Friday, February 19, 2016

Why Are We Happy?

Some themes run throughout the Bible. You’ll come across it one place, sort of forget about it, but then see it again somewhere else. Over time, those reminders from multiple perspectives start to stick. If you see them often enough, they become more than information. They can start to shape the way you think and live your life.

I bring that up because today’s question is related to a topic I have already written on in the past, and which I am bound to discuss into the future. It is usually asked as, “Why do we suffer in life?” But today, I also want to consider the other side of that. Why do we enjoy life?

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Those might seem like very different concepts, but there is a relation between them. If you can ask one, you need to be able to ask the other. Look at this way. We all wonder why we have to suffer. Why were we allowed to experience this sickness, her death, his leaving, that lost job? Even the lowly paper cut is enough to make us miserable and cry out, “Why?”

And of course, when we ask that question, we have to be asking someone. We are really asking, why would a good and loving God allow me to go through this? These days, a lot of people answer that question for themselves. They say that if there were a God, He could not let us hurt the way we do. Therefore, He must not be there. The world must simply be random and unfeeling, and our perception of pain is just a part of it.

Really, though, that is an incomplete view. It makes sense to question suffering, but it makes just as much sense to question joy. Why are we allowed to feel good? Why do some things make us happy? Why do we wish for them when we do not have them? Why are we content when we do? Why is there a difference?

In a chaotic universe, there isn’t one. Feelings of good and bad are completely subjective, because there is no one to care. You’re all alone. The people around you can’t help you. The universe doesn’t know you. Nothing validates your feelings. They do not correlate to any type of truth, and when you die, they stop mattering. In fact, they never mattered in the first place. Just like everything else. Just like you.

Under that view, the questions of pain and pleasure are absurdities. Except they aren’t. No one lives as though they were, and no one could. We are hardwired for happiness. We don’t avoid thinking about the good times because we are trying to keep from contemplating the emptiness of life. We avoid it, or rather, we ignore it because that is just how things are supposed to be. When we suffer, we know intrinsically something is off. We complain about it because we want it to go back to right.

Saying there is no God is a way to try to answer the question and get to where you can feel good about yourself. In which case, it begs the question rather than answering it. You are still left wondering why you need to feel better, and an inert cosmos can’t tell you.

Truth is, our ability to tell the difference between good and bad suggests that there is a standard existing independent of us. And if such a rational standard exists, then it stands to reason it is the product of a mind. It speaks to an act of creation.

Where Goodness Comes From

That is all a bit philosophical, but it points us somewhere more practical. I said earlier we do not think about the good times, but that is not the whole picture. We do, but only implicitly. When things are going well, we envision their source. The problem lies in what we imagine it to be.

Take a look at Deuteronomy 8:11–18. Deuteronomy is a book of the Bible, but it was actually a long speech by Moses to the people of Israel. In the 15th Century BC, God had used Moses to liberate the Israelites from centuries of slavery in Egypt. He then led them to the borders of Canaan, where modern-day Israel is now. However, the Israelites refused to enter the land God promised to them because they were afraid of its inhabitants. The Lord punished their lack of faith by having them march through the wilderness for 40 years, until the members of the generation that rebelled against Him had passed away. Then, Moses led their children back to the border to try again.

Deuteronomy records Moses’ last instructions before the Israelites crossed over into Canaan, and this part of Deuteronomy 8 is one of its most important sections. In it, Moses tells the people that things are going to be pretty good for them over there. They’re going to be rich, live in nice houses, and eat well. When they do, they will wonder why. The answer they’ll come up with? It’s all because of them.

This is what we all do. When we succeed, we just assume we are the source of our success. Your nice house? You earned it. Happy family? You deserve it. It is all the result of your hard work. Anything that throws it all out of balance is an injustice, a question to be answered. But the good things are due to you because you are just so awesome.

We tell ourselves that, but it isn’t true. We say, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17). Moses says, “Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). We are nothing without Him, but we think we are. And that, in a word, is why we suffer. We convince ourselves we have it all together, and then it falls apart because we are not really as powerful as we like to imagine.

The Reason for Suffering

Even that is not all bad, though. It is not just a punishment. It is discipline. These things happen now for the same reason they did for the Israelites then: “to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deuteronomy 8:16). Our nature is a proud one. When we meet circumstances we can’t handle, it reminds us of our dependency on God and draws us closer to Him. At least, it can if we let it.

But why does God do all of this? Why bother? Well, as it turns out, He loves us. He wants us to have the chance to be what we were meant to be. He is also righteous, though. He has standards, and he is not willing to just overlook them. He wants us to acknowledge Him, to glorify Him as the only true source of goodness. If we do, suffering instructs us so we do not forget. If we don’t, it eventually destroys.

And even so, we can never learn enough to make things right. Something more was required, so God supplied it. Jesus Christ came to this world and suffered like one of us, even though He never rebelled and had every right to consider Himself the source of all good. But He did it so He could take on all the punishment we really deserve. Things go wrong in this world to point us to our need for Him, and in the end they will be no more than what the Apostle Paul calls “light and momentary troubles” (2 Corinthians 4:17). If we have faith in Christ, we can truly have the best, and a time will come when suffering isn’t necessary anymore.

The Last Word

This is always a difficult subject to discuss. We don’t like to think about things this way. We want our pain to be unfair, and we want our happiness to be because of us. But the truth is actually the other way around. That is what Moses, along with the rest of the authors of the Bible, wanted to remind us. The more we know that, the closer we can come to feeling blessed all the time.

One other thing to remember is that this is easier to do when you can do it with others. Life is a quest, and a quest should be shared. Find people you can talk to about what you are going through. Share your struggles, and they will help you see God at work in them. Share your triumphs, and they will remind you of His blessings that created them. And remember, there is nothing wrong with asking the questions. Just don’t put yourself in a position where the only answer is despair. Don’t try to go it alone. 

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