An experiment with joy
DOUGLAS GROOTHUIS| JUNE 11, 2019
‘I don’t trust happiness,” said Mack (played by Robert Duvall) in Tender Merciesafter losing his young daughter. These four words rang sadly true, and they lodged in my soul. In 1983, when I was 27, it seemed right to me. I had not known the nadir of unhappiness. But my father had been killed in a plane crash in 1968. Since that grave loss, I thought that serious people, thinkers, ought not to risk happiness. It was, after all, a fallen world; optimists were deluded. Happy was usually silly and not the attitude of the brooding prophet, of which I was one.
To me, the frown was the crown of the Christian critic. Francis Schaeffer was seldom photographed while smiling. I don’t remember him smiling in any of the scenes of the film series, “How Shall We Then Live?” Woe to our modern, post-Christian culture! We serious people must beware of pointless mirth and witness chuckles. Yes, I knew who I was. A Christian sister in my college youth group said I was so “serious.” She liked to laugh, even giggle. I liked her, but that giggle! Somehow, we became friends.
By grace, I learned my calling soon after conversion: Teach, preach, and publish. Defend the faith. Exegete and challenge the culture in the mode of Os Guinness and Francis Schaeffer. Out-think the world for Christ! One must be serious to do this. Remember Kierkegaard, the great and melancholy Dane, whose book, The Sickness unto Death, helped lead me to Christ. But Os Guinness, as I knew from lecture tapes, had a seriousness and cheerfulness about him. When we met, I delightfully discerned this again. And C. S. Lewis wrote so much about joy. Hardly unserious, that Lewis.
“I don’t trust happiness,” I often intoned to myself as one dream died after another, as my wife went from chronically ill to terminal dementia. I wrote a lament about it, Walking Through Twilight. I was in good company: C. S. Lewis and Nicholas Wolterstorff who wrote laments for their own losses (a wife and a son, respectively). The latter wrote the foreword to my book. Yes, I tried to smelt every bit of meaning and love out of my suffering according to my Christian convictions.
I escaped into meaning as my life devolved into caregiving for a dying spouse—once brilliant, now not. I found meaning in my work, my aesthetic enjoyments, my mentoring, and my friendships. “A lot of people love you,” I have been told.
The pessimist assumes the worst, so he is not so disappointed. Assuming the worst is emotional insulation meant to provide protection from pain. I read Authentic Happiness, by noted social scientist Martin Seligman, over a decade ago. One fact stood out: Optimists tend to be less aware than pessimists of reality. I will take reality over happiness, I resolved. I have told my students, “I’d rather suffer for the truth than be happy with a lie.” The brooding prophet will not be deceived.
Now I wonder about this grim posture. I know, especially from Ecclesiastes, that life, even at its best, is hevel, “a vapor.” But this life “under the sun” also affords simple pleasures of work, family, eating, and drinking. And the vapor will one day give way to eternity.
My friend and author, Gail MacDonald, signs all of her letters with “Don’t postpone joy.” This, I take it, is the polar opposite of “I don’t trust happiness.” Gail is not a superficial, happy-clappy soul. She and her husband, Gordon, have been faithful partners in my laments over the years. They are seasoned saints whom I respect and love.
I distrust happiness still. Yet I know the beginning and the end of the great story. The new creation will know no sorrow, neither tears nor groans of longing and agony (Rev. 21–22). By grace, I am a citizen of heaven and will thrive on a new earth with all the redeemed. We will invent new games of happiness, new talks of hilarity, new festivals of celebration of our great God and King. I will converse with Blaise Pascal and Soren Kierkegaard, whose legendary melancholy will be no more. Francis Schaeffer will be beaming as well.
Happiness is ganging up on me. I am now married to a kind, gentle, loving, faithful, and beautiful woman, who loves me as much as I love her. We have a vision of ministry together. I am no longer obese. The 50 pounds I gained through sorrow have been lost. I don’t feel ashamed every time I put on clothes or look into the mirror, which shouldn’t be too often anyway.
Why not embrace happiness now and expect more—in this broken world, on this groaning orb? Every happy thought, every feeling of joy (unless sinful), is a strike against the fall and Satan and his devils. People say I look lighter, physically and emotionally. I am learning to welcome the pleasant as just as real as the unpleasant. No, it is more real! God made all things very good before the fall. Sin is a parasite on goodness, which is aboriginal in God and creation. Joy will find a way, even through the detours.
Why should I postpone joy? I find no duty before God or man to do so. God gives all good gifts, including every second of happiness. I accept it in the embrace of my new wife. My smiles need not fade so quickly. I need hide no reality to find the levity in God’s good world.
Call it an experiment in happiness, well worth the risk. But I am reluctant still. What if it is dashed, squashed? No matter. I accept and relish any godly happiness I meet. In that moment, it cannot be taken away by anyone or anything.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is author of many books, most recently Walking Through Twilight.