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.

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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.

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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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