The youth at our church are going through a series called “Happy,” on the Beatitudes. In yesterday’s message, the youth pastor asked what culture says they should chase after to find happiness. The answers weren’t surprising: Looks, relationships, money, popularity, possessions.
Not much changes between adolescence and adulthood.
It set me thinking about a couple of things. First, it occurred to me that we don’t just tell people that they will be happy once they beautify themselves skinny, meet Mr./Ms Right, and settle down in their McMansion with their 2.4 children. We also tell them that if they don’t have all that and a side salad of career power, they should actually be unhappy. It goes beyond conveying the message that having it all makes your life good, but that your life simply cannot be good unless and until you do.
The second thing I realized is that Christians are just as guilty of this.** We like to tell ourselves we aren’t. After all, aren’t we so counter-culture in our insistence that life isn’t about money, sex, and power? We’re all about Jesus! And Love! And Following God! I don’t even mean that in a self-righteous way. I mean in the sense that we define ourselves by being people who have relationship with the Living God, and what could be better than that?
It’s certainly noble. The problem is, we make the opposite mistake from “the world.” We assume that people who are “far from God” are the most unhappy, miserable people who do nothing but run after all the wrong things. We assume that people of other religions are unhappy because they are too busy making sure they follow all the rules. We assume atheists are sad because they have no hope. We assume that people who tick the “none of the above” box on the census are miserable because they have no morals. We assume that anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus is desperate to have his or her life turned around from the wicked ways of lusting after earthly pleasures.
I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of joy-filled, content non-Christians. I also know an awful lot of Christians who are unhappy, and it isn’t because they don’t have enough faith or because they are still caught up in pursuit of cultural happiness. Religion that dictates whether or not we should be happy with our lives is religion gone bad. It diminishes the real joy and the real pain that people experience.
I see why it happens. People are reluctant to frighten their friends and neighbors by telling them they will go to Hell if they don’t convert. (Not that this is bad; scaring people into faith is pretty sick.) So what can we do, if we don’t just want to turn everyone off to Christ with our fire and brimstone? Aha! We can remind them how hopeless and tragic this life is unless they know Jesus. Unfortunately, that isn’t an improvement.
We need better ways to communicate the Gospel without reducing it to a set of before-and-after pictures (either the Hell kind or the happiness kind). I suggest we start by living the way Jesus taught, pursuing love, peace, and justice. The rest will come.
*For the morbidly curious, the title of this post is a line from a Phineas and Ferb song.
**This isn’t meant as a criticism of the message the youth heard in church on Sunday.