The Myth of the Always-Happy Christian

I had a friend once with a great smile. Her smile completely transformed her face, showing genuine joy in every feature.

She told me that her happiness was the occasion for many conversations about Jesus. People would observe her near-constant smile and ask her why she was so happy. And she would mention the joy the Lord brought to her life.

The idea of joy-as-Christian-testimony was powerful and pervasive, at least in my circles in the late 1990s. Jesus makes us happy, after all, and that happiness can point others to him.

I never heard much about other emotions, however. The implied message was that we don’t think sadness, grief, or even middle-of-the-road okayness are, well, okay. When Christians think the best or only way to bear testimony to the world is to be constantly smiling, sadness feels like failure. And that creates a culture in which we hide and suppress sadness and end up with little ability to process the harder, painful, very real emotions that come along with normal life under the sun.

Emotional Discipleship

Not all learning is academic, and not all discipleship is doctrinal. Growing as a disciple of Jesus means walking in his ways. This surely includes knowledge about God, salvation, the church, and the future. But Jesus was a full man, not just a teacher. We have not been redeemed and called by a systematic theology textbook.

I was recently listening to Mike Cosper interview Tish Harrison Warren on an episode of the Cultivated podcast. They were discussing Warren’s new book, Prayer in the Night, just released in January. It was a stimulating, thoughtful conversation. (Note: I have not yet read this book.)

In the course of the interview, Cosper talked about seeing some of his friends in ministry crushed by disappointment and sadness. These friends had been discipled in one way, but they lacked what he called “emotional discipleship.” They didn’t have a way to handle or process suffering, tragedy, or even their own sin.

That rang true. I have studied the Bible a lot and learned a good deal of theology. But I have not heard or thought much about growing in the way my emotional life glorifies God.

Recovering Lament

Part of growing in our emotional maturity will be learning to process grief and sorrow, sin and sadness. Toward this end, I’ve been learning about the Christian practice of lament. (One very helpful resource for me has been Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy.)

Modern Christians generally avoid lament because it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Those within the church are more likely to try to find the bright side of a tragedy than to enter into mourning with a friend. We look for a deeper meanings, we assure the one who is suffering that things will get better, we ask, What is God teaching you through this?

As I learn more about lament, I see the need for Christians to embrace tension, to not be so obsessed with resolving the chord. (Vroegop calls lament “a minor key language for suffering,” which seems about right.) The goodness of God and the sadness of life can feel like giant waves colliding in the sea, and while we want quiet waters, smoothing over all turbulence as quickly as possible is not a healthy pursuit.

Yes, in the end—at the end of the age—all will be put right. But all is not right now, and it is okay to feel and confess that. Jesus did this very thing! The Psalms also are filled with lament, some of which were on Jesus’ lips in his final hours.

We may not always have answers, but we do have God. This is not an attempt to sneak in a silver lining. If we embrace the reality of God’s presence with his people—not as a magic elixir which eliminates all sorrow, but as a comfort and help and sign of love in the midst of sorrow—we may have a start on emotional discipleship.

Because we know the One who holds all things, and because we know he is loving and good, we have hope. And because we have hope, we can learn to grieve and to weep with those who weep.

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3 thoughts on “The Myth of the Always-Happy Christian

  1. Good word, Ryan. Kate Bowler’s book Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) is great on this subject also. She is a church historian who was diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35, and she writes interestingly about how the church has no language to deal with suffering that doesn’t have a bright side or an evident, immediate positive outcome. She connects this with a larger theological issue in the American church, a kind of prosperity gospel that defines blessing as the absence of pain or need.

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