How to be Happy
“Thy city, which is so full of envy that its sack runneth over,
Held me in brighter days. Ye citizens
Were wont to name me Ciacco. For the sin
Of gluttony, damned vice, batters me beneath this rain,
E’en as thou seest, I with fatigue am worn:
And I am not the only one: all these
Have by like crime incurr’d like punishment.”
Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto Six
Today I have been thinking a lot about the many things that make us unhappy. To speak in broad, general terms our unhappiness most often comes from not getting what we want, or being in a situation we don’t like. From that line of thought, I began to explore the ways that we can get ourselves into those situations. How do we get ourselves into trouble, whether it be discontentment, anger towards a brother or sister, trouble with the law, our finances, marriages, whatever?
Virtually every form of sin that we can find ourselves involved in, from the most benign white lie to the deepest depth of depravity to which our hearts and minds can sink, stem from the same source: self-centeredness. Lying, stealing, cheating, jealousy, covetousness, eating disorders, gluttony, drugs, lust, addictions of all kinds are the result of an inability (or unwillingness) to deny ourselves immediate gratification. Biblical Christianity though, teaches us that denying ourselves is exactly what we should do. The crazy thing is that as we become disciplined to do this, something paradoxical to humanistic thinking happens. Our hearts change and we become happier. So how do we do it? Well, luckily for us, the Bible gives us lots of good advice and examples, and a simple solution. The bad new is, it isn’t easy to do in this narcissistic, vain, serve me, entertain me now culture. The answer? Think of others first. Philippians 2:3 says “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility esteem others better than yourselves.” Part of the sanctification process is learning through practice to serve others unselfishly. It is difficult and requires focus and determination until our hearts change. Once our hearts change it becomes second-nature. Luke 10:25-37 is a familiar passage that shows us the practical application of this type of thinking. Colossions 3:1-17 is also a beautiful narrative of the “hows” of Christian living. What I love about this passage is that it not only gives us the “don’t dos,” it also gives us the “dos.”
David demonstrated an understanding of the concept of denying immediate gratification when he had the opportunity to kill Saul and become king. David was not perfect, by any means, and he did not always deny himself what he desired. His humanness is what makes him one of my favorite Bible characters. He had his share of foul-ups, but he sought God, sought repentance, learned from his mistakes, and pressed on.
Obviously, the longer we practice this, the better we will become at it. If you follow this through to its logical conclusion, you can then deduce that the better we get at it, the happier we will be.
Now consider this… I think I can say with certainty that those of us who are parents want better things for our kids than we had or have for ourselves. Hopefully this is not limited to education, careers, and material things, but also their spiritual health and true happiness and peace. If that is true, we have to teach them the idea of denying themselves at an early age, so it will flow from their hearts when they get out on their own. Children who are of the grammar age need high levels of structure and routine from their parents and their teachers. It is a biblical mandate. Not because God is a control freak, but because he wants us to be happy, and he knows what it will take. When they are young, kids need lots of rules. They need to hear “no”. They need to be accustomed to seeking the approval of those who are in authority over them. They need to walk in straight lines in school, say “yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am”. This flies in the face of my formal education and training in the field of psychology, but most things that I know now, and that are biblical do. Pop psychology tells us that children need to be able to feel like they are in control. They need to make their own choices and be able to control their own destiny. Blaaauuch! (I just threw up in my mouth a little as I typed that.) Too many parents, especially dads, abdicate their responsibilities in taking every opportunity to teach and instruct their kids in the way should think and act biblically. I see so many dads walking around two steps behind the rest of the family as the kid whines, throws a fit, annoys other people, behaves disrespectfully, and generally acts as if he is an anarchist in charge in the family, while the dad looks like he is in some defeated state of trance. You know exactly what I am talking about. Later we wonder why the kid turns out to be such a rotten teenager. It isn’t that the kid changed, it’s that they didn’t change.
We need to teach our kids the act of denying themselves when they are young, so that we can slowly grant them more independence when they get to be 16 or 17 years old, and know that they are internalizing the biblical teaching we have given to them. It is not easy work, but is the work that will result in a life of peace and freedom from the enslaving power of sin and the resulting despair.