February 26, 2015

Worry & Happiness

by Wyatt Graham

It’s pretty easy to worry when choices confront us. Worry can cripple, wound, or otherwise prevent us from experiencing the joy of our salvation. And sometimes there are no clear answers in the murky world in which we all live.

In 1931, Montagu Norman, the head of the Bank of England, had to decide how to save the economy: would he drop the gold standard and adopt bill economy or keep the gold standard and risk running out of it? Both options were possible, but the stress got to him and Montagu had a nervous breakdown. While vacation, his office made the decision and killed the gold standard. While none of us will have the same responsibility, we can easily fall into the sways of anxiety and depression due to stress, to the crippling effect choices have on us.  

Stress happens and there is no easy escape, but Christians have a unique way to deal with it, overcome it, and live a stable life. At the get-go I want to be clear, some worry is not sin. You need to worry about finances, family, health, and all the rest of life or else you would dive headlong into ruin. But much worry is sin, because it trips into anxiety, and anxiety crushes us into depression, and depression makes us the walking dead.

So what happens when you don’t know what to do and just want to do what is right, and how do you overcome much worry, anxiety, and depression due to this?

I’d like to suggest that you will overcome much worry by practicing righteousness–that you walk by the Spirit–and your answer will come and your worry will die. By doing before knowing, and by doing before feeling, you are freed up to live the happy life, and when you are happy, worrisome decisions seem so much less debilitating.

DESIRE AND ASHERISM

Four people have helped to understand this: Jesus, the Author of Psalm 1, Ellen Charry, and James Smith. Together, their ideas empower us to overcome worry, grief, anxiety, because they show us how to walk by the Spirit so that we will not gratify the desires of the flesh–including much worry and anxiety. Let’s think about what each has to do say in reverse order.

James Smith argues in his Cultural Liturgies series that people are primarily lovers, that what we do shapes the way we love. In short, what we practice shapes who we are what we desire in life.

Ellen Charry, in her work God and the Art of Happiness, argues that biblical morality intends to grow us in wisdom, to make us flourish and live the happy life. Of course, the happy life according to Scripture is not pure bliss. Rather, it’s a deep seated contentment and joy garnered from a life lived wisely. She calls this sort of life the Asheristic life, which comes from Hebrew word Ashre meaning “happy.”

Asherism teaches us to think, live and then feel a certain way. Happiness comes through practicing righteousness.

In sum, Charry points to our practice of righteousness as the means to happiness, while Smith explains how our practices help us to gain what we desire­­-in this case, happiness. On Smith’s anthropology, if we want happiness we need to cultivate practices to gain it. Charry defines those practices as righteousness. But to answer the question of “What does it mean to practice righteousness?”, at least in broad strokes, we need to turn the Psalms and Jesus.

THE HAPPY LIFE

Psalm 1 opens with the word Ashre or happy: “Happy is the person … whose delight is in God’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night.” From the start, the Psalms invite readers to enter into the meditative life, into a life that delights to think, do, and live in God’s instruction.

This is the happy life, the rest of the Psalms relate the happy life to the common experiences of lament, grief, joy, bliss, and everywhere in between. The Psalms mirror the reader’s soul by showing him or her how they feel and think.

The Psalms invite us to enter into the happy life through meditating on God’s instruction through the thick and thin.

Jesus too instructs us to live a happy life. His most famous sermon opens with, “Happy are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3). Jesus then lays out a way of life that constitutes the happy life. The word he uses for happy, Makarios, is the same word that the Greek version of Psalm 1 uses to cast a vision of the happy life. Jesus, as a sage, continues a tradition of the happy a life, a life that follows a certain way, a way that practices righteousness.

The Psalms and Jesus avoid declarations of duty as a means to the happy life. Instead, they agree that living righteously brings happiness and reward.

Happiness, however, is not the same thing as bliss. After all, Jesus says: “You are happy when they insult and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:11-12).

Happiness does not come through the easy life; it comes though the righteous life.

THE BIG CHANGE

Here is what is so freeing. When you are practicing righteousness in the way Scripture explains (meditation on Scripture, poor in spirit, etc.), God smiles on you. Your reward is great no matter what happens. As Smith argues, we are first lovers, and if we train ourselves to seek first God’s kingdom, then all this will be added–all this happiness. As Charry argues, the more we practice righteousness the deeper and sturdier our Asheristic life will be.

From this point of view, the struggles and uncertainty of this present age fizzle out. They don’t go away. But they seem as if one thing to do among many. No longer will they cause the worry monster to rear its head. They become less worrisome. “Can any of you add a single cubit to his height by worrying?” (Matt 6:27). Not even one millimeter.

Idolaters worry about such things (Matt 6:32), those whose God is their making, whose well-being depends on how much their God does for them; their happiness depends on their circumstances not their reward of true happiness, of God himself: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.”

By seeking righteousness, God’s kingdom, worry dies, not because difficult choices or bad experiences disappear, but because you have an undying and unrelenting hope and reward: “Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven” (Mt 5:12).

“Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt 6:34). And this happy life free of debilitating worry comes through practicing righteousness, through acting on Jesus’ words (Matt 7:24). Be happy by practicing righteousness, which eliminates much worry and anxiety.

Wyatt Graham

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Wyatt is the Executive Director of The Gospel Coalition Canada. He also blogs at www.wyattgraham.com. Follow him at @wagraham.