Theology of Happy
Until recently, the sensation of being happy made my stomach twist and my shoulders hunch. Immediately, I would worry about what could go wrong, about the end of whatever it was that was making me happy.
As with any emotional trigger, sensation grew connected to my feelings. Being happy literally made me feel sick.
I've always loved sad songs. I like to sing along with them as I'm driving to work. They are the soundtrack that I hum as I go about my day. The melancholy feels like home.
Those songs have always felt more free to me, perhaps because they are operating from a place of loss. The lover is gone, the relationship is over, the die is cast. There is nothing further to lose. That has always felt safe to me and I've struggled to make myself like a sad song: nothing to lose.
This summer, I fought against God. I was miserable, sitting in the dark corner of a room with a wide open door. Instead of realizing that I could walk out into the sunlight, I cried out to God, asking Him why He had made the room the way it was.
When I finally stumbled into the light, led by gentle, holy hands, I hardly knew how to respond. Mostly I sat and thought and made tea. In my thoughts, I realized that I had spent far too much of my life in that room.
Sometimes I get to thinking that happy belongs in Heaven. I got so caught up in that corner, watching my life stretch out, unbearably, before me, that I couldn't hear the Spirit whisper abundant life and fullness of joy.
Before I had the strength to ask to see, the Spirit was already guiding my vision. One night, as I was about to go to sleep, the beginning of a verse I'd read long ago kept replaying in my mind. I couldn't remember the whole thing, so I reluctantly turned on the light and looked it up.
Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)
It was then that I got an inkling that my gospel might have a hole in it: now in the present age.
One of my earliest memories is that of light. I couldn't have been older than four. I was in my childhood home, safe, unassailable, and God was there.
Somewhere between there and this summer, I forgot that God was light (in Him there is no darkness at all). I forgot about now in the present age, I forgot about now I am doing something new, will you not be aware of it?
I heard snatches of Psalm 27:13 dancing through my head.
I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord In the land of the living.
It's one thing to realize that I haven't believed that joy was possible, or probable, for me now. It's one thing to realize that I have a theology of "if it sounds like too good to be true, it probably is."
I sat with this knowledge, weeping over it.
But then I looked up.
This fall, I wrote a piece for Addie Zierman's synchroblog in celebration of her wonderful book When We Were On Fire. As I read her story, and those of the others who responded, I realized that I wasn't alone. Misery loves company, and we had stewed in our misery. Too long.
We were those who had feared wanting something too much, fearing that God would give us the opposite. We held our lives loosely to untrained eyes, building walls around them to keep out that unwanted (but inescapable) call to the mission field.
I remember thinking that I would likely have to martyr myself by marrying someone boring and unattractive (if I ever married at all).
But something happened as I read these stories and sorted through my own: I started to say these things out loud. As I did, I realized something crucial: they sounded ridiculous.
What an excellently evil tool it is to embed a kernel of truth in a mouthful of lies. It is true that self-denial is part of the Christian life, it is true that there will be hard things here on earth.
But that isn't the whole story. If it was, I would despair (and I think I'd have a point).
I'm still learning about vulnerability while in process. I'm not done here, and it's not easy. I have to tell myself true things, and when I forget, I have to ask others to help me to remember. I have to look in trusted eyes, saying: this is real, right? This is true?
I have to tell my stomach to unclench as I feel happiness slide down my neck, making me tingle. I breathe through the nervousness, relaxing my shoulders.
Slowly, I'm leaning in to a theology that includes happiness.
I'd love to know, how does joy fit into your theology?
(And in case you're wondering, that is me in the picture.)