by Michael Gallup
The summer of 2004 found me on the journey many of my generation have found themselves on, I was trying to “find myself.” More specifically I was trying to find happiness. I had been diagnosed with depression and placed on medication. While I found some relief in my meds, the depression still placed heavy chains around me.
So in a quest to figure out why I was so sad, I spent the summer engaging in the places, people, and things that had brought me the most happiness in my short life. I built docks with my dad and brother on the coast of South Carolina, I visited my mom in the Ozarks of Arkansas, I traveled across the country following my favorite band at the time, and I spent time with my friends. Each time I would taste the once distant happiness but each time the overwhelming feeling of emptiness would return, but I kept looking.
Amazingly enough I found some semblance of an answer at the end of that summer. In a bit of what seemed like an epiphany I realized that what made me happy most was to make others happy. After the elation of that discovery wore off I was sobered with the striking truth of the fleeting nature of happiness and thus my depression intensified. What made me fleetingly happy was to make others fleetingly happy. It all seemed to be such a waste.
Thankfully this was not the end of my story, I would later realize that much more important to me than happiness was love and that what most fulfilled me was the empting of myself in love for others. This has become the mission of my life: to love. Somehow I was given to grace to move beyond what made me happy to what I loved, yet I am not so sure that the church has embraced this grace fully yet.
I mentioned last week that I found myself in a similar place recently to that of my depression six years ago. I knew that joy, a fruit of the blessed Spirit, was supposed to be a defining marker of my faith and yet I felt just as sad now as I did those few years prior. What was wrong with me?
I began to ask God some hard questions about who He is and who I am and what joy really is. But before God could show me what joy was, he had to show me what it isn’t.
Joy is not happiness.
This came as a shock to me; the words were practically synonymous in my vocabulary, totally interchangeable. But I was wrong, these are two rather different words and the first steps towards freedom for me was to accept this.
Accepting that happiness is not the marker of our faith is a hard pill to swallow. It is core to who we are as Americans, after all the pursuit of happiness is one of our unalienable rights. Yet the pursuit of my happiness had left me wanting, even more depressed than when I started.
This myth has infected our churches. When trying to find a new church home I would often leave feeling dirty because everyone was so “happy” and I was not. One of my close friends recently visited TNC and remarked that he liked the visit mainly because we were not “happy-clappy.” I took this as a compliment. For some reason, we have come to think that to be Christian means to be happy and this is not honest and ultimately, I think, not Christian. Being happy is not bad in itself but the pursuit of happiness is a pursuit away from joy, away from truth.
Happiness is purely circumstantial; it has little lasting power and is often self-serving. My desire to know joy was misguided because I was trying to find it in the wrong places.
But where was I supposed to look? The answer to that question was the most shocking revelation yet. God was beginning to teach me the hard lesson that I could find joy even my most sad moments that those places of my deepest hurt may end up being the very place of my greatest joy. How could this be?
Michael is a student at Denver Seminary. This is part two of a five part series asking hard questions about the nature of joy. You can read Michael’s blog, A Sprig of Hope, by clicking here: www.asprigofhope.blogspot.com