How to Be Happy
Some Christians just can’t seem to be happy. Sometimes there are real medical issues at work, chemical or hormonal imbalances in play, but sometimes it’s mysterious. When there are no obvious medical issues, we should not relegate the spiritual to some other realm. The state of your heart before God is closely related to your happiness, your joy, your peace. How could it not be? The God of the Universe made you, and your greatest comfort and joy is in Him. As the Great Augustine said, ‘Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in Him.’
What Makes People Sad?
“A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed” (Prov. 15:13). And what makes a heart sorrow? Sin. Hard providences like the loss of dear friends or death also cause grief, but when your heart is clean before God, the Spirit comforts and refreshes and the sting slowly subsides. But I’m talking about the gnawing, aching darkness of unexplainable depression. The Bible says that one of the first things we should consider is whether we have unconfessed sin.
Psalm 32:1 says, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” But the word translated “blessed,” could just as easily be translated “happy.” Happy is everyone whose sin is forgiven and covered. Happy is the man against whom the Lord does not reckon his iniquity (Ps. 32:2). David knows this from experience, and he remembers the time before that: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” When David refused to confess his sins, his bones ached, and every day was a dark downer.
Now when Christians get into these depression funks, when they have a backlog of bitterness, resentment, or other unconfessed sins, and everything goes dark, they often begin to question whether they are really Christians, whether they are really saved. And that is certainly a question that should be asked on occasion (2 Cor. 13:5). But in general when people have been walking with God and then find themselves drifting into a sad, dark place, this is actually not a sign that they aren’t saved; rather it is a sign that they are saved. David knows this, and he says so in the next verse in Psalm 32: “For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Ps. 32:4). Whose hand was heavy upon David? God’s hand was heavy upon him. It was God who was making David feel so bad, so awful. And that means that God was with David. But God loves His blood-bought people so much that He refuses to let them be happy when they are clinging to their sin.
In Hebrews 12 it says, quoting Proverbs, “For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6). When you are disciplined, God is treating you like sons (Heb. 12:7). In fact, it says that if you are not disciplined, if you are not chastised when you sin, then that’s when you should wonder if you are really a son (Heb. 12:8). God’s fatherly discipline is not pleasant but painful for the moment, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb. 12:11).
God disciplines his children and gives them temporary pain and sadness so that they will confess their sins and come back out into the light, back into the joy and fellowship, so that they will be happy. You cannot keep your sin and be happy at the same time. And we are the kind of stubborn creatures who cling to sins for a while, preferring them and our sadness, to the freedom and happiness that God offers us in Jesus.
But the sadness is usually a proof that we really do belong to Him, and He is treating us as sons, not letting us get away with sin, not letting us be happy in our sin. A true sign of an old, dead heart, of reprobation, is someone who feels fine, who feels good even in his sin. I do not believe that they have true happiness or true joy, and even in those situations, there is still a prick of truth buried somewhere in their conscience. But there is such a thing as a hard heart and a seared conscience, and those are people that God has given over to their sin. They lie and do not remember. They steal and do not notice. They commit adultery and wipe their mouths and say, ‘I have done nothing wrong’ (Prov. 30:20, cf. Rom. 1:24).
When David finally confessed his sins, God forgave him (Ps. 32:5), and that forgiveness was like a high rock above the surging waves of anxiety, fear, and sorrow (Ps. 32:6). The forgiveness of God is like a hiding place, a shelter, a warm home from the cold, a fortress of safety from every threat (Ps. 32:7). And David closes the Psalm summarizing the whole point: “Many sorrows are to the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust the Lord” (Ps. 32:10). And the implication is clear: those who are surrounded by the steadfast love of Lord are happy.
So, are you struggling with recurring darkness, sorrow, lethargy, apathy? There may be other factors at work, but why not start with what the Bible says? Why not start with checking to see if you have a clean heart? Are you harboring anything? Are there any closets in your heart that you dare not open? And sins shoved into some corner, that you’re hoping will just go away? Is God’s hand heavy upon you because He wants you to be free? Is God disciplining you as a son because He loves you and does not want you to keep holding on to that old sin?
Two Final Thoughts
First, sometimes Christians try to confess or start to confess their sin but they don’t actually complete the task. So the pastor suggests confession as a solution to their sadness, and they say, ‘I already tried that and it didn’t work.’ But often the confession was thrown up to the ceiling in desperation, but it wasn’t a thorough and obedient repentance. It’s not enough to merely feel bad about sin. “For godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly sorrow produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). So it’s fully possible to feel bad about sin and really feel sorry, and for everything to only get worse. It’s not enough to just feel bad; you have to confess your sin to the Lord and anyone you have sinned against and repent.
Repentance means turning, even turning around. Let’s say you’ve been angry with your wife or your husband for a long time. Maybe it was one thing they did or said years ago, or maybe it was a pattern of sins over a long time. And sometimes you think about your bitterness and you feel bad about it, and maybe you even confess that one moment of bitterness. But Hebrews says that bitterness is a root that springs up and defiles many (Heb. 12:15). In other words, you might have confessed one branch of that ugly prickle plant, but have you uprooted the whole knotted, oozing, and spikey thing? And in its place, have you planted flowers?
Repentance means confessing, asking for forgiveness, and having put off that old rotting man, putting on the new living man. Have you confessed the whole thing, have you dug down as deep as you can go, and pulled the whole thing up by the roots, hating it all, kill it all, and put grace in its place? Or have you been like Bilbo the Hobbit with the ring, saying that you will leave it behind, but still mindlessly putting it back in your pocket? If you’ve been struggling with bitterness toward your spouse for sometime, chances are good that they’ve felt it, even if it’s been under the surface. You need to confess it to them, and then you need to thank them for being your wife/your husband, tell them you love them, and tell them that you will be endeavoring to love, honor, and cherish them from now on, just like you promised in your wedding vows. The old habit may still pop up occasionally after that, but if you’ve pulled out the beast by the roots, you can pull out the occasional little weed, and you’ll be right back in the joy. But if all you ever do is pluck off the end of one gnarly branch, the whole spikey weed is still sitting there in your heart; so of course you’re still not happy. You didn’t do the whole job.
Lastly, a word about introspection. There’s a particular temptation for some to spend an inordinate amount of time examining the soil of their hearts in search of weeds, and they struggle with bouts of anxiety and depression because they worry that they haven’t really dealt with all of their sin, or maybe they haven’t dealt with it fully or completely. First, I recommend the 30 second rule which is sort of like when you drop food and pick it up quickly. Except, it’s not really like that at all. The only thing it has in common with that rule is the 30 seconds part. But what I mean is that if you’re one of those introspective types, and you’ve confessed some sin around 15 times but it’s still gnawing at you and there’s a little black rain cloud pouring on your heart, you should ask the Lord to name what the sin is that you have not yet confessed. And give it 30 seconds and no more. The Holy Spirit really does convict believers of sin, but the Holy Spirit is the Comforter. The Holy Spirit convicts believers of sin so that they can confess quicly, repent, and get back into the joy. The Holy Spirit gives us the peace of Christ. In other words, if you’re sitting under that little black rain cloud for hours or days, that isn’t the Holy Spirit. That’s the Devil. That’s Satan, the Accuser. God does not put His children on a spit to roast them over the fire of the Spirit. That’s just not His way.
But, one of you will say, but isn’t His hand heavy upon His people sometimes because they won’t confess their sins? Yes, but He does that for sins they know about. God’s hand is heavy upon those who are intentionally keeping silent, who refuse to confess sins they know they should confess. He doesn’t do that for vague feelings of guilt. The Spirit convicts us of concrete sins so that we can confess them immediately, get forgiven, and have peace and joy again quickly.
Frequently, introspection is a form of sadistic hubris and pride. Frequently, the introspectionist is obsessed with himself/herself, and you can tell because most of their sentences begin with: I, me, myself, I, I, I, my, my, me. But you aren’t that important, and your self obsession with your feelings is often stealing from those whom God has called you to love and serve. There is also often a form of pride in refusing to believe and receive the forgiveness of God. Did you confess your sin? Then God has removed it as far as the East is from the West. Stop asking for forgiveness. He has buried at the bottom of the sea. He doesn’t remember it anymore. Stop bringing it up. But when you climb on to the spit of your memory and insist on roasting for an afternoon or an evening or another week or month, you are arrogantly insisting to God that you know better than Him, that the blood of Jesus is not enough for you. Your sin is so bad and so important, that it requires some additional suffering that you are now providing for yourself. But that is of course ludicrous. You are not God; you are not Jesus. And you are terrible god, a terrible savior. And who do you think you are, telling God, “no.” He said that you are forgiven and clean. He told you to walk free with your head held high. He told you to shut up and smile because His grace is sufficient for you, because the blood of Jesus is enough. It is finished.
So do it. Smile. Preach the gospel to your heart, to your soul. Believe in the cross and resurrection. Confess your sins (the real ones), and maybe confess your introspection or prideful self-obsession, receive the forgiveness of God, and then walk in obedience. Don’t look down, don’t look back. Look to Christ, look ahead, look up, and remember that Christ is all. Christ is God. We are not that important; we are not the saviors of the world. And therefore, we are free to just be ordinary people, ordinary people who confess their sins regularly and therefore have clean hearts. And that is how to be happy.