On Love and Happiness

I want to write about the difference between being rejoiceful-slash-joyful, and being happy.

This idea has been rattling around in my brain for a couple of days.  Unlike so many of the others I’ve posted here, it has been a struggle to wrap my brain around. The concept of being joyful–and rejoicing in the Lord’s love and hope–is simple. There is so much for which to be grateful, and God’s love, hope, and forgiveness are boundless. These are reasons to be joyful!

My difficulty is defining what I’ve identified as “happiness” thus far, and putting to words why it has been so elusive.

I think that materialism and objectification, both of which I’ve written about before, play a significant role. We live in a consumer society, and it is so easy to fall prey to the consumptive mindset. Buy the thing, possess it, and then buy the next thing. This dangers in thinking this way are many-fold, but I’ll try to describe in words how I think they’ve affected me most.

Firstly, I don’t think the problem necessarily lies with the thing we buy, but with the concept of the next thing. The better thing. The “upgrade.” When we start to think about what could be better, we lose sight of gratitude for what we have been given. We start to chase the ghost of perfection. have chased that ghost, and for far too long. There is no satisfaction in that, and no contentedness, because we’re trying to capture and bottle an ether, and finish a race with a moving finish line. We will never be finished, and we will always feel that pang, that yen, for whatever comes next.

Secondly, I think when we start to feel that way about the world, and the inanimate objects of our desires, that thinking can start to leak into how we treat people. While it may be financially expensive to do so, it is relatively easy to temporarily sate the thirst for the material. I can simply trade some of my time and money for the thing I want, and that urge is satisfied (for now). When we consider people that same way, as objects to fulfill our desires, that is when true objectification occurs. Our friends and family can become disposable in our mind’s eye.

Ultimately, I think this thirst for the material has handicapped my ability to understand what it means to be loved, and to receive love as it was intended. Love–God’s love, the love of a friend, love from family, romantic love–should be a graceful gift, given freely, and accepted with gratitude. I have been guilty of considering love as I consider any other material object: as something that I could possess and hoard. I have accepted it when convenient, and I’ve been willfully ignorant of it’s value instead of cherishing it. It was simply something that I “had,” like I have a stereo or a computer. Feeling this way–even accidentally–is perhaps my life’s greatest folly: along with attributing the disposability of worldly objects to love, I also associated the same replaceability to love. I have squandered time and love that cannot be replaced.

Another aspect to this conversation is our society’s emphasis on possessing the things we want, instead of being grateful for having been provided what we really need. There’s a reason that the Lord’s Prayer asks “Give us this day our daily bread.” Others have even argued that in the original Aramaic that Jesus spoke, the phrase played on words in a way that the intended meaning was actually something more akin to “Give us that which is necessary.” You can read about that here; I’m not going to get into it in this space, because that’s not my area of expertise. I think there’s an argument to be made that we have far, far more than we need, and that the excess we enjoy breeds pressure and greed, which begets more excess, and so on. I believe it factors greatly into our dissatisfaction.

The Gospel of John teaches us not to love worldly things, and it’s a lesson I wish I’d learned sooner. “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (John 2:15-17). On the surface, the passage is simply saying not to hold up with love the things that man has wrought. Dig deeper, though, and I think this passage points out the foolishness of loving transient things over those that will last forever. Love, for example. Hope. Forgiveness.

This passage is also apropos: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). This is deeper than I thought at first glance, as well. Originally, I thought that it was saying that my soul and God’s salvation were simply more important than worldly pursuits.  That is certainly true, but I can also read it another way. Loving the worldly, the made-by-man, and the desires of the flesh actually impairs my heart-and-soul’s ability to love and be loved. By aligning my thoughts and desires with the worldly, I cripple my ability to see beyond into the otherwordly, and to love God and my fellows.

Again this bears repeating: by chasing the ghost of worldly happiness, I have been making true joy impossible to catch. This is because it cannot be caught, it can only be accepted as a gift of grace.

I will wrap this up with a Psalm:

Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.” (Psalm 37:4-7).

Ultimately, I think a big part of the reason why I have been so unhappy and dissatisfied is that I’ve been chasing the wrong things. Even further, I think I’ve wanted to be happy about the wrong things. I wanted to be satisfied with my place in the world and within society, when I should have wanted to be rejoiceful and joyful of the Lord’s grace. If I trust in God with a heart full of gratitude, everything I need will be provided.

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