As a child, one of my pastor’s favorite songs was “Happiness Is.” The tune echoes the upbeat refrain, “Happiness is to know the Savior. … Happiness is the Lord.” Instead of virtue, faith and encouragement, 21st-century U.S. culture violates innocence and trust. Repeatedly news stories tell of betrayal. Ministers, teachers, coaches and just about anyone in a trusted position play the role of villains in nightmarish stories. People become defensive and deaf to the needs of fellow human beings. With so much negativity, cynicism becomes the natural state of being.
How can Christians respond? Shall we succumb to temptation? The call to follow and serve a risen savior must supersede this cultural siren song of cynicism. The love described in 1 Corinthians 13 is deeper and more profound than the shallow refrain, “Happiness is .…” There are examples of happiness throughout the Hebrew Bible, and although they are a bit harder to find in the New Testament, happiness or contentment in Christ is central to Christian identity.
The question becomes: how can a person find contentment in this age of cynicism? Contentment lasts longer than the passion emotion of happiness. For example, in Genesis 30:13, Leah is happy about expecting a child. This is natural, and new life, even in the 21st century, is usually reason to celebrate. A baby represents hope for the future.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, happiness crops up. In Deuteronomy, several laws lead to happiness. The historical books (1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles) have examples of events that lead to happiness. And, the psalms have multiple examples of happiness. Overall, happiness occurs 42 times in the Bible.
The Hebrew word eh’sher gets to the heart of distinguishing between contentment and cynicism. Contentment is about more than happiness. Shortly after the blissful happiness of finding out that she expects a child, Leah returns to the existent conflict with her sister Rachel. So it is with life. Happiness can be short lived. Someone says something or does something nice or kind, and the recipient experiences being happy. Then the feeling fades. Something else happens, and life returns to normal; cynicism can rear its ugly head.
Like all feelings, happiness is temporal and subject to change. True contentment is deeper and survives ups and downs. Contentment reflects life in Christ. No one can achieve contentment through a few magic words or a special prayer. Contentment is part of the faith journey and is a process. Even though it survives changes in daily life, when one experiences contentment, it is not permanent. Just as achieving contentment takes work, keeping it takes work too.
The life of faith is a journey. Shifting from cynicism or negativity to contentment and true happiness takes time and practice. Content people generally have some things in common: thankfulness, perspective, social engagement and belief or faith.
First, thankfulness is as much a state of being as contentment. Sometimes, especially when life rains bad news, being thankful can be a challenge. Overcoming the challenge and humming “Count Your Blessings” or “My Favorite Things” is not Pollyannaish, but a deliberate act to combat negativity and bitterness. When someone says something cruel or unkind, it is far easier to pay it forward and treat someone else cruelly. Letting go and moving on is both healthy and breaks the cycle of unkindness.
At this point, it is important to distinguish between a passing rude comment and abuse. People can and should let go of the passing rude or inconsiderate word, but abuse requires further action. In abusive or criminal situations, the victim must get out and seek professional help. This article is not meant to address the pain that takes years to overcome. This is about nascent cynicism that pervades society.
Second, perspective takes time. It requires a long view. Think about space, time, geology and the billions of people around the planet. Suddenly, a particular grievance might seem smaller than it first appeared. Developing a sense of perspective takes practice and patience, but investing some energy in the long view can yield healthy results. Instead of getting upset about something over which one has no control, taking a walk can shift one’s focus, expend pent up energy, and provide the opportunity to think through actions and outcomes. This kind of activity helps develop perspective and fosters personal contentment.
Third, social engagement is proven to be healthy, both physically and psychologically. In addition to being a place to worship and grow in the faith journey, church is an excellent place to interact with other people. For all of its flaws and its wonderful attributes, churches are places to see people. The children’s nursery rhyme (with hand motions) goes, “This is the church. This is the steeple. Open the doors, and see all the people.”
Thankfulness begets thankfulness. Engaging with people helps develop a sense of perspective. Hearing friends and neighbors tell about good events in their lives, i.e. during times of shared thankfulness, encourages an attitude of thankfulness. In other words, hearing someone else talk about how they experience God’s blessing encourages introspection and thoughtfulness about blessings. Being around thankful people and mature Christians builds a culture of contentment in Christ.
Finally, believing in something makes life worth living. These ideas — thankfulness, perspective and social engagement — are not a magic formula. They are steps on the faith journey. Combining these steps with others increases resistance to cynicism and negativity. Life in Christ is meant to be fulfilling (John 10:10), not naysaying defeatism. God is life, and life in God is worth living.