My six-year-old has, for some time now, been an enthusiast of the “Mister Men” series of picture books. The highs and lows in the lives of the characters portrayed have been a very entertaining feature of our lives, and for that I’m grateful. I must admit, though, that I haven’t warmed to the character of Mr. Happy. Now, I’m all for people making it their aim to bring cheer to other people, as Mr. Happy does – I don’t doubt that Mr. Miserable was all the jollier for their meeting(!). What jars with me is the sub-text that Happy is all you need, ever after. And the notion that it’s possible to feel Happy all the time.
I wonder if this is something we wrestle with if we live today in a comfortable and prosperous culture where Happy is prized. Where Happy is even set as a sort of life goal. Is Happy perching on the named cup you were given at a coffee shop? Is he in the pointlessly polite smile of the colleague who says “I hate to bother you…” even though s/he doesn’t really give a hoot? Is Happy beaming oh-so-flawlessly down from the TV advertisement for a holiday resort where everybody looks ridiculously… well, Happy, and nobody falls out with their family? What an unrealistic scenario. And because it’s an unrealistic scenario, some of us feel failures when we don’t achieve it. Pre-Happy, you knew it wasn’t the end of the world when a family holiday involved a few squabbles. You recognised that your family was imperfect like everyone else’s and moved on – without condemnation. Nowadays, Happy whispers “You’re completely rubbish; you’ve broken your family.” In this way, Happy robs life of its fullness. Happy has become a tyrant. In Luke 11, Jesus remarks that first-century Galilean ‘experts in the law’ were loading people down with burdens they could hardly carry because of their endless legalism. I believe that Happy is a cause of the same burdening in 21st-century Western societies.
It’s started to enter our conversations. People say they just want their children to be Happy – and I know exactly what they mean. I have a small godchild who is very giggly and smiley. I’m grateful for that. I delight in every chuckle, and I pray he would retain that great sense of humour as he grows! But more than that, I’ll be praying that the Lord would fill him to overflowing with joy. Joy is defined by the Chambers dictionary as “intense gladness; rapture, delight; rejoicing.” Joy is not the same as Happy, because Happy disappears when our circumstances or our mood take a turn for the worse. Joy is rather an ever-present contentment, an abiding confidence that all is well in our inmost being, irrespective of circumstances or mood. The day will come for my godchild, as it does for all of us, when circumstances or mood will empty the day of Happy. But joy is continually available; it can be known through thick and thin.
Joy, not Happy
How can we know joy? Well, when Jesus was born on earth two thousand years ago, his birth was announced by an angel to some shepherds, and one of the first things to come out of the angel’s mouth was “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Over thirty years later, Jesus died and rose to life again, and the initial reaction of the first two people who heard the news was joy (Matthew 28:8). According to Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Seeing as God has now poured out his Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17) then it follows that each fruit of the Spirit, joy included, is freely available to everyone who seeks. As we keep getting to know Jesus and his Word better, he will increase our joy.
Happy is undoubtedly a positive emotion, and I will still feel Happy when my loved ones are flourishing, when I’m spending time with my friends, when the sun is shining in our lovely local park, or when my mood is just “that way out”, as they say here in Yorkshire! It’s good to feel Happy. But when circumstances don’t deliver, I’m so privileged to be able to say that because I know Jesus, I can’t ever not know joy. Let’s desire it!
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)