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Are Christians happier? By Rev. Orville James

I’m a minister. Somehow this gives strangers permission to skip over the small talk when we meet. Mostly this is good – I am generally in favour of efficiency and I want to be of service. A man I met at a barbeque began by saying “My wife left me. Then I lost my job and had to declare bankruptcy.” I looked at him and said, “I’m really sorry. Can I help at all?” “No, no,” he said. “You don’t understand. That’s when Jesus found me.” I started looking for an exit. I’d already categorized him as an eccentric religious nut, another occupational hazard. But I was wrong. As we talked further, I heard of a friendship with Jesus that had begun when he was down and evolved from a spiritual parachute to a guiding light, giving him what he needed to move forward through hardship and challenge. For this man, a spiritual awakening made all the difference and left me with the question: Does Christian faith make believers happier? Part of me wants to say yes, but when I asked colleagues and family (all people of faith), they responded negatively. Some grimaced and groaned, “No way! That’s not what Christianity is about.” And yet, surveys by Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center and the Pew organization conclude that spiritually committed people are twice as likely to report being “very happy” than the least religiously committed people. Part of my job is to be a person people can come to when they want answers, which occasionally I have. On this matter I had many questions. Is happiness what Jesus came for? No, not really. But what did Jesus mean when he said, “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11)?

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I’m pretty sure this experience is not restricted to Christians and I’ve met some pretty cheerful Jews and Muslims, too.

Jesus’ joy was best seen as an unshakeable peace and a calm confidence, regardless of momentary circumstances. I have known followers of Christ who exemplify this state of mind. Some of them exude a zestful spirit that makes life a happy adventure. At the same time, I’ve known some church people whose religious involvement was like an anvil of duty hanging around their neck. One minister asked a grumpy member of his church if he was happy. When told yes, the minister said, “Then tell your face!” Perhaps what’s at work here is the difference between religion and faith. Faith is an intimate, affectionate relationship. We know we’re not alone; we feel a Presence; we recognize that this moment and this world is not all there is; we realize there is a Power beyond ourselves who is always active and available. Spiritual living is good for our personality. “So I say, live by the Spirit... [For] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:16, 22). It strikes me that anyone with those personality traits would be a happy person. I’m pretty sure this experience is not restricted to Christians and I’ve met some pretty cheerful Jews and Muslims, too. The key is not the system of worship one participates in but rather a relationship of committed trust in God. Jesus said, “I am come that you might have life... to the full” (John 10:10). In an intimate relationship with our Creator, life becomes an adventure that gives satisfaction. We gain perseverance to face challenging circumstances and find meaning and purpose for our energies. Even when failure or an ending comes, there is assurance of resurrection and ultimate victory. I can’t think of anything that could make you happier. Rev. James is the SeniorMinister at Wellington Square UnitedChurch in Burlington, Ontario. A version of this piece first appeared in The United Church Observer.

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