Why Are Christians Bitter and Unhappy?
In the opening chapter of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck lives with Miss Watson, a Christian spinster. She takes a dim view of Huck’s fun-loving spirit and threatens Huck with the fires of Hell. She speaks of Heaven as a place everyone should want to go, but Huck sees it this way:
She went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. . . . I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.[i]
It wasn’t only an unhappy Heaven that Miss Watson projected. It was an unhappy present life, full of obligation and self-inflicted misery. And although she may not have made such a claim out loud, the clear subtext is that if God is the author of a Christian life that’s unhappy, God himself must be unhappy too.
Had Huck seen in Miss Watson a deep, cheerful affection for Jesus and consequent grace that overflowed toward him and Tom and others, perhaps he would have also seen Christ, the church, and Heaven as attractive.
Huck’s view of God reflected that of author Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain.[ii] I wonder if anyone told Clemens that the God he saw as so stern and humorless was, yes, a holy God, but he was also a happy God who invented playfulness, fun, laughter, and whitewash—and was the source of Twain’s wit and humor.
Sadly, the same perceptions exist today. Many non-Christian young adults view Christ’s followers as “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental.”[iii] These words all describe unhappy people. (If the world judges us, so be it, but it shouldn’t be because we’re chronically unhappy.)
Unfortunately, the world’s characterization of unhappy believers is too often correct. I see too many long-faced Christians who seem continuously angry, disillusioned, and defensive over politics and the infringement of their rights.
Francis de Sales, the bishop of Geneva (1567–1622), said, “I cannot understand why those who have given themselves up to God and his goodness are not always cheerful; for what possible happiness can be equal to that? No accidents or imperfections which may happen ought to have power to trouble them, or to hinder their looking upward.”[iv]
One explanation for our cheerlessness is simple: many of God’s people don’t believe that the Christ we serve is cheerful.
If we see God as happy, suddenly the command for us to “find your joy in him at all times” (Philippians 4:4, Phillips) makes sense. God is saying, in essence, “Be as I am.” Paralleling “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, NIV), the answer to the question “Why should God’s children be happy?” is “Because our Father is happy.”
By studying and understanding what Scripture says about God’s happiness and ours, and letting those truths spill over into our lives, I believe we can reverse this trend. Then, even when we’re dealing with tough issues, both personally and in our culture, we can do so with a smile, and a sense of peace and pleasure in Christ. That doesn’t mean we back away from clearly sharing God’s revealed words, but it does mean that we do it with a spirit of grace and truth, seeking to be like Jesus (John 1:14).
Joy and laughter should be the church’s norm, not the exception. And no, I’m not talking about pasting on a false smile in the midst of heartache. The Bible doesn’t back away from but addresses the realities of life in a world under the curse. The Apostle Paul himself said he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Sorrow and joy can and do coexist, for now. (Note that the “always” in this verse is applied to rejoicing, not being sorrowful.)
If we constantly focus on all that’s wrong with the world, then sorrow or anger will be our default. But the apostle Paul, writing from prison in Rome, calls on us to rejoice in the Lord not periodically, but always.
It’s not insensitive, unkind, or wrong to be happy. By being happy in Christ, we lay claim to the fact that God is bigger than the Fall and affirm that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will reverse the Curse and reign over a new universe. Our happiness shouts that our happy God is present with us and at work in the world every minute of every hour of every day. The narrower our view of God’s presence in this world—and in our daily lives—the less happiness we’ll experience.
Parents repeat instructions to children because kids tend to miss it the first time. Hence Paul said, “Again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). He wanted to make sure we’d get it. Synonyms for happiness appear repeatedly throughout Scripture. If God says it enough, shouldn’t we get it? Still, most of us have failed to notice the cumulative force of the biblical revelation that we are to be consistently happy in God.
Happiness in Christ is one of our most powerful evangelistic tools. People are drawn to Christ when they see true happiness in his followers and are pushed away when they see us chronically unhappy.
John Piper says, “If you ask me, ‘Doesn’t the world need to see Christians as happy in order to know the truth of our faith and be drawn to the great Savior?’ my answer is ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ And they need to see that our happiness is the indomitable work of Christ in the midst of our sorrow.”[v]
[i] Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1996), 6.
[ii] See Samuel Clemens, “Letter to Olivia Clemens,” July 17, 1889; Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 186–87; Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912), 412–13.
[iii] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 27.
[iv] Francis de Sales, “Spiritual Life,” Christian Register, December 28, 1916.