The Frustration of Happiness

As a kid I listened repeatedly to the song Happiness, from the musical “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”  The old LP spun a marvelous vision.  “Happiness is . . . . learning to whistle, tying your shoe for the very first time, . . . . . catching a fire fly and setting him free . . . . . and happiness is, anyone and anything that’s loved by you.”  I outgrew that song and some of those notions, but my search for happiness continued.

The flame and emptiness of holy desire calls us to happiness. The divine image will be satisfied with nothing less.   But here in this weary land we must constantly cope with the frustration of happiness. It is this harsh paradox at the heart of our experience that translates holy desire into addiction.  Wendy Farley 

Part of the frustration with happiness is that we can’t stop wanting it even in the face of our experiences in a world of pain.  An inner fragment of the Divine, a precious but forgotten memory,  “calls us to happiness.”  It is an inescapable longing within and we will travel the world in search of a cure.

The second part of the frustration is our own tendency to derail this pure pursuit. We get lost in the noise of voices, like the vendors in Vegas, that appeal to more immediate pleasures.  Not only does Vanity Fair call us, but our own inner compulsions mislead us.  Promises of less pain and more pleasure now seem an adequate substitute for our true calling.   These pain free pledges pull us away like a tide, further from the shore of God’s love.   In a world that consumes 14 billion doses of pain medication a day we need to ask deeper questions than “How can I ease the ache of living?”  Our attempts at happiness are turning us in to instant gratification addicts, content with momentary distractions from reality.

The frustration of happiness is further complicated by our attempts to find peace in religion.  Unfortunately, holiness rules, the emphasis on self sacrifice,  denial and control,  often communicate to our souls a message of shame, failure and guilt.  This misunderstanding of the good news of Jesus can place us outside of the experience of the love of God that we so desperately need.

The way through all of this complication is often something as simple as a compassionate, listening spiritual friend.  I have also found great comfort in the classic writings of people who have explored the heights and depths of Christian experience.

The yearning of our heart is for a deeper connection to the source of our longing, God.  “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in him,” St Augustine reminds us.  In Christian understanding, Christ is the fulfillment of this heart’s longing.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  and you have been filled in him. . . Col 2:9,10 

The abiding presence of the one who suffers with me, and for me,  is enough to sustain me in the pleasure and pain of life.  This is the beginning of real happiness.

Detectives of the Divine

My daughter called me in a panic one morning.

Her car was acting weird, sliding sideways on the ice and snow, as she attempted to drive along a busy, backed up highway.  At one point she couldn’t move at all, when someone offered to push her.  Then someone else driving by noticed that her rear wheel was not turning. When she called me, I told her to pump the parking brake a couple of times to loosen it.  It was a long shot but surprisingly it worked and she was on her way again to her job.  As we chatted, she recalled that no less than four people had already helped her to get to work that day.

It felt so strange to be able to communicate over the miles and in the midst of traffic find a quick solution to her problem. This event reminded me of the way God is able to quickly respond to our emergency prayers and send help. King David prayed in the Psalms, “Lord make haste to help me.”(Psa. 70:1) It is not a good idea to always rely on emergency prayers but at the same time it is good to know God is present now and can send help in an instant. The difficulty is we are not alway aware of God in those moment of distress. Yet, it is possible to learn to be more present to the divine in midst of our fast paced life. We do not need to let hurry invade every part of our lives nor allow the tyranny of the urgent to rule us.

I recently read that bedtime stories can now be squeezed into sixty-second sound bites. Various authors have now condensed fairy tale classics for busy parents. Carl Honore writing about this in “The Praise of Slowness” says,

“ …my whole life has turned into an exercise in hurry, in packing more and more into every hour. I am a Scrooge with a stop watch, obsessed with saving every last scrap of time.”

If we are not careful hurry will fill our lives and we will miss something valuable, including the ability to enjoy the gift of life.

To see the gift within the rush of life takes attention.   All God’s gifts deserve our observation, the small as well as the large, especially in light of the giver.  I like to believe that the gift of a good neighbour who shovels my walk, or the driver who notices my daughter’s car wheel is not rotating, are displays of God’s care.

Barbara Brown Taylor in “The Preaching Life” describes how a friend’s sermon transformed her outlook. She says, “When the service was over that day, I walked out into a God-enchanted world, where I could not wait to find further clues of heaven on earth. Every leaf, every ant, every shiny rock called out to me… I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow.

Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart,
Not thankful when it pleases me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.

George Herbert

The Elusive Spirit

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

Snow leopards are one of the world’s rarest, most elusive and little studied large animals. They are generally very shy and well camouflaged, and hardly ever seen. Most encounters involve villagers looking for firewood or herding animals. The first photograph of one in the wild was taken in 1970 by the legendary zoologist George Schaller. Its long tail gives it amazing balance as it scales mountains as high as 18,000 feet. Known to catch a falling rock with its paw, the snow leopard can sneak up on its prey and not to be heard.  It is so elusive the locals call him the Holy Spirit of the mountains.

Have you ever felt like God’s presence is as elusive as the snow leopard? He shows up, it seems, in his time and usually by surprise. Then, just as often it feels as if he has left you waiting for some sign or sense that he is near. Living in this linear time bound world, I can easily miss precious, life changing, “sightings” when God is breaking in. The feeling that life is somewhere up ahead and that I must strive for it, or that life is behind in some former lost and lamented time, can squeeze life now in God out. However, God is always in the Eternal Now, as Thomas Kelly describes it. Behind this busy active life of time and place, the Eternal Now of God is knocking, and He desires to enter our world through us and change time for eternity. This invasion of God’s presence can be upsetting to a life driven by the ticking of the clock of progress. Don’t we sometimes look upon those who are yielding to the Eternal Presence as odd and out of place? Yet, we intuitively know there is something entirely credible about their compliance to God.   Sighting are not as rare for those who wait on God, those who learn to live in both times zones simultaneously – time now and Eternal Now.   Yes, and that is the Christian calling and joy.

“The sooner we stop thinking we are the energetic operators of religion and discover that God is at work, as the aggressor, the invader, the initiator, so much the sooner do we discover that our task is to call men to be still and know, listen, hearken in quiet invitation to the subtle promptings of the Divine. “ (Thomas Kelly)


Melting into God

The Great Slave Lake can be powerful and majestic when its mighty swells are driven by the winds, or it can be bleak and frozen and still like the winter ice.  It is a marvel to me that a lake as vast as an ocean can become frozen over each winter.  Yet, it is even more of a wonder that the human heart can do that too.

The human heart can be majestic and inspiring, reaching the heights of God’s love, or it can be as hard as the rivers that turn into trucking roads in the far North.  Hardening begins subtly, like the lure of Turkish Delight that the White Witch used to captivate Edmund in Narnia. Then the chill of cynicism or the freeze of trust results in the loss of natural affection.   God’s way seems like a fairy tale, and love becomes a passing sentiment.   Simply being emotional does not mean the heart is tender.  The heart is more than emotions; it is mind, will and emotions combined.   Tenderness of heart includes being sensitive, pliable and yielding.  Puritan Richard Sibbes say the tender,  “quakes at threatenings, obeys precepts, melts at promises and the promises sweeten the heart.“

The heart of man is in such a desperate state that there is no remedy except for a heart transplant.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.  Ezek. 36:26

This new kind of heart enjoys the word of God and beats wildly when touched by His Spirit.   Yet still, my old nature threatens to undo the good work of the Spirit at every turn. It seems I live in a world where Turkish Delights are offered on every corner.  The pleasure and profits of the world are competing with the Spirit for my affections.  Who will I yield to today?   “The hard heart is like wax to the devil and stone to God or goodness.”  says Sibbes.    The one we yield to is the one who gets our heart.

Here we need the Spirit’s help.   In my struggles I discovered the simple prayer of King David,  “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!”  In praying this, I turn my heart away from the lure of pleasure and profit and even away from the inner battle and trust in God to direct my heart to his promises.  “The highest form of prayer”, says Julian of Norwich, “is to the goodness of God.

”God only desires that our souls cling to him with all of its strength,  in particular, that it clings to his goodness.  For of all the things our minds can think about God, it is thinking upon his goodness that pleases him most and brings the most profit to our soul. “

St. Theresa of Avila


An inner stamp of divine approval, is like a the loving embrace of a parent who says, “You’re alright.”  This affirmation of our Heavenly Father gives us the assurance and self acceptance we need. (continued…)

The gold embossed seal on the corner of my ordination certificate says that I’ve been recognized by my religious organization and approved for the work I’m doing.   This document hangs on my wall as a reminder to myself and other that I’m qualified.   God by his Spirit does even more than this, by placing the stamp of his approval on my heart.    St. Paul says, God has… “set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

Without an inner confidence that my loving heavenly Father receives me in Christ, I try to earn that approval through religious works.  However, this kind of performance faith only serves to reinforce in me the feelings of unworthiness I’m trying to overcome.  My attempts to talk myself up or have others talk me up is not enough to shake feelings of self doubt.   It is from God that we must first sense approval after which it matters little whether others do or not.  In Christ he approves and accepts me so that I am able to forgive and accept others regardless of how they respond to me.

Saint John says, “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: ……..We know it by the Spirit he gave us.  1 John 3: 19, 24. 

The lofty claim of divine favour will be mistaken by some as a form of religious arrogance.  I suppose there are times when declarations of divine approval are used to promote a kind of self importance.   Worse still, there are those who assert their divine privilege as they seek to dominate others in the name of their God. These attitudes are not the same as the blessed assurance I’m thinking of.  Rather, a genuine inner capacity to feel approved by God is a gift that results in deep humility.

Since divine approval is given freely, my response is simply to ask and receive so that my joy may be full.  In my seeking I have found it helpful to ask for mercy through Jesus and to request the Spirit to enable me to put my heart at rest in his presence.    


Increasing Our Heart Capacity

Solar PanelWhen I was buying a car battery at Walmart, I asked another man buying batteries for some advice, as he seemed knowledgeable. He told me about his home solar system that generates enough power to run most of the lights in his house. However, it lacked the storage capacity it needed to carry him through the dark nights and overcast days. To be completely self sufficient, he needed to add another battery or two. I was buying a battery for a car with a parasitic drain. It occurred to me that, like the solar guy, we need to increase our soul capacity with light of the Lord, so we can shine on in the dark nights, the cloudy days and through the deep valleys of life.

Jesus told a story about 5 foolish virgins and 5 wise virgins. The five wise virgins had extra oil to watch through the night for the coming of the bridegroom; the foolish virgins were left in the dark as their oil supply ran out before the big day. We need a healthy capacity of virtue if we intend to make it through the darker days of our lives without losing our way.

You can’t just close the bag of chips, turn off the TV, get up off the couch and go run the Boston Marathon. You’ll have a heart attack on heartbreak hill. You need to train to run the Boston Marathon. Training increases our capacity to run the distance.

Training in the Christian life means spiritual disciplines like: prayer, bible mediation and solitude. These are not ends in themselves; but means to the end, of an increased capacity for service to God. Solitude may be the most challenging of these, it is for me. Without these my storage capacity is not expanding, and may be shrinking.

“Let those that are great activists and think to circle the world with words and outward works, note that they would bring far more profit to the Church, and be far more pleasing to God if they spent even half [the time given to action] in being present with God in prayer . . . Most certainly they would accomplish more with one piece of work than they now do with a thousand and do so with far less labor. Through prayer they would merit the result, and themselves be made spiritually strong. Without prayer, they would do much hammering but achieve little, even nothing at all or even cause harm.” (St. John of the Cross)

A continual development of our inner life will keep us effective and fruitful in the Lord.

2 Peter 1:5-8 “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For, if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”