In college, when I read Psalm 119, I underlined the first verse: “Happy are those whose way is blameless.” Next to it, I wrote, “Is anyone happy?“
At the time, I thought my way was blameless. I was a student leader in Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru)’s ministry. I read my Bible and prayed regularly. I evangelized, I served.
I was also terribly, terribly unhappy. My faith was a heavy yoke. At night, alone in my dorm room, I had panic attacks, and thinking of my future put a knot in my stomach.
But I didn’t think unhappiness was a big deal for Christians. Wasn’t I supposed to be content with any situation? My feelings were beside the point.
Christians I admired seemed to agree. “Do not depend upon feelings,” Bill Bright, the founder of my parachurch ministry, asserted. “We, as Christians, do not depend upon … emotions, but we place our faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God and the promises of His Word.”
I decided if my life was Jesus-approved, my heart would get with the program eventually.
Thankfully, when Cru staff members learned about my struggles, they insisted I get counseling. When I faced my deep unhappiness for the first time, I collapsed; but acknowledging my feelings led me back to wholeness.
I wish I had taken my unhappiness seriously. I wish I had believed that joy really is a hallmark of Christian flourishing. And I wish I had believed better of the Almighty—that God was concerned about more than my perfect attendance.
Here are three reasons why paying attention to your happiness—and unhappiness—is essential to mature Christian faith.
Honesty About Unhappiness Is the Gateway to Joy
I’m moved by an interview with Bruce Kramer about living with ALS, considered one of the worst terminal illnesses. He radiated deep peace and joy. He offered no platitudes about his condition. Instead, he shared about his struggles with anger, humiliation and grief.
Often times, we American Christians wave away our discomfort, our grief, our rage and pretend everything’s better because of Jesus.
But Kramer offered a deeper, more painful and more joy-filled approach: He felt and acknowledged his unhappiness, while asking, “How do [I] grow into the demands of what is beyond [me]?”
Only through honesty about his feelings could he choose and experience joy.
Minimizing our unhappiness robs us of wholeness. As Brené Brown puts it in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Unhappiness Is an Important Call to Action
Bruce Kramer felt his unhappiness, but he did not dwell there. Both he and his wife fought hard to avoid falling into depression. It’s eye-opening that even while dealing with ALS, they considered persistent unhappiness to be a real battle.
Long-term unhappiness should bother us. As I’ve discovered, it can signal depression, poor boundaries or abuse. God doesn’t call us to be content with dysfunction but tells us to “seek peace and pursue it.”
Rather than viewing our unhappiness as a failure or a pesky annoyance, it’s actually a gift from God. If we are deeply unhappy and don’t know what to do, it’s a clear sign we need help. Seeing our unhappiness as a call to action can steer us toward new life.
Like Bill Bright noted, our emotions can’t be our only source of wisdom—they’re great warnings but lousy maps. I found a good therapist to be an invaluable resource for making wise choices.
We Serve a God of Joy
Finding happiness in a world of suffering is only possible because we serve a God of fierce love.
Theologian Howard Thurman, whose teaching instructed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and other civil rights leaders, was the grandson of a former slave. Thurman wrote candidly about the suffering of the African-American community.
Yet God’s goodness undergirded his hope. Thurman said of Jesus, “‘In Him was life; and the life was the light of men.’ Wherever His spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for He announced the Good News that fear, hypocrisy and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.” Thurman knew that God’s goodness and wholeness was the source of his community’s freedom. He believed that a holy God did not play handmaiden to the system that oppressed them.
Knowing God is good matters. Believing that God desires our wholeness helps us take action. If we are not whole, if our unhappiness seems neverending and without purpose, then we know something’s wrong. A good God calls us to take radical, courageous steps to face a broken world.
Happiness is a Serious Matter
I wish more Christians thought of deep unhappiness as an emergency. Too often, I hear faithful people waving away their problems, affirming that “God works out everything for good” without asking hard questions about how. Jesus is not a magical eraser. He calls us to be loving, not better hype men.
Happiness isn’t the only metric for wholeness, but it should be one of our concerns. At the very least, if we feel unhappy, we should ask why. We should be willing to seek counsel, examine our theology and rush desperately after new life. We should assume that God cares about our emotional health, that he provides a pathway to wholeness.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.