking for one. But there is another tricky spot. His words don’t sound very nice. We hear it as, “You despicable, unworthy, waste of space. How dare you think you deserve anything from God. You make me sick.” But that isn’t what he is saying. Try this instead: “God has made you for a purpose. Following God and serving him is its own reward. Stop looking for some other evidence that you’re ok. Stop listening to the evil one telling you you’re no good. Instead, do what you were put on this earth to do. Yes there is a heavenly reward, but worry about that later.”
You might be thinking I’m stretching. That’s because you are messed up. I’ll prove it by showing you something from a much nicer parable, the Prodigal Son. Luke 15:11-32 says,
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
Now, look past the nice part about the younger son that goes out and has all his fun after telling his dad he wishes he would hurry up and die, then gets accepted back into the family by a super loving and gracious father who’s been watching for him the whole time. Skip that part. Look again at 25-32 at the part about the older brother.
He comes in from the field and hears the music. He’s upset to find out that his younger brother came home, and his father had killed the fattened calf to throw a party in his honor because he is so glad that he is back. This really ticks off the older brother. Why? Because he struggles with the same contradictions as you and I do. Look at what his father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Read that again.
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
What is the older brother missing? He doesn’t realize several things. He always has the father. He is always with him. He owns everything that the father has. All the young goats belong to the older brother and if he wanted to, he could kill one at any time and have a party. Why doesn’t he?
And what the father does not say, we can figure out if we think hard enough about it. It is no fun to be the prodigal. We mistakenly see this as: younger brother gets to go have fun while older brother stays home and works. But is it really fun to live a bankrupt life of following your bodily desires and impulses until you are destitute, far away from the Creator that made you and loves you? I have lived that way. It is not fun. It is scary. Sad. Bankrupt. I’d rather have the life of the older brother. That is the good life. The life of the older brother is its own reward.
Just like the unworthy servant, the problem is not that the older brother doesn’t have an awesome life. It is that he doesn’t know it. He does not see it that way. He is holding unbiblical contradictions in his mind and hasn’t worked them out. So he’s self-righteous, mad at his father, hates his brother, and unwilling to party. Grumpiness is a badge of honor to him. Furthermore, the older brother suffers from a syndrome that most of us at some time or other, and in some form another, suffer from: a desire to feel important. Just like the unworthy servant, the older brother has no actual need to be important, but since he doesn’t know that, he can only see the party thrown for his brother as proof of his own unimportance. This is no way to live, and it is thoroughly unbliblical.
Let’s root out the contradictions keeping us up at night and figure out the joy of being an older brother, the unworthy servant, a joyful Christian.