Many Christians buy into a narrative that their religion offers about happiness, not realizing that there is a distinct and real disconnect between that narrative and the lived reality of Christians. Today we’ll talk about that narrative itself–what it is, how to recognize it, and how real it actually is.
The Happiness Narrative.
A narrative is a story that a group tells about something, one they try to enact in their everyday lives and which they believe reflects reality. It’s a sort of shorthand we use to organize and think about big emotions and concepts.
Chances are you’ve encountered many of the narratives that exist in our culture. If you’ve ever heard someone pine for their one true love to sweep in and rescue them from a bad situation, or think that they’ll feel love at first sight, or want that “white picket fence” kind of life with their partner, those are all part of a greater narrative that our culture tells about relationships. Love stories are usually expected to conform to that narrative, and the ones that don’t are viewed with great suspicion–which is why the love felt by people who don’t conform to this narrative is often seen as inferior to the love felt by the ones who do.
Judeo-Christian culture, especially in the West, has a very similar narrative about happiness. It’s a story that we tell ourselves about who gets to be happy and who doesn’t, how to become happy, what goes into the feeling, what we’ll get out of it, and how important it is to our lives. We grow up thinking that we do this, that, and the other, get happiness for our troubles, and then everything will be terrific. The pursuit of happiness becomes something one pursues for its own sake, something seen as a reward in and of itself. The idea that someone could be genuinely happy for any other reason or in any other way gets seen as deeply suspicious.
In Christianity itself, this narrative gets amplified up to 11 because happiness is supposed to be an inevitable by-product of faith in the religion’s claims as well as a reward for obedience to its demands and divine help to withstand temptation and trials. This happiness, which is the only real happiness that exists for humans, is granted by Jesus himself as a reward. That’s why Christians talk about it the way they do, with slogans like “Don’t let Satan steal your joy,” as if happiness were a resource that could be granted and taken away like coins in one’s pocket.
A sad Christian is someone whose joy has been successfully stolen by demons. Or else such a person wasn’t obedient and faithful enough to be granted happiness in the first place.
When Christians are obedient and faithful, they are rewarded with–if not giddy euphoria itself–then at least a serene contentment and deep-seated joy that can handle any of life’s setbacks and worries. Even Christians who recoil from the idea of wealth being an inevitable by-product of faith and obedience (“prosperity gospel” in a nutshell) usually buy into the idea of happiness being so. This happiness buoys them and lets them coast through all those troubles that non-Christians must endure all by themselves, bless their lil cotton socks.
It’s acceptable to want and expect happiness as well as to seek it–within limited and approved parameters. Christians think that people who seek happiness in unapproved ways not only won’t find it, but will be fooled into thinking that what they do find is the real thing. Only the type of happiness found by following the narrative is real happiness. Any non-Christians or disobedient Christians who say they’re happy are either lying or else they’ve been cruelly tricked by the Devil’s wiles into thinking that their fake happiness is as good as (if not better than) the happiness that only comes through Jesus.
This happiness narrative is largely how Christianity markets itself: “Come to us and do what we say, and you will finally find the happiness you seek. This is what you’ve been looking for but couldn’t find.” For those who feel frustrated by life’s turns, or who feel like they deserve far more than they’re getting, or who simply have a nameless yearning for something they can’t even really define, it is a seductive pitch. I’ve heard a slew of testimonies involving exactly this situation, and probably had a similar storyline in my own.
And for a while after conversion, such people may indeed feel that here, finally, they have found the happiness they have long felt denied them. That euphoria we talked about last time lifts them up and carries them on a tidal wave of goodwill, relief, and comfort. They are surrounded by people who look thrilled just to be alive and who seem to genuinely like them and want the best for them–people who are the spiritual equivalent of a room full of “After” photos for a weight-loss system. Especially in the dysfunctional communities that Christianity dominates in most of the world, one can imagine how impressive it is to the unwary to see bunches of happy-looking people who have their act together.
A pity it’s not real.
Baited and Switched.
You’ve probably heard me refer on occasion to the “Happy Christian Illusion.” I use the term as a shorthand to describe the tendency of Christians to put up a false veneer of happiness. There are many reasons why a Christian might go this route. People in the religion are keenly aware of how important it is to appear to be joyous all the time, even if they’re not really happy at all. Miserable Christians don’t sell the religion nearly as successfully, but more importantly, their tribemates are likely to think that they are doing something terribly wrong to be so afflicted.
Once the euphoria of conversion wears off, the reality that sets in might be so disappointing that these converts may deny the truth of what they’re seeing for years. I remember doing precisely this shortly after my entry into Pentecostalism. I was at a revival service (the tail end of the one that had converted me) and saw a very old man get up out of his walker/wheelchair thing and dance. I was overjoyed at the sight of my first real live miracle! But a woman near me didn’t seem impressed; she said, “Oh, he does that every revival. He’ll be right back in that walker next week.” I was downright outraged that she’d deny a real live miracle; how could she be so blasé? For that matter, why was everyone around us unimpressed? Why weren’t they giddy with joy over this sight? Even if the guy wasn’t genuinely healed forever, at least he was happy right then–wasn’t that good too? I remember a rush of disappointment, which I suppressed and ignored for years. (Yes, of course the guy really was right back in his walker the next week. Don’t be silly.)
I remember being totally confused by how many people I knew in church who were struggling with “demons of depression” and other such psychological illnesses and distress. Sometimes they’d “pray through” and “get victory” over their problems, but a week or two later they’d be “sharing their burdens” and “just asking you for your prayers” again. I was definitely among that number myself, making matters worse for my peace of mind. How could so many of us be struggling so hard to find something that we’d been taught was an automatic gimme for faithful believers? It’s not like we were asking for a million dollars or even for a total end to all troubling situations that could ever crop up. I’d have settled for peace or serenity if not outright laugh-a-minute joy. But vanishingly few of us seemed to have even that.
If one cannot have genuine happiness, then the temptation to pretend to have it becomes overwhelming. My church taught that if I pretended well enough to be happy, then maybe Jesus would see me “claiming the promise” he had made and make me happy in reality. They did the same thing around tithing, incidentally; if one tithed 10% or more even if one couldn’t afford the basic requirements of life, then Jesus would bless such a person with wealth to cover that tithe–an interesting but catastrophic form of spiritual kiting, to be sure.
Because of my old tribe’s enormous skill at pretending to be happy, it would be many years before I really came face-to-face with the shocking realization that not only was I not happy as a Christian, not only had I never really been happy as one, but I didn’t actually know any truly happy Christians, with only a few exceptions. My culture taught happiness as a core attribute of all TRUE CHRISTIANS™. I learned every single Bible study and church service that faithfulness and obedience bought me happiness. My friends, peers, and leaders all seemed happy. Every Christian I knew acted happy. But almost none of us really were even though we were doing every single thing that someone was supposed to do to become so.
Behind closed doors, we still barely even dared to hint at what we were really feeling.
The Disconnect Between Fantasy and Reality.
The reason for all this unhappiness is that Christianity doesn’t work in reality the way that Christians see it working in their mythology and folklore. The more gung-ho the Christian, the less bearing on reality their ideology has. When you swim into the right-wing fundagelical end of the pool, you’ll find yourself struggling against the muck of a thousand million bad ideas and unworkable advice that only work in a world where that kind of Christianity is true.
In a world like that, miracles happen constantly, demons and angels loom around every corner, Jesus really does meddle in people’s lives and change them for the better, Heaven and Hell are so real that Christians actually live in a way that reflects that reality, science backs up every single assertion made by Christians, prayer works, the right talking point can sway even the most skeptical heart, men are from Mars and women are from Venus, the Good Ole Days really were much better than the modern age, and everything really is as black-and-white, cut-and-dried as Christians claim it is.
But this construct I’ve described is a fictional one. It’s not reality. It’s okay to visit a fictional world in one’s imagination, even to love that world, but reality is where we live and make our homes.
That’s why Christians can’t seem to make the happiness narrative work within their lives. That’s why so many of them are miserable and have so much trouble finding the contentment and joy that their religion promises to believers. And that’s why those who leave the religion often report an immediate uptick in their happiness levels. Oh, it’s not everyone, not all the time, but enough people that it should perk up Christians’ ears to recognize just how often it happens that someone leaves their tribe and finds much greater happiness–and real happiness, not the fake ear-to-ear-vacant-Quiverfull-grin kind that one sees in so many Christians.
About their only response to hearing that someone outside their tribe is happy and content is to slam that happiness and contentment as being inferior to their own “real” emotions, or to slam the people who leave their groups for being so shallow and vain that they actually want the happiness that is these groups’ biggest marketing lure. “They just want to be entertained!” cry the disgruntled Christians who remain. “They just wanna be customers and consumers!” they huff, ignoring that that is precisely how they also market themselves.
It’d be like seeing the owners of a sub-par movie theater get angry at customers who patronize a rival chain because they want to see movies in a safer, more comfortable environment. Instead of improving their movie theater, they stay angry about the people who avoid their establishment. But you know who won’t spend time or tears over those theater owners? The people seeing movies elsewhere. It’s our right to decide what makes us happy and to pursue it in whatever way we wish as long as we don’t hurt anybody else.
Alas, Christians’ stated response to that right is to blame people for having the desire to be happy. “We’ll offer you happiness if you do what we say, but if you don’t become happy then we’ll blame you for doing something wrong even if none of us can figure out what it might be. If you leave because you’re so unhappy then we’ll blame you for that, too.”
It’s like they realize that the only hope they have of becoming an acceptable option is by convincing people to lower their standards to the point where Christians can finally meet them with their sub-par offerings.
We’re going to take up next time with why this disconnect exists, because it’s one of the major reasons why Christians (and some of us non-Christians, for that matter) can’t seem to find happiness. See you this weekend!