Wilderness Reflections: Be Hopeful, Not Happy

I am so thankful to feature a fellow Redbud and great editor (I must say), Amy Simpson, and her reflections on Faith, Hope, and Pretending to Be Happy.

I recently watched another film about a happy Christian family who was living the great sentimental dream until tragedy struck. Their world turned upside down, so they grieved for about ten minutes, they questioned God for one moment, and they had a big fight. Then they were touched by a sermon they heard, they remembered a Bible verse that seemed to suggest they had no reason to be sad, and everything clicked. They realized their trouble wasn’t so bad after all, and if they just quoted that verse enough times, it would overshadow their grief and recast everything in a positive perspective. So they smiled, hugged, and went back to living an easy life, relieved to discover that they were still surrounded by things that could make them feel happy. Relieved that they could still be comfortable in this world, which for a moment had looked like a planet in the grip of darkness, deception, and an appetite for destruction. Everything fell right back into place.

You’ve probably seen that movie too, about a dozen times, each time with a different title. Just like me. Oh, and I’ve also read the book.

At the end of the movie, I was supposed to feel inspired. I was supposed to feel happy—happy that the characters were feeling better. Happy that Jesus could make my problems go away too.

Instead, I felt sad. Because one of the things that really brings me down is watching people pretend to be happy. People who believe that what they hope for in this life is the best they can get. People who are too afraid to acknowledge that living in a cursed world sometimes feels like, well, a curse.

The Christian community has a systemic problem, perpetuated by much of our media. Our faith is, apparently, so weak that we hide from the truth about the world we live in, fearing that an acknowledgement of the awful truth about our world will cause our faith to collapse. Our public figures manage their images so precisely, they set a standard of happy living that the rest of us figure we can live up to. We have become purveyors of a sticky-sweet philosophical syrup that tastes great but ultimately leaves us empty. A product that makes big promises to a world of people who see right through it.

When did we start to believe that being a Christian means pretending life on this planet is better than it really is? Why are Christian stores the places where I’m most likely to see platitudes for sale: “Everything happens for a reason;” “It takes more muscles to frown than to smile;” “Smile, Jesus loves you!” And why do Christian radio stations so frequently market themselves as the “positive” choice?

“Positive” has power when it’s true. It’s crippling when it denies the truth, turns away from longing, sings louder to drown out the anguished voice of mourning. It’s naïve when it calls a cloudy day sunny. And when it calls for ribbons and bows to decorate a senseless tragedy, “positive” is downright cruel.

We are not called to be “positive” people at all costs. We are called to be hopeful. Hope doesn’t deny reality; it only denies despair. We must encourage one another—but not with platitudes, with truth. As a subculture, we have lost our courage for telling ourselves the truth. And without the truth about the world, the truth about Jesus means little.

Life is full of golden moments. It’s also full of darkness and widening cracks and protruding shards that slice into you as you pass. Denying pain doesn’t make you hurt any less; it keeps you from seeking the remedy. Pretending you’re not bleeding makes other bleeding people less likely to believe that your kind of faith might have anything to offer them.

By contrast, according to the writer of Hebrews, the earliest Christians earned credibility for their faith when they “were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised” (Hebrews 11:35-39). What makes us think comfort is the badge of a blessed Christian?

Despite our heritage of suffering, many of us are genuinely surprised when life gets really hard.  Our forebears may have had this problem as well, and their correction applies to us as well: “Don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world” (1 Peter 4:12-13). When we suffer, we need not pretend we don’t feel pain. And we need not find our joy in the moment. We can find our joy in the future, in the hope that the life Jesus promises us will be so much more fulfilling than the pain-free life on this earth that we think we want.

Of all people, Christians have the most reason to acknowledge what is true about this life because we say we believe in sin so pervasive that this world and its inhabitants will never be right without direct divine intervention. Because our hope is not in this life but in a future one. Because this world really is not our home.

We are people of hope—but our hope is not based in an absurd insistence that this world is better than it seems. Our hope is permanently planted in who God is and what Jesus has done. We have a purpose for living that goes way beyond our own happiness. And out of the depressing truth about our sin-sick world blossoms one of Jesus’ most hopeful, positive promises: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Amy Simpson is editor of Christianity Today’s Gifted for Leadership, a freelance writer, and author of numerous resources for Christian ministry, including Into the Word: How to Get the Most from Your Bible (NavPress) and the forthcoming book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and Church’s Mission (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at www.AmySimpsonOnline.com  and on Twitter @aresimpson.

2 thoughts on “Wilderness Reflections: Be Hopeful, Not Happy

  1. I really enjoyed this post. In the chapter dedicated to week 20 of My 52 Weeks of Worship (www.my52wow.com), I discuss how I am not really an optimist by nature. I too am not a big fan of fake happiness. Life is challenging…often. I much prefer to focus on hope rather than positivity. So this piece resonated with me. I have shared it with the My52WOW family as well.

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