Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Don't Worry, Be Happy

We've all heard the quote (or some version of it) by Abraham Lincoln,

“People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.” 

When I think about that quote, I realize how very true it is.  We all have things in our lives that could give us reason to be unhappy, discontent, or anxious.  No one has a perfect life, even if it appears to be true on the surface.  When I think about the people I know who are truly happy, I realize that they understand from where true joy derives.  I also know their joy doesn't stem from being handed a perfect life, and from having all their needs and desires met.  It sure isn't because they have perfect friend and family relationships. Quite the contrary.  Most of the happiest people I know have had or do have some pretty large struggles in their lives.  So why do some people seem to be able to stroll through life with a smile regardless of personal circumstances, and others can't seem to be happy even when their load isn't really that heavy?  It boils down to one thing--choice.

The definition of the word, "choice," taken from the online Merriam-Webster dictionary is: An act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.  So when we choose to be happy, it is a literal action.  Action requires doing something.  It demands a purposeful, thoughtful decision to select "happiness" over unhappiness, worry, or some other less-than-joyful trait.  It is interesting that the end of this definition says, "when faced with two or more possibilities."  We can certainly pick a lot of other things to rule our attitudes and lives in lieu of happiness and joy.  We can choose bitterness, guilt, resentment, anger, doubt, hatred, jealousy, sadness, shame, fear, worry, anxiety, pride, selfishness, apathy, addictions, and the list goes on.  But if we want to be truly happy, we have to mindfully select it. If our joy and happiness are derivative of the stuff in our lives or the way others treat us, we'll never be joyful.  Those things only bring temporary happiness, not true joy.  People and life are not constants.  Just when we think things are going our way, it shifts. So real joy is a daily decision and mindset, and it is up to us and us alone to choose it regardless of the circumstances we face.

Do I believe choosing joy or happiness is easy?  Absolutely not.  I think it is one of the hardest things we are ever challenged by God's Word to do.  Why is it so difficult?  There are too many reasons to list them all.  One simple reason is that life is tough.  God's Word tells us it will be tough (John 16:33).  But I also believe one reason it is hard to choose joyfulness is that we live in a spoiled, entitled society. As selfless as we may try to be, it is just our nature to be selfish and expect only the best in our lives.  We all have this predisposition and tendency to think we deserve only good things.  I don't know anyone who loves and enjoys trials and hardships. So when tribulations come, we don't like it and we don't always deal with it well.  

Another reason I believe that choosing joy or happiness is so hard for us is that we don't trust God.  I have no idea how those who don't know God are even getting out of bed in the morning, let alone smiling at all.  Many of them aren't.  I happen to believe that anyone who doesn't know God, yet professes to be "happy," actually possesses the temporary, superficial kind of happiness--the kind of happiness founded in living a good life or being fortunate enough to have mostly good things in your life.  But we know from God's Word that this isn't real joy.  Real joy is deep-seated happiness founded in Christ and it is not determined by circumstance.  It is based on the unwavering freedom and peace found only in knowing Christ and the power of His salvation and resurrection.  It is selfless, unfaltering, and ever-present even in times of great difficulty.  But even those of us who do know Christ falter at times in possessing real joy.  We struggle to give God full control of our lives and to live by faith through the power of His Word and His Spirit.  We war with ourselves in trusting that He means what He says in Matthew 6:25-34, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will He not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.This passage tells us that it does us no good to worry and that God will provide for us.  We all know this but we still worry.  Why?  It's simple--we don't always believe God.  We don't always cling to the truth of His Words to us.  We just don't trust that He will take care of all our burdens in due time, and that He will give us the grace and strength to endure them until He does.  I believe this is the foundational issue with worry.  Essentially, we are calling God a liar when we worry and doubt His promises to us.  Or perhaps, we just don't have the strength at the time to be willing to go through a season of hardship, and so instead we fret and stew with no profit.  Either way, we aren't trusting God.

Let me tell you, friends, I can sure speak to the topic of worry.  I confess to you that it is probably my greatest sin.  I could be a professional worrier.  If you could make money at it, I'd be a rich woman--very rich.  If I wrote a blog just listing out all the things about which I have worried, do worry, and am tempted to worry, we would have a record lengthy blog-post on our hands (and you know how prolific that could be)!  I will spare you every grimy detail, but I have fretted about things as small as, "will I have time for my run today," and, "how the heck did I gain four pounds over the weekend," to things as large as, "will I be alone in my old age," and, "I pray I never have to bury my only child." The list of what we could worry about is just ridiculous.  When I realize how little control I truly have over my life, it becomes very easy to relinquish all control and give it over to God.  We all have to do this daily or choosing happiness will be pretty tough.  We might as well do it because worrying gets us nowhere.  Plus, it is only a matter of time before reality hits and we realize that we aren't really in control of the big things or the little things in this life.  We are only stewards or managers of our lives.  God is King.

One of the Associate Pastors of my church, Pastor Hunter Ruch, recently preached a sermon on anxiety and worry.  He said, "When we are anxious, we are advertising that God is not good, loving, and trustworthy."  This hit me like a ton of bricks because I'd never heard this before, and...well, he's right.  If we believe that God is Who He says He is, we have no choice but to trust Him and be happy in our lives knowing He has our best interests in mind, regardless of where we are today.  God knows our needs, He hears us when we cry out to Him, and He is the reason any of us are living and breathing.  If I believe and trust that God is love, that He is good, and that He is trustworthy, my life should reflect that.  When I'm bound up in worry it does not reflect it. 

As Americans, most of us really have no excuse for being unhappy.  If children living on the streets in India without parents, shelter, and food can smile at missionaries who snap their photos for charitable organization ads, then what are we frowning about?  More than that, as Christians we have no excuse for being unhappy or joyless.  Studies show that Christians by and large live happier, healthier lives.  This should speak volumes to the outside world that the reason for our health and happiness is Christ.  He is the One from Whom we are named ("Christ"-ian), and He is the reason for our joy and peace.  Christians should be better able to handle stresses and trials in life.  If we aren't, there's a serious problem and disconnect between our theology and our belief in it.  If our mission is to be a light to the world, we sure can't do that when we are frowning, complaining, and doubting God.  Another believer once said to me, "If you'd stop smiling every five seconds you wouldn't have so many wrinkles."  Well, this is true--and thanks for noticing.  But I'm not on this planet to be wrinkle-free.  I'm here to spread joy and light to others for the cause of Christ.  So in my view, let the laugh-lines keep on comin'!  As believers, we better have more laugh lines than frown lines.

This notion of Christians being better suited for life's trials is exceptionally convicting to a well-groomed worrier such as me.  It beckons me to my knees to say to God how ashamed and sorry I am for doubting Him, and in so doing, being a horrible witness to His character, provision, and faithfulness.  My lack of faith at times is flat inexcusable.  I have read God's Word enough to know better than to slip into this mentality of doubt.  And when I think about all God has done for me and all He has brought me through, I have no excuse to live a life of disbelief.  But I praise Him for His love and mercy to me in this weakness of mine.  He knows my control-freak tendency, which is essentially one of the underlying traits of a worrier.  We are most tempted to worry when we aren't in control.  Another trait of worriers is fear.  When we lack faith and trust in God, it doesn't take long for fear, anxiety, doubt, and self-absorption to creep into our lives, among other ugly traits.  But we know that all sins are a slippery-slopeWhen we battle any particular sin, chances are we battle several with it simultaneously.  This is why we have to choose daily to avoid the slippery slope. 

That said, in my quest for choosing happiness, I have to first choose to trust God.  If you have never met God and don't know Him, I would urge you to do this first.  God is there waiting for you.  He is one prayer away.  He desires to know you as His child.  He wants your belief and trust in Him for the salvation He gives freely for your sins through His Son's death on the cross.  But God not only wants your trust in Him for your eternal salvation--He wants your trust in Him for this life.  I became a believer at age nine, and I still have to choose daily to live by faith in the beliefs I claim to have about Him.

How exactly do we do this?  If choosing happiness requires action, here are the daily actions I must take:

1.  SEEK:  I need to seek God and be in His Word daily.  I then have to believe and trust what I read about Him.  If I say I believe in God and that the Bible is His inspired, God-breathed Word, written by more than 40 authors who all agreed, then I better believe it and live by it.  If I don't, my faith is a lie.
2.  PRAY and CAST:  I need to pray to Him constantly, giving my worries over to Him and laying them at His feet (not pick them right back up and try to carry them myself afterward).  I need to trust and believe that He will provide for me and handle whatever it is that is troubling me in due season--even if it isn't on my timing.
3.  BE THANKFUL:  I need to have a heart of thankfulness and gratitude, focusing on the good things in my life versus the bad.  Counting our blessings is always a good thing. 

Pastor Ruch listed all of those for us in his sermon on worry.  In his discussion of the last item, he said, "Show me a heart full of anxiety, and I'll show you a heart bereft of gratitude."  I loved this-- I could so relate.  When my heart is stifled in fear, worry, and anxiety, I am never thankful.  All I can focus on is my worry (and MYself).  But when we fill our minds and hearts with good things, the bad stuff seeps off the top.  You cannot be full of worry and anxiety when you are choosing to focus on good and on God.  It is nearly impossible to be filled with worry when you are seriously pouring yourself into His Word, praying to Him, praising Him, and loving others as higher than yourself.  One of the best cures for worry is to focus on helping someone else in need.  Your problems will look pretty small in comparison.  There just isn't room for sadness and doubt when we fill our lives with the right things.  I liken it to my birdbath in the backyard.  When the water in it is stagnant, smelly, and slimy, I run water from the garden hose into it.  This forces all the yucky water to flow out over the top and new, fresh water to fill it.  Our lives are the same.  We have to fill our hearts and lives with good in order to flush out the bad.  When I did prison ministry, I recall a gal who had repeatedly struggled with drug addiction and had been in prison numerous times due to it. She shared that the only way she ever battles her addiction successfully is to immediately replace her desire to get high (the bad habit) with reading God's Word (a good habit).  This is true for all of us, "sin-junkies."  We have to replace the bad with the good, regardless of our particular sin(s).  It is an action and it is a daily choice.

Related Scriptures:

Philippians 4:6-7, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

1 Peter 5:6-7, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you."

John 16:33, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."