Have you ever been warned about being happy? That might sound silly but if you grew up evangelical this is a statement you may have heard, or some variation of it. See how familiar this sounds to you:
The “do what makes you happy” culture is so toxic for Christians.
We are NOT called to do what makes us happy. We are called to do what glorifies God.
Christianity isn’t always sunshine & happiness. It’s hard work & dedication to him, not us.
Do. What. Glorifies. God.
That sounds pretty pious, right?! Who can object to glorifying God rather than being happy?
But what if God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in life? Period?
Once upon a time I believed chasing happiness was a shallow pursuit and assumed it to be selfish. I was to be “happy in God alone!” if i dared to use the word “happy” at all.
(Wasn’t “JOY” – Jesus first, Other’s next, Yourself last– the real fruit of the Spirit anyway?)
Growing up in an abusive foster home, suffering was second nature to me. Happiness wasn’t on the menu anyway.
A lot has changed in the last decade since I posted stuff like this:
Now I am a lot more aware that happiness manifests in good things, in healthy relationships. That “joy” is not some holy version of the shallow or tainted happy. They are close sisters.
Psalm 68:3 “But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be joyful AND happy.” (emphasis mine)
I noticed it didn’t say “in God” at the end of this verse, as many Evangelicals would want this verse to say.
It’s as if people are fearful of happiness. This noxious evangelical idea that God wants you miserable or that happiness is some sort of evil is shown in the first quote claiming that “‘do-what-makes-you-happy’ culture is so toxic for Christians.”
It is as if happiness were conspiring to ruin your life!
These types of statements can cause such deep harm to anyone in an abusive relationship or an abusive church community. Be aware that people in the middle of abuse often do not recognize it and tend to deny the abuse or downplay their experience in order to survive.
When it comes to this suspicion of happiness, there are variations. Some take on the form of marriage:
Here is a helpful exercise: Read the following statement imagining at first that the person reading it is suffering through an illness or injury, or grieving death or deep loss, or facing overwhelming financial challenges. Then read the following while imagining someone is in an unhealthy marriage or a spiritually/emotionally abusive church community.
Context matters. To many, statements like “Marriage is not about your happiness” obviously does not apply to abuse victims. But this assumption completely overlooks how these teachings contribute to abusive relationships and how these exact phrases are weaponized against victims!
While messages about “carrying your cross” are important for a dad not paying his child support, this message crushes a woman already bearing her entire household’s cross. We need to stop brutalizing women with this message.
While messages about putting in the grunt work, and marriage not being about your continual pleasure is good advice for an irresponsible dad playing video games rather than helping with the kids, it comes off very differently for women already carrying far more than their own load in a marriage.
Imagine how this would sound to someone taking on too much or enduring abuse:
If you have been taught “love is not emotive,” read the book Songs of Songs in the Bible. Or if Solomon is a hard pass, try reading about the woman washing the feet of Jesus with her tears in Luke 7. The Pharisees objected to this emotive love but Jesus affirmed her.
Or read about Mary breaking expensive perfume over Jesus with the disciples rebuking her emotive expression of love but Jesus is quite clear: “Why are you bothered by this woman?… Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Matthew 26: 10 & 13
Don’t believe that healthy love isn’t emotive.
If your marriage doesn’t make you happy because you want to hang out with the boys every night, rather than putting your kids to bed, you have a one-sided relationship that you need to fix. But for the people pouring out all their energy and not making any progress, feeling exhausted and discouraged and on the verge of burning out, being told to just hang in there because “this marriage is not about my happiness” is dangerous. There is clearly a serious problem.
I’m so sad at how churches normalize abusive relationships and behaviors with gaslighting phrases like this. Phrases that even teach that love isn’t emotive. People need to stop using Christianese and instead be very specific with examples of what they mean if they want to encourage irresponsible people to do their own part.
Your happiness being viewed as some sort of self-centered egotistical thing is a harmful message that teaches you to tune out important indications and red flags that things are derailing or imbalanced and unhealthy.
This. Is. TOXIC.
Happiness does not mean selfishness. If chasing happiness makes you selfish than the selfishness is still the issue to work on. Your happiness is not the issue; your bad behaviors are.
Surprisingly to many, happiness is a primary aim of a marriage that God set up. There are many others along with it but if you don’t believe me read this verse for yourself.
Proverbs 18:22 “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, And obtains favor from the Lord.”
Being told that happiness is an elusive target normalized the stress of a chaotic & abusive marriage for me. It was rather startling to realize that in a healthy relationship happiness stopped being elusive. When you are treated right and things are healthy, happiness is present!
Being told “love is sacrificial” makes sense if things are healthy. A healthy relationship doesn’t mean it’s always sunshine and rainbows but sacrificing to help the other is done both ways and not to cover for the irresponsibility of the other. It is not always one-sided but switches back and forth as unavoidable life challenges arise. And because of that, it doesn’t carry the same weight as when one person is having to compensate for another’s deliberately harmful actions, speech, or behaviors in a never-ending onslaught.
Admonishing someone and telling them that they need to do the grunt work to get to a point where a relationship can be happy, when aimed at someone trapped in abusive circumstances, this is gaslighting and victim-blaming. This message is dismissive and lacking empathy and care.
What if grunt work (putting in all the hard effort) can’t actually fix an unhappy and unhealthy marriage? What if one person is not willing to change?
(After 20 years married, I did not just “bail” because “I wanted to be happy.” In fact, I went to Christian counseling and prayed every single morning for years with a mentor and did as much “GRUNT WORK” as humanly possible on my end. The toll on my kids and my own mental health was huge, and this was not helpful and accomplished nothing to change the husband who still walked away from his marriage.)
Understanding that we have a responsibility for our own actions is very important. This shouldn’t be conflated with ignoring our needs or giving up our mind, body and emotional well being.
When we speak these statements we need to be very aware of the implications. Can examples be given for clarity? Many of these expressions are the Christianese phrases I followed that led me to stay in an unhealthy relationship for too long.
Let’s think more carefully about what our words are actually communicating!
What if happiness was *NOT* toxic but actually glorified God?
While happiness can be found in selfish activities (like sluffing off your responsibilities in helping your partner around the house), happiness is not inherently unhealthy. Happiness is not synonymous with selfishness.
A healthy life is filled with happiness.
Newsflash: (and this might not be a comfortable one to fathom if you have thought happiness was in the devil’s toolbox to unhinge you) Your happiness makes God happy.