I was on Skype with a friend of mine the other night and we were talking about the ups and downs of life, and how it seems it is often full of tragedy and heart ache. No one tells us this. Parents protect us from the harsh side of life. School points us at the potential future successes. Church goes even further by suggesting, in a million subtle ways, that if you follow God, and behave yourself, your life will be all sunshine and roses.
And it’s all bollocks.
As we were commiserating, my friend shared with me a conversation he had with a Psychologist friend of his. My friend had asked the Psychologist why depression seemed to be on the rise? Why are more people on medication? Why are the therapist’s diaries full?
He said something very interesting, “People assume they have the right to be happy, and they don’t.”
We act like we don’t deserve to experience any hardship. Somehow we believe we should be exempt from pain and difficulty, so that when it arrives we are confused, and even petulant.
So we go and bang on the Psychologists door.
Where did we get that idea?
It seems pretty new. When you read history people seemed far more at ease with life in all it’s sadness and celebration than we do today. They hadn’t created the modern bubbles we have. They knew they would run the full gamut of fortunes through their days, and they did so with a lot more grace than we seem able to muster.
Want an example?
I’m sure there are many reasons this ‘you deserve happiness’ lie thrives and confuses so many, but I, at least in part, blame Oprah. As well meaning as she may be, she has sat thousands down on her hallowed couch (when Tom Cruise hasn’t been using it like a trampoline), in front of millions of viewers, and told them that, “You deserve happiness. You go get it. You leave him if you’re not happy. It’s all about what makes you happy.”
And the result is that divorce rates rise. I was just listening to a podcast this week where some guy was decrying the ‘church of Oprah’, because every time his wife would watch she would turn off the TV and then lay into her husband concerning all the things she thought he should be, but wasn’t.
They are now divorced.
“Well done Oprah. Genuinely. You saved a lot of women from abusive marriages, but what about the rest?”
Obviously it isn’t really her fault; she is only mirroring the culture around her that tells us that we’re entitled to happiness. But the fact is that 50 years ago divorce was far less an option in people’s minds. Now it seems that it’s too easy for one party to check out because they believe they deserve more happiness than they are experiencing, so rather than sticking to it through the rough times they seem to be respected more by society at large if they ‘stand up for themselves’ and leave.
This expectation is being communicated loudest from the US, but I find it interesting that even in the US constitution it doesn’t ‘promise happiness’, only the ‘pursuit of happiness’. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a noble pursuit, but even their founding fathers knew it isn’t something you can promise.
Happiness isn’t a right.
It can’t be.
That’s not how life works.
I know one area which touts this lie around regularly is the Pentecostal church, who have somehow confused Jesus mention of ‘blessing’ with the idea of prosperity and happiness.
I had this problem a few years ago. I had just left my job with the church and found myself having to find employment. I started up a freelance business shooting photos and video, and waited tables on the side, and it was a rough time (check out “My Lament”). I remember bumping into someone from the last church I had worked for, and she asked me how I was doing. I told her it was tough, and that there were often months when I wondered how I was going to pay the rent.
Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love this individual, and she couldn’t have been more well meaning, but her attempt at being encouraging me was baffling. She said, “You know that God wants you to have a great job don’t you? Are you asking God for a great job?”
As a matter of fact I had been, but it felt more like a desperate prayer shot out with a measure of guilt over having prayed it in the first place. I mean why did I deserve a ‘great job’? I can’t find anything in scripture suggesting that I am more deserving than anyone else.
The fact was that I was looking for work in a country with an incredibly high unemployment rate, in the middle of a recession. Why was I any more deserving than the next guy? I was also white (still am if you’re curious), and living in a country which has been raped and abused by ‘White Imperialism”, so surely in a just world I would be low down on the list of people who ‘deserved a great job’.
I think maybe this well meaning parishioner’s comment came from the assumption that if you’re a Christian that God will do you a favor, because you’re part of His club, like some nepotistic uncle. I can’t find that in Scripture either. The ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ seem to have an equally bad go of it, or as the bible would say, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.” (Matt 5:45). Show me someone who followed God’s call through scripture and I’ll show you someone whose life was filled with heartache and conflict.
The big problem with this false promise, especially in churches, is that it heaps guilt on people. I mean, as my friend told me that I ‘deserved a great job’, I began thinking, “then why don’t I have one? Have I pissed God off? Am I a bad Christian? Do I need to read my bible more or prayer more?“ And that sort of thinking is at the beginning of a very slippery slope into superstition, where I ‘sacrifice more on the altar, and the gods give me more of the things I need’.
You see the big problem with this lie is that every time you triumphantly bellow it from the pulpit, in whatever guise, there is someone in that auditorium who is dealing the hardships of life, and all you have accomplished is to add guilt to his/her already difficult circumstances.
It’s oppressive, triumphant bullying.
So to those who keep promising other Christians happiness on God’s behalf, when He has never promised it Himself, please stop. I know too many unemployed people, too many heart sore divorcees, and too many homeless saints trying their best to seek God through their problems. They don’t want to go to your church because they know you will likely only make them feel worse about their situation. If you have a practical way to help them, go for it, otherwise learn to hold them in their pain and confusion. Stop suggesting they ‘deserve happiness’, and that something must be wrong with their spirituality, or their lives would be just peachy.
Ironically, I think we would actually be much happier if we didn’t think we deserved happiness. We would greet conflict and trouble differently because we’ve been expecting them; not in a morbid way, but because they are as much a part of life as the good times.