Monday, February 13, 2012

happiness and its unhappy place in worship

Father William Weedon recently wrote, "The Lord doesn't want you to be happy; He wants you to be holy...He wants us to be holy so that we may be truly blessed; and blessedness is even better than happiness."  I refer you to the whole comment at his blog.  I very much agree with his argument; it is a valuable insight.  It got me pondering happiness, and its unfortunately exalted place in the modern Church.  So I would like not merely to make the same argument, but to make it in my own way, and then apply it in certain particular ways.



Before proceeding any further, however, it is worth taking a close look at the word happiness.  On the one hand, happiness as it is most commonly used today has to do with a certain type of sentiment, that is, the feeling of personal pleasure.  It doesn't matter to what degree one feels this sentiment; it could be anywhere from an understated sense of contentment all the way to the sort of giddiness around which one can barely stand to remain for more than about a minute.  Nor does it matter what the cause or the particularities of the occasion might be in any given case; the happiness is no less real, valid, and genuine.       



On the other hand, happiness in its more literal and etymologically true use has to do with a sense of chance, or fortune, or luck.  Now, while some may be tempted to object that this use of the term is obsolete today, it is worth observing that this sense of the word does persist in our language.  It is why we have terms like happenstance (in essence, a chance circumstance) and perhaps (essentially the same as saying, by chance). 



Either way, the difference between worldly happiness and the sure hope we have in Christ, which is not dependent upon fleeting emotions, is unmistakable.  Nevertheless, regarding both of these senses of the term happiness, the emotive and the sense of chance, before we critique the use of these concepts among Christians, I believe it is worth also defending them.  For my view is a balanced one, which sees a place for both happy feelings and talk of good fortune among the faithful. 



If one is saddened, whatever the particular reason (and we all know they can range from the simple and incidental to the profound realities of death or other human tragedy), it is not necessarily inappropriate or out of line both to thank God for the experience and to ask Him to grant finally a reprieve from it, ie., to show the one experiencing it gladness once again.  With the Psalmist the Christian is happy to confess, "I was glad (Laetatus sum) when they said unto me: we will go into the house of the Lord.  Sometimes the insistence I hear from Lutherans about the distinction that must be maintained between happiness and joy strikes me as a bit overstated, absolutist, and overly literalist.  I am not condemning all such instances of this type of argument, just saying that it needs to be tempered with the understanding that our language is capable of nuances, and of terms being used in more than one sense; so that, for example, on the one hand, one might speak of "rejoicing" and have in mind being glad or "happy," even though the relationship between "joy" and "rejoice" is rather obvious, and on the other hand, one may certainly speak of being "happy," and have in mind the deep and abiding sense of contentment we have in Christ; all despite the insistence on fixed (and somewhat arbitrary) definitions of "happiness" and "joy," which I hear from some preachers. 



Likewise, I do not think it is absolutely wrong or inappropriate for the Christian to engage in language of chance or fortune or luck (the older sense of happy).  The Christian sees all gifts as coming from God, and we want always to be clear on that.  Nevertheless, on the one hand, some Christian uses of such phraseology are indeed meant in the sense of fortune and blessing that we receive from our Lord (such as Miles Coverdale's use of the word "luck" in Psalm 45, or in Psalm 118), and on the other hand, some of the greatest Christians of all time have used this sort of language, often in jest, and when having a bit of fun.  An example that sticks out in my mind is one of those particularly sassy passages in Luther's The Bondage of the Will:
I confess not only that you are far superior to me in powers of eloquence and native genius (which we all must admit, all the more as I am an uncultivated fellow who has always moved in uncultivated circles), but that you have quite damped my spirit and eagerness, and let me exhausted before I could strike a blow. There are two reasons for this: first, your cleverness in treating the subject with such remarkable and consistent moderation as to make it impossible for me to be angry with you; and secondly, the luck or chance or fate by which you say nothing on this important subject that has not been said before. 
Indeed, the literalists, if they were consistent, would surely be happy if we would cease using such terms as chance and even happy.



Now having said all of that, I want to affirm most clearly that Christians should ween themselves of the desire for increased emotional pleasure in life, and instead cultivate the desire for sanctification.  Even as the Christian looks with terror at his sins, he finds all joy and comfort in Christ alone.  This is the true and abiding hope which sustains us through life's trials, both the quotidian ups and downs and the true tragedies in this life.  And so while, as my discussion above shows, I would not condemn the use of the word happiness, or the focus on the concept of the same, in the Christian life per se, I would argue that praying for it, celebrating it, and all efforts to cultivate it should be kept out of our public worship, for much the same reasons outlined in Weedon's discourse. 



We could merely pick on the use of songs like "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands."  Indeed, we should pick on it, ridicule it, and roundly condemn it, in all Christian love (and also in Christian hate).  We could also pick on William Beck's dumbed down translation of the scriptures, in which "blessed" in the Beatitudes are replaced with "happy," a translation most unworthy of public worship, though I hardly think the AAT is much of an issue anymore.  I would suggest, however, that even in the Synod's approved worship resources, there are passages the wisdom of which is worth rethinking.  An example that comes to mind immediately is the Litany, which contains this petition:
To grant all women with child, and all mothers with infant children, increasing happiness in their blessings, we implore You to hear us, good Lord.
This language in LSB's version of the Litany is taken over from LW before it.  And it contrasts rather starkly with traditional Missouri Synod usage, such as Liturgy and Agenda of 1921 (and TLH of 1941), which employs what I would argue is much healthier language.  To wit,
To preserve all women in the perils of childbirth, we beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord.
Has anyone thought to ask, what exactly is it for which we are praying when we ask for increasing happiness for mothers? Are praying that women be deprived of the full range of their emotional life?  That would be asking that women no longer be women.  Certainly a husband's instinct would be the desire for his wife to be happy, whether out of pure love or partly for self-serving reasons.  Yet, the Church exists in part to be the objective bearer of Truth, for the family, and for the world.  Frankly, sometimes a woman experiences sadness; in some cases this is due to her fallen sinful nature, and in other cases it is because God has decided, for His own reasons, to allow a woman to experience certain sad situations.  He has a purpose and a plan, and it is ours to receive, to accept, to pray and meditate, to work through.  If a woman is experiencing truly debilitating depression, the Church ought to pray for her as she suffers such affliction; in such a case, it is not mere "happiness," however, for which we pray, but healing.  In Christ, the true Man of Sorrows, Who in His bitter passion and death suffered more than we can ever know, and Whose death and resurrection is our victory and life, we who are baptized into His death have ultimate and abiding hope and sanctification.  Let us pray that we may always remain firmly rooted in Christ, and His faithful Word, instead of praying for mere happiness.

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