Unhappy, even depressed Christians are surprisingly common. Believing in God, praying and walking with Jesus doesn’t guarantee happiness. In fact, Christians who believe God will answer their prayers the way they want are even unhappier than unbelievers! Why? Because they’re disappointed when God doesn’t give them what they want.
When I wrote How to Be Happy Even Though You’re Childless I didn’t realize how much of my joy is a gift from God. I tried to encourage unhappy women to change their thought patterns, get healthier physically, and be grateful for the good things in life. I knew that believing in and following Jesus didn’t guarantee happy Christian living, but I did think believers could change how they live, get healthy, and perhaps even blossom into who God created them to be.
I was wrong. The more I learn about Christian living, following Jesus, listening to the Holy Spirit and reading Scripture, the less I know about “how to be a happy Christian.” And, the more Christians I talk to, the more I realize how futile and hopeless it is to chase happiness.
So how do unhappy, depressed Christians experience the joy of the Lord, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and the wonder of Jesus? Not to mention peace, love, compassion, joy, forgiveness and grace. Here are three ways: 1) Recognize the difference between happiness and joy; 2) Learn who God is in the Old Testament; and 3) Ask for a change of heart.
You’re a Christian, So Why Aren’t You Happy?
This blog post is part of my She Blossoms Through the Bible project; I’m writing an article for every chapter in every book of Scripture. Today we’re immersed in Exodus 33; Moses and God are debating the pros and cons of God’s presence accompanying them to the Promised Land.
The Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf while Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and nights. The people were anxious, worried and maybe even bored. They didn’t trust God’s timing because they were confused and scared. The Israelites weren’t happy (neither were they Christian), so they tried to create their own source of happiness and blessing. They made a huge mistake. Sad face for them, but at least we can learn from their pain, grief, and regret.
1. Happy versus joyful Christians
“The Lord spoke to Moses: “Go up from here, you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: I will give it to your offspring. I will send an angel ahead of you and will drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hethites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up with you because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise, I might destroy you on the way.” When the people heard this bad news, they mourned and didn’t put on their jewelry.” – Exodus 33:1-4. Why did the Israelites mourn? Why weren’t they happy that God was providing them with an angel to lead them to the Promised Land? They didn’t even have to fight people to get the land — and it was flowing with milk and honey! The Israelites weren’t happy because their attempts to chase short-term happiness by worshiping the golden calf destroyed their chances for long-term joy, peace and fulfillment.
Happiness comes from a temporary experience, possession, place or person. Joy is deeper and more meaningful — it’s a deep feeling of meaning, fullness and love in your soul. Happy Christians feel the “joy of the Lord” when the Holy Spirit reveals the beauty of Jesus Christ in the world. For example, I feel temporarily happy when I savor fresh ripe mango, a big bowl of hot salty popcorn, or even a soft boiled egg on a rice cake with ketchup and sauerkraut (my favorite breakfast!). But I feel joy when I’m walking outside at 5 a.m. before the sun rises, while the stars are still out, feeling God’s presence and receiving wisdom from the Holy Spirit. Yesterday I saw a shooting star! The whole experience of being with God is joy.
2. Learn who God is in the Old Testament
I’ve been wrestling with two verses in Exodus 33: “The Lord would speak with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend, then Moses would return to the camp” (verse 11) and “You cannot see my face, for humans cannot see me and live” (verse 19). Don’t those two verses contradict each other? I know there is something deep and meaningful there, but I haven’t taken the time to research what “face to face” means in verse 11 and what “my face” means in verse 19. It’s possible that two different Hebrew words mean “face” in English, which may explain the contradiction. It’s also possible that Moses’ relationship with God changed, or that “face to face” isn’t a literal description of their time together. I don’t know…and that’s why I am not a happy Christian when I think of those two verses. Nor am I joyful.
Take time to learn for yourself who God is in the Hebrew Scriptures. Many Christians focus on Jesus and the gospels in the New Testament — after all, it is a happy place to be! Forgiveness, love, childlike faith, joy, grace, miracles, healing…Jesus is just amazing. And let’s not forget the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit (Ruach in Hebrew) came alive for all believers after Jesus’ death. This fact alone should make us happy Christians, feeling the joy of the Lord because Ruach constantly reveals the beauty of Jesus Christ in the world. We just haven’t trained our eyes to see Him. We don’t know how God related to His people in the Old Testament, and how deeply He loves us. If you’re an unhappy Christian, make time to read the Old Testament and learn who God is. Look for evidence of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in books like Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Jonah and Obadiah.
3. Ask the Holy Spirit to change your heart
Exodus 33:17 says, “The Lord answered Moses, “I will do this very thing you have asked, for you have found favor with me, and I know you by name.” God first said He would not accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land because He was so angry (and hurt, and betrayed, and grieved) that they had so little faith. The Israelites didn’t trust God, they didn’t remember how He brought them out of Egypt, they didn’t have faith in His plans for their future. God appeared to have changed His mind in Exodus 33; He said He would go with the Israelites to the Promised Land after all. Whether or not God actually changed His mind is not as important as the fact that He wants us — Christian believers today — to see who He is and how He relates to His people. He wants to dwell with us, to know us and be know. This is a miracle! It’s amazing, that the God who created the universe wants to have a personal relationship with each one of us.
Being a “happy Christian” is less important than having a relationship with God. God is real. He has emotions, thoughts, plans and desires for you. He knows your past, and He knows where you are right now. The proof that He wants to know you is in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit; those persons are your entryway into the heart of God. But before you can truly, deeply know and feel the joy of the Lord you have to commit to learning who He is. You need to listen to His call, and ask the Holy Spirit to change your heart. You need to stop focusing on “how to be a happy Christian” and keep your eyes fixed on God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Look up, and return God’s gaze. He wants far more for you than to be a happy Christian. He wants you to experience His joy — and that only happens when you invite the Holy Spirit into your mind, body, heart and soul. You will feel the joy of the Lord if you keep your heart and spirit open to the Holy Spirit. Let Him reveal the beauty of Jesus Christ in the world around you. Let Him fill you with the joy, peace, love, compassion and hope that surpasses all understanding.
With His love,
P.S. If you’re an unhappy follower of Jesus Christ who wants more joy, peace and love, read 7 Ways to Stop Being Such a Critical Christian.