I Just Want Them to Be Happy…

..but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3b-5 ESV via biblegateway.com
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I once had to drop out of a thread on social media. (Actually, I’ve had to drop out of a number of threads, but that is neither here nor there…) The thread was about parenting, and priorities. The main thrust was that, as a parent, one’s top priority was to make one’s children “happy.” If your child wanted a particular toy for her/his birthday, you would certainly do whatever you could to get “that” toy. If your child wanted the latest fashion in shoes, you would certainly try to buy them. If your child wanted to be successful, you would do whatever you could to see that he/she got into the “best” schools and had the “best” opportunities in life. And if they wanted to do something of which you disapproved, you would still encourage them to follow their dream– if it would make them happy. Of course, this didn’t include letting your child abuse drugs or become a criminal. But in general, it meant sacrificing and taking a back seat to your child’s emotional well-being.

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On the surface, this seems like good parenting. Of course, I don’t “want” my child to be miserable, or unsuccessful, or “left out.” And I don’t want to impose my dreams and wishes onto my child, or live my life through him/her. I would not wish hardship and suffering to come to anyone, especially those I love. Except…I want them to develop endurance, and character, and hope, and compassion, and wisdom, and humility, and faith. And all these things come from suffering, losing, and learning from difficult experiences.

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I dropped out of the thread for a couple of reasons: I have learned that whenever the subject of parenting comes up, my experience (or lack thereof) makes my opinion “invalid” to those who disagree. “You’ve never had children. You don’t know what it’s like.” But I know what it was like to BE a child, and to have parents. I’ve observed the results of parenting by others, both good and bad. I know that even good parenting can’t guarantee “happy” teenagers! And even “bad” parenting can produce children who break the cycle and become adults of integrity and joy. The other reason I held back was that, in my experience, those who post such threads only want their own opinions confirmed. The people posting on this thread were not “bad” parents–in fact, they probably would agree with me if we had the time to sit down and talk through the issue. But one of the downfalls of social media is that we want short, pithy advice, instead of long and serious discussions. We don’t want nuances; we want comfortable “likes.”

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I don’t want my family members– my step-children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and cousins, etc.–to be defeated by suffering. I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by depression and anxiety. I don’t pray for them to be hurt or frustrated, because “it’s for their own good.” But I do pray that they will learn strength and courage, faith and trust, hope and joy as they overcome struggles, conquer fears, fight life’s battles, and walk in obedience to the One who has won the final victory. I don’t “just” want them to be happy. I want them to find the lasting joy that comes from developing a Godly character. That may bring me to tears when I see them fighting illness and hardship, persecution, depression, and other setbacks. But it also keeps me on my knees and reaching out as they understand that I’m there whether they’re sad, or angry, or hurting– and so is the God who loves them forever!

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Arguing With the Almighty

I was thinking the other day about the movie, “Forrest Gump.” In it, a bitter, beaten, and angry character begins arguing with God– in the midst of a hurricane!

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“Lieutenant Dan” was an able soldier, fighting in Vietnam and in charge of a small unit, which included the simple-minded Forrest Gump. When their unit was ambushed, Dan was badly injured and lost the use of his legs. Meanwhile, Forrest Gump received only a small flesh wound, and managed to save several of his fellow soldiers, receiving a medal for bravery. One of the soldiers rescued by Forrest, Dan resented his situation– disabled and ignored– while Forrest went on to become successful and celebrated.

Worse, in the years after the war, Forrest found Dan, homeless and dejected, and offered him a job and a home– on his shrimping boat. Forrest knew next to nothing about shrimping, and Dan, torn between bitterness and gratitude, gives Forrest a hard time. Dan’s life has gone nowhere, and Forrest seems to dodge every bullet (literally), finding success in spite of his naivete and seemingly stupid choices. When the two men find themselves in the middle of a hurricane, Dan can take it no longer. He lashes out– not at Forrest this time, but at God. How could a loving God allow Dan to go through trial after trial– the loss of his legs and so many of the men under his command, the loss of his dignity and productivity, the loss of his independence, and now, another deadly situation beyond his control. He yells at God–“Come and get me!” He challenges God to just kill him; just finish him off, or leave him alone.

(Please excuse the foul language in the clip.)
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But God is silent– and soon, so is the hurricane. Forrest and Dan have survived. In fact, Forrest’s decision to be out of the harbor means their boat is the only one to survive–suddenly, they can’t catch the shrimp fast enough! Forrest becomes a millionaire and hires a fleet of fishing boats. But what about Dan?

Somewhere in the middle of the storm, Dan’s heart is pierced by a simple and life-changing thought. God has not been the one “ruining” Dan’s life– He is the one who has been preserving it! God brought him through war, disability, injustice, loneliness, frustration, and the raging sea. God was not a cosmic bully. God was not singling out Dan for punishment– after all, thousands of others had been wounded and killed in the war; millions of people knew what it was like to be hungry, homeless, and lonely; and hundreds had been devastated by the hurricane– even while they were safely evacuated or hunkered down on land. Forrest had not dodged every “bullet.” He had lost his best friend in battle; he had been rejected (time after time) by the woman he loved; he had been teased, bullied, and cheated dozens of times, and he had been tossed about by the same waves and winds Dan had survived. Dan ends up leaving Forrest, and setting off on his own, having found a peace that transcends his pain and bitterness. He swims off with a smile, leaving behind the opportunity to remain with Forrest and make millions.

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Arguing with the Almighty is very tempting when we face difficult circumstances– and when we focus on our own lot, and not on the bigger picture. God is bigger than any of the troubles we face. And He is not unaware or unconcerned about whatever we are going through. Just as Lieutenant Dan challenged God, the biblical character of Job challenged God to vindicate him as he went through trials and pain. God finally answered, and Job realized that God was far bigger than anything Job had ever known or experienced. And in the end, God restored Job– giving him a new family, and even more material wealth than he had before!

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Sometimes, God allows us to go through periods of pain and struggle– not because He is punishing us or because He is a tyrant, but because He is more interested in our ultimate salvation than He is in our immediate comfort. We moan and complain that God “doesn’t want us to be happy,” as if our momentary happiness is more important than our character development, than the happiness of those around us, or than God’s design for the world.

Near the end of the movie, Lieutenant Dan visits Forrest. He is transformed. No longer angry and bitter, he is quiet, self-assured, and standing! He has “new legs” made of titanium, and he has found joy, love, and success of his own.

Of course, many of us, regardless of our situations, have tried arguing with God at certain times of our lives. The loss of a loved one; the breakup of a marriage; a diagnosis of cancer; a miscarriage of justice and the loss of a reputation– it is natural to be angry, hurt, and confused. And God is more than big enough to “take it” when we ask “WHY?!!” But we will never “win” such arguments– not because God is a tyrant who won’t let us have what we want– but because God is GOD, and we are not. He alone knows how our story ends, and what trials– and blessings– await us. He alone knows what is “right” in the scope of eternity– not just for us, but for our loved ones, our neighbors, our nation, and our times. God can see that we get, not just “new legs,” but a new heart, and a new mind!

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Hurricanes happen– so do hurts and hurdles. We can choose to see God’s hand–and believe that it is raised in anger, or reaching out to hold us. That choice is yours. That choice is mine. Every day.

Laughing With the Sinners

There is a line in a song by Billy Joel (Only the Good Die Young) which reads, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”

There is a myth about sin– that sin is fun and obedience is drudgery. Sinners laugh and live carefree, happy lives, while “saints” lead gloomy lives filled with tears, worry, and anguish. Heaven will be filled with sour-faced do-gooders playing harps, while Hell will be an eternal party.

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Nothing could be further from reality. While sin gives momentary pleasure and temporary laughter, it also leads to devastating pain and haunting regret. Broken families, lost relationships, stress, and guilt are just some of the consequences of sin. The idea that “I’m not hurting anybody– I’m just doing what makes me happy” is a false comfort.

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Similarly, while obedience may require us to make sacrifices or suffer momentarily, it also leads to great reward–discipline, wisdom, integrity, and a legacy of hope and help. The idea that “I’m missing out on the fun” is also a false one. “Saints” may cry, but often their tears are for the misfortunes of others!

Unfortunately, the common stereotype of sinners laughing while saints cry or, more often, sit in judgment, is based on observation. I have known some very sour Christians. They may not be crying, but they frequently make others around them cry! They nag, scold, wag their fingers, consign their neighbors and family members to Hell, and act as though they are too good for everyone else. When challenged about their negative attitude, sometimes they suggest that they are just “waiting for Heaven.” Others plead a genuine concern for others, and they worry that the laughter they hear now will turn to mourning in the future.

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But I have also known joyful Christians– laughing, singing, encouraging others, whistling while they work, even laughing in the face of suffering and persecution! They, too, are “waiting for Heaven.” But in the meantime, they are celebrating their new and abundant life in Christ. Their attitude and actions attract others, and reflect the love, joy, peace, and hope that transcends the mere “happiness” of a moment’s sinful pleasure.

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The Bible says much about the value of both laughter and tears; of joyous celebration and sober reflection. In the end, ALL of us are “sinners”–no one is righteous on her/his own. Jesus, when He walked the earth and interacted with people, wept and celebrated with them. The Pharisees reprimanded Jesus and His disciples for their “feasting” and spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors. And yet, Jesus had harsh words about sin and Hell, and often spent time alone and in anguish of heart.

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The crying of saints is not, in itself, of any more value than the laughter of sinners. But laughter and happiness in the moment cannot save us from the sting of death or the yawning emptiness of an eternity without God. And that is no laughing matter! Unfortunately, the song is based on an empty myth. Death comes to all of us, young or old, “good” or “bad,” gloomy or exuberant in life. What makes the difference is not our laughter or tears, or even our efforts to obey or live “good” lives– what makes a difference is GRACE and FAITH. And I’d rather live with the redeemed than die with the defiant!

Praying for Happiness

A while ago, I was following a thread on Facebook. It was about good parenting, and the idea being discussed was about what a good parent would do to ensure their child’s happiness. Several of the people on the thread agreed that happiness was the highest priority, and that they would do anything to ensure that their child was happy.

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I disagreed, but I felt it was better not to argue as part of the thread. I never raised any children of my own, and threads on social media tend to pull out our gut reactions, rather than our studied ones. At first glance, it seems natural and good to want the people we love to be happy. I certainly don’t want my family and loved ones to be miserable! But is happiness the very best I can wish for– pray for? So often in life, true and lasting happiness is a process that involves going through struggles and periods of frustration and even failure. I don’t enjoy seeing loved ones struggling, but I want them to learn the life lessons that will help them become all they were designed to be.

I think of the life of Samson (Judges 13-16). Samson was set apart from birth to be a Nazarite. During his childhood, his parents followed the rules set aside for such a designation. The Biblical account makes much of the rule about never cutting his hair, but there were other rules his parents likely followed as he was growing up, such as keeping him away from grapes, wine, wine vinegar, or any other fermented drink, and keeping him away from defilement by dead bodies. It’s never easy to be “different” when you’re growing up. I’m sure Samson had many questions, and moments of unhappiness as a child. But somewhere along the way, his parents seem to have made Samson’s happiness more important than his character development.

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Samson grew to be petulant and spoiled. He seemed to think he was entitled to whatever whim took his fancy. Now the Bible is clear that some of Samson’s desires were part of God’s plan to confront the Philistines, but Samson’s parents put up only a token resistance when he told them he wanted to marry a Philistine woman. At the wedding feast, Samson posed a riddle which exposed his lack of respect for his Nazarite vows. Not only had Samson killed a lion; he had come back later and eaten honey taken from the lion’s carcass– a defilement that broke his vow. Later, of course, he would use the unclean jawbone of an ass to kill a thousand Philistines in a single incident. Samson could have made an offering and renewed his vow, but we have no record that he ever did.

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The most famous story of Samson is his infamous liaison with a prostitute named Delilah. Though she does little to hide her intention to learn the secret of his strength and betray him to his enemies, Samson toys with her, lies to her, and finally reveals his sacred secret. Once his hair is cut, Samson loses his great strength and is captured by the Philistines and tortured. Only when he is blind, imprisoned, and shamed does Samson seek the Lord and ask for God’s blessing.

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Samson pursued a life of pleasure, and gave full vent to his lust, anger, and other strong emotions. I’m sure there were many moments of happiness in his life, but there were also moments of pain, tragedy, betrayal, and shame.

I think the story of Samson is full of lessons for us today. One of those lessons is that even when we are not faithful, God can still use us for His good purposes. God used Samson to judge the nation of Israel, and to bring punishment on the Philistines for their cruelty toward them. God could have disqualified Samson for having broken his vows time and time again, but God used even Samson’s weakness to highlight His strength.

But another lesson, I think is that God showcased exactly what can happen when we place happiness, pleasure, and ease ahead of everything else. Samson caused his own unhappiness and torture. There is no record of Samson bringing happiness to anyone else– only shame, tears, violence, and retribution. God caused Samson to be a model of all that the book of Judges is about– at the end of the book, there is a significant verse, “In those days, Israel had no king: everyone did as he saw fit.”

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I don’t want my family and friends to be “happy” at the expense of their character, or at the expense of others. I pray that they develop Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control (Galatians 5:22-23). In the end, this will bring them a level of happiness that surpasses anything the world can offer.

Why There Are No Do-Attitudes…

In Jesus’ Sermon On the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus listed what have become known as “The Beatitudes”.  Each phrase begins with “Blessed are..” or “Happy are…” (depending on the translation).  The blessings are specific, but they are also reserved for those who do not appear to be due for blessings– the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the persecuted, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Each group seems pitiable, not suited for accolades and celebration.  They’ve done nothing to deserve blessing.  Yet Jesus calls them “Happy” and assigns them amazing gifts and blessings– not for their hard work or achievements, but because of their emptiness; their need and their ability to receive the blessings of God.

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There are wonderful sermons and analyses and studies on the Beatitudes, but in relation to prayer, I want to look at this aspect.  There are no blessings in the list for the doers– the movers and shakers, the revolutionaries and the organizers and life-changers.  Throughout the Sermon, Jesus spends more time on attitude than on action–Murder is an action– forbidden by the Ten Commandments– but it is based on attitudes like hatred, disdain, envy, and rage.  Clearly, Jesus does not want us to be unproductive or isolated from the needs of others, but our busyness, our stress, our huffing and puffing and scurrying about, does not impress Him, nor does it bring us the kind of happiness only God can offer.

He gives the same emphasis when he discusses prayer– prayer is not about public eloquence or long strings of words or excessive emotional outbursts.  In fact, effective prayer has little to do with who is praying, what words or word order or language they use, where they pray, or when they pray.  It IS about how and why and TO WHOM they are praying.  And the only active verb not assigned to “Our Father” is found in the phrase, “…as we forgive…”

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God does not command us to pray seven times a day, or to have a prayer list a mile long, or to pray only when we are in great need.  He wants us to “pray without ceasing”, not as a recurring action, but as a constant state of being aware of and responsive to His presence.

I have a niece who has spent several years in dance.  When she was a beginner, it was both comical and sad to watch as she and many others agonized and counted the steps out as they performed– often getting all the right steps, but a slight beat ahead of or behind the music and/or the other dancers.  But what a delight to see the development of young students into graceful dancers– seeing the transition from just doing the right steps at the (approximate) right time to internalizing and coordinating the music and movement into art.

adult art ballerina ballet
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I have friends who are runners, and while I don’t run, I have watched those who do…there is a difference in the stride, the posture, and the face of someone who is “a runner” and someone who is just “running.”  It’s not the action, but the attitude that makes the difference.

woman wearing black sports bra and jogger shorts smiling
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Prayer is a gift; a privilege; a sacred meditative conversation with our Creator, Our Father, and our King.  I don’t want to just pray– I want to BE in Prayer!

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