Sunday, August 24, 2014



In a memorable Peanuts cartoon Lucy asks Charlie Brown ‘Did you ever know anyone who was really happy?’ Before she could finish the question Snoopy the dog comes dancing into the next frame. As only Snoopy can he dances his merry way across all frames while Lucy and Charlie watch in amazement. In the last frame Lucy finishes her question: ‘Did you ever know anyone who was really happy… and was still in their right mind?’

Happiness, says the Oxford Dictionary, is the feeling of pleasure or contentment.

How to be happy? It’s one of our most important-and-urgent questions. In the United States, one of their foundational documents, the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, states that ‘we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

My life’s vocation is an exploration of the notion of happiness: its theory and practice. I’m writing a book about it; I have a little counseling practice where I talk to others about it; I preach about it. I ask myself all the time: ‘How do the happiest people get to be like that?’

One of them – Rita Backhouse - had a ‘rotten life’. Abused by an alcoholic husband, she never lost her joy. We visited her in Batehaven, NSW, and asked how she was getting on after her husband’s death a year or two beforehand. ‘Oh, when he died I lost my joy for a couple of weeks, but after that God gave me the gift of joy again!’

The most-admired people on the planet – Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dom Helder Camara, Dietrich Bonhoeffer  – lived in close quarters with terrible suffering and evil. What was their secret?

† Dietrich Bonhoeffer was locked up for months in a dark Nazi prison and just before the second World War ended, he was led out by the guards to be executed. His face was shining with joy which surprised his executioners.

How do people get to be like that?

It has something to do with the distinction between happiness and serenity or joy.


I asked my Facebook friends to share their insights/secrets about the relationship between happiness and joy. Here’s some of this wisdom, together with snippets from my files:

† Westminster Shorter Catechism: ‘Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever!’

† Reality-check: as one pastor noted: ‘I look at the faces in the church; many of them are anything but joyful: some of them are set so grimly that to smile would cause permanent injury. The same careworn looks, the hard hostility, the dreadful anxieties crease their faces just as much when they leave worship as when they entered…As the Puritan Thomas Watson put it: “The two most difficult things to do: make the wicked sad and the godly joyful.” But in worship we are not mourning a defeat but celebrating a victory; the ‘eucharist’ is a thankful/joyful celebration.’

† Haydn the composer, when asked why his church music was so cheerful, said ‘I cannot make it otherwise. When I think of God my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap from my pen!’

† ‘Happiness is what I feel when I’m close to my own soul, joy is what I feel when I’m close to God.’

† Temperament: some may be born with ‘nice genes’ [1]. Joy and pain can exist side by side (but those of us whose lives are relatively pain-free mustn’t judge those for whom their pain is intolerable).

† Be wary of cheap evangelism offers a trouble-free Christianity: ‘Come to Christ and all your problems will be solved’. Jesus rather offers constant trouble, and his gift of constant joy, because of his constant presence…

† Those who try hardest to be happy are often the most miserable. Real happiness is a by-product of doing worthwhile or enjoyable activities…

† Joy is a gift: surrender, and receive it!

† Think about who’s made his home in your life: ‘Joy is a flag flown high from the castle of my heart ‘cos the King is in residence there!’

† ‘Happiness happens but joy abides, in the heart that is stayed on Jesus’.

† Deep lasting joy is a by-product of a clean, selfless life; it’s not an end in itself. C S Lewis (Surprised by Joy) says a self-centred life which rotates around itself is evil at the core… The more you give yourself away the more you receive; only the one who dies will live. Joy is a corollary of devoting ourselves to others. Michel Quoist: ‘Your joy will begin at precisely the moment you abandon the search for your own personal happiness and seek the happiness of others’. Stop taking yourself so seriously! Get your ego out of the way and connect back to kindness. ‘Compassion is feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.’ ~ Frederick Buechner.

† George Bernard Shaw: ‘True joy in life is in being used for a purpose recognized as a mighty one… being a force for change instead of a feverish selfish little clod of grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.’

† Joyful people forgive everyone for everything: Anger and joy don’t mix.

† ‘The darkest night has stars in it; and the Christian is someone who sees the stars rather than the darkness.’  

† ‘Life is NOT “supposed to be fair” so accept life – all of it - with gratitude.’ George Matheson: ‘O joy that seekest me through pain’.  Joy is not simply ‘pleasure’ or ‘fun’ or the absence of pain.  

† In Byron Katie’s A Thousand Names for Joy, she shares this mantra: “I am a lover of what is.”

† Do you have someone who loves you, and listens both to you and to God at the same time?

† A wise psychiatrist-friend: ‘Don’t let what describes you define you’

† The sayings of joyful people? (Eg. ‘There are people worse off than I am’)

† God has forgiven you – let no one accuse you, not even  yourself!

† A ‘disabled/differently abled’ child often brings real joy to a family: why is that?

† Live serendipitously. Jesus encouraged us to ‘Look at the birds! God cares for them!’ (Matthew 6:26). Charles Hartshorne (a philosopher who offered 16 proofs for the existence of God, and was an ornithologist) reminds us that ‘Some birds, like some people, sing for the pure joy of it’. ‘God enjoys the happiness of all of his creatures!’ (Our little dog, Charlie, a ‘cavoodle’ - cavalier poodle - is a daily gift of joy to us. And this week, on a beautiful day while seated with a friend next to a forest trail near our home, a little three-year-old girl – Abbie - with her mum stopped to talk to us. Delightful!).

† And many more… 

These concepts or ideas might be beautifully descriptive, but they don’t quite get to the basic explanation of the difference between happiness and joy.

Here’s where the Christian saints and mystics, beginning with Jesus and Paul, help us:

†  Our notions of happiness are about collecting ‘stuff’ (money, accolades/ respect, experiences, power, health, answers to tough questions – you make up your own list for a talk with your spiritual advisor). It’s about ‘addition’ of ‘goodies’… Happiness is something we obtain for a price (holiday, what advertisers sell you, something in a bottle – liquid or pills, whatever’s in your bank account…)

†  But joy is what a true Christ-follower has when all the stuff is taken away… It’s about ‘subtraction’.

† Jesus’ Beatitudes: Blessed (or as William Barclay translates it,  ‘Oh the sheer joy of those who’) are the poor in spirit, those who mourn (really?), the meek… Can Jesus be serious? In the Upper Room (John 16:22) Jesus says to his friends: ‘These things have I spoken to you that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be full. No one can take your joy from you’.

The backdrop to this joy? In Job 38:7 the Creator speaks to Job about a time when ‘the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy!’. The New Testament is one of the most joyous collections of writings in the world. It opens with joy at the birth of Jesus and ends with angels singing ‘Hallelujah!’ The notes of joy are everywhere - eg. in the jail at Philippi Paul is singing hymns! And later to the Christians in that city, he writes a letter about joy. Even though Paul had a serious temperament, sometimes didn’t enjoy good health, and endured beatings/stoning/ shipwrecks etc. he encourages his friends to ‘Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!’.

In Philippians Paul bares his soul to his friends and offers the secret of his life and ministry, what motivated him. [2]


Could you put your hand on your heart - without crossing your fingers - and say the same thing? 'For me to live is... ' What? Football? Bird-watching (!) ???

Paul mentions Christ by name more than 50 times in this short letter.

In this opening chapter he tells us about three severe tests he's been subjected to - but not one of them destroyed his faith in Christ.

[1] IMPRISONMENT: THE LOSS OF HIS FREEDOM. It's probably in Rome, if you check Luke's story at the end of Acts. He's under house arrest this time, handcuffed - 'in chains' - to a Roman soldier on each side of him. He actually welcomed this imprisonment: it turned out to benefit his mission, to 'advance the gospel'. 'My imprisonment is for Christ' he says. In 1:12-14 he notes that successive shifts of the Imperial Guard are audiences for his evangelism! It's OK to lose his freedom if the Gospel - the Good News - is preached. 

Now most people incarcerated in prisons are preoccupied with the possibility of escape. Not Paul.

[2] SLANDER: THE LOSS OF HIS REPUTATION.  1:15-18: Some fellow-preachers out there are motivated by goodwill; but others seek to humiliate Paul. These are not 'false teachers' - Paul mentions elsewhere his problem with them - but some who are preaching the true Christ, but from bad motives. They are jealous of Paul's apostolic authority and success, and wanted to recruit Paul's followers to follow them.​​

Slander is a painful experience... How does Paul respond? He 'rejoiced'! 'Whether Christ is preached out of false motives or true, in that I rejoice!' (1:18). The most important factor here for Paul is that the Good News is still being proclaimed. He's willing to suffer the various humiliations that come his way if that's happening!

[3] EXECUTION/DEATH: THE LOSS OF HIS LIFE. Paul was waiting in Rome for Nero to hear his case. Eventually he did stand before this cruel Emperor, who had no commitment to true justice. In 1:23 he says he's in a quandary: 'I have a desire to depart - to die - and be with Christ: that is far better; but on the other hand I want to live, to serve you all' [1:24]. How does one arrive at that amazing position? The secret is back in verse 20: 'I want Christ to be exalted/magnified/ honoured... whether I live or die'. Most people throughout history would do anything to get a reprieve from death.

So: Freedom, Reputation, Life itself - Paul is in danger of losing all three. How do we cope with these possibilities? We who are basically self-centred enjoy our freedom; we cherish the praise of others; we want to live a long life... Perhaps our motto is: 'For me to live is ME!' But for this great saint, WHAT REALLY MATTERS is that for him to live is Christ. He's willing to suffer any deprivation, any humiliation, even a threat to life itself - even execution...

What is your aim in life? 'To get to the top?' Why? How do you plan to do that? 

In silent prayer, let us ask ourselves 'What am I living for?' 

May we ask for the commitment/grace to say every day 'For me to live is Christ!'  

​[2] Notes adapted from a sermon preached at All Souls Langham Place, London, by Rev. John Stott, 29/07/1990 (audio 904

Rowland Croucher
August 2014


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