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Is Trying to Be Happy Making You Anxious?

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

Last year I went to a church seminar on managing anxiety. The speaker, a psychologist and anxiety expert said something like this:

The American expectation that we should be happy all the time is one of the reasons we have anxiety. In other countries, Christians’ attitude is more like, “Life is hard and then you die and meet Jesus.”

He wasn’t belittling the struggles of those who suffer from clinical anxiety. Instead, he went on to illustrate that the American obsession with feeling good can result in us feeling bad. When we consider happiness as the ultimate goal of life, we can become anxious about any other feelings we have and any obstacles we encounter.

“Is there something wrong with me, my faith, or my lifestyle,” we may wonder, even unconsciously, “if I don’t feel grateful or things don’t seem to be working out?”

Most of my fellow Christians wouldn’t say that happiness is their ultimate goal, but let’s take a moment to recognize how that idea sneaks into our mental processes. According to our country’s founders, the function of government was to protect our unalienable rights given by our Creator, among the top three: “the pursuit of happiness.” Originally Thomas Jefferson had written “the pursuit of property,” and these three rights were to be insured only to white males. So, we have an issue already; the Declaration of Independence is not inerrant Scripture.

Even as we may passionately believe that our government’s job is to ensure our right to create the life we want, we have to be careful not to ascribe that cultural belief to God. Americans have often done this, most notably in the movement nicknamed “the Prosperity Gospel,” in which God wants to bless you with all things material and relational, so that your life of joy and success becomes the ultimate advertisement for Jesus.

This philosophy falls to pieces when we look at the life of Christ and his disciples. Jesus, the ultimate example of human flourishing, was called “a man of sorrows,” even though we also see him enjoying and relishing life. His followers made his name famous not by becoming prosperous, but by bearing spiritual fruit, showing compassion, caring for the poor, teaching Jesus’ words, and ultimately, dying martyrs’ deaths.

The Prosperity Gospel falls apart in our lives when we experience mental health issues, cancer, disability, conflict, broken relationships, loss of jobs, stalls in our careers. “How can I witness for Jesus when I’m not a “success?” we will wonder in these situations. “How can I know I am loved and purposeful when I falter?”

This is a lot of pressure for those of us who struggle with anxiety.

God gives us peace by meeting our need for purpose: not to be happy, but to be fruitful. Whether we suffer from clinical anxiety or just regular old soul angst, normalizing discomfort and trial needs to be part of our mature spiritual journey – and it’s also key to our mental health.

We can be rooted in peace knowing that we were created as multi-purpose human beings, as I wrote about last week.

1. We were made to love God, ourselves and others, and

2. to express specific talents for the good of the world.

And let’s add two more truths:

3. We were made to bear the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control)

4. and we were NOT made to feel happy all the time, but to feel a range of emotions, and persevere in doing good no matter what we feel.

That last one is tricky, theologically. We were made to live in paradise with God, but since the fall of man, we have some adjustments to make. God made us good, and with a full range of emotions. To feel grief when someone dies is the soul’s healthy response, just as your heart racing is the body’s healthy response to danger, just as physical pain is a healthy response to injury. A mentally healthy person tolerates – even welcomes -- “negative” emotion as a reasonable response to circumstances, and also expects that she will experience adverse circumstances.

Our purpose to bear the fruit of the Spirit is often grown through adverse circumstances. James tells the church to consider trials joy, because they have the potential to make us perfect and complete, not lacking any good thing. James’ language is important: Consider trials joy; that is a rational decision, not a suppression of emotion. I’ve come to understand that feeling the reasonable, painful emotion is part of God’s perfecting work in me. In the same letter, James tells us not to sin in our anger: the command is not to feel, but not to be mastered by the feeling.

This is a key understanding of the Christian faith. We can become clinically anxious and depressed when we…

· Believe “getting over” our feelings as fast as possible is the goal

· Believe emotions like fear, anger, sadness, are sinful or signs of a lack of faith

· Believe “negative” emotions are a sign that we are not close to God or not being blessed by Him

· Try to craft a life totally free of hardship, where we don’t experience “negative” emotions

· Believe that hardship is a sign that God has withdrawn his love and favor from us

· Believe that God owes us a life without grief if we are faithful to Him

So, ironically, trying to create a worry-free advertisement-for-Jesus life may result in an anxious life with less connection to God. The alternative is a realistic, self-aware life in which God is allowed to comfort us in our distress and grief. God draws close to the brokenhearted, says the psalmist, and comforts those who mourn, says Jesus. Next week we’ll talk learning to tolerate the discomfort we feel when we rest, so that we can invite the Spirit to minister to us.

Let’s give my anxiety workshop psychologist the last word today: For the clinical anxiety sufferer, treatment includes developing a tolerance for discomfort so it doesn’t escalate into panic, compulsive thinking, or an inability to enjoy the good things in life. He teaches them self-talk: “My heart is pounding because I had a thought that made me afraid, and increased heart rate is the body’s response to fear. I’m not actually in danger, and I’m not having a heart attack. This will pass.”

She who participates in this refining treatment is fulfilling her purpose: she is growing in the fruit of self-control, peace and patience. This week, I invite you to sit with your emotions a bit longer, even thank God for the experience of them as an opportunity to grow in character, in perseverance, in the bearing of good fruit. That’s what you were created to do.

Volumes have been written on emotions and our desire to suppress them. My two favorite modern works are Pete Scazerros’ Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved).

Next week’s blog: Meeting the Need for Rest. We’ll explore how the discomfort we feel when we slow down is key to connecting to the Holy Spirit, and ourselves.

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