The Problem with Happy-Face Christianity

by Matthew Bassford

"Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda, is he who sings songs to a troubled heart" (Proverbs 25:20).

The other day, a friend of mine unburdened himself on Facebook about his struggles with depression. He talked about his confusion and fear and self-hatred. I came away from his post feeling deeply saddened and troubled, not only because of his plight, but because of my conviction that as a brotherhood, we have failed him and those like him.

I agree with Steve Wolfgang that the greatest failure of the Lord’s church in the past 50 years has been the failure to raise up men who will be spiritual leaders. Right behind that one, though, is surely our failure to meet the needs of and give a voice to Christians who wrestle with depression, grief, and suffering.

Indeed, there exists in our teaching and especially in our singing the presumption that Christians ought to be happy people. I think this is driven by salesmanship. We want the lost to come to Christ, so we feel the need to make Christianity as attractive as possible by pretending that everything is A-OK with us. “Look how wonderful my life is!!! Don’t you want to have a life as wonderful as mine???”

This is problematic for several reasons. First, it’s fundamentally dishonest. You can be a faithful Christian and still, for reasons beyond your control, have a miserable life. To argue otherwise is quite literally to adopt the position of Job’s friends.

Nonetheless, Christians who are suffering intensely often are expected to paste a smile on and act like nothing’s wrong. I’ve seen a sister who had lost her child six weeks beforehand get rebuked on Facebook for dwelling on her grief. If we believe that Christians ought to be happy all the time, then Christians who are obviously unhappy introduce cognitive dissonance that we’re not prepared to handle. Clearly, even though they have every reason to be unhappy, they must be doing something wrong! Lack of faith, probably.

Second, it’s not faithful to the witness of Scripture. One would never guess it from much of our teaching and preaching, but the Bible reflects more deeply on human suffering than any other book ever written. Many of the great heroes of faith were men and women of intense suffering.

Job was one such, obviously, but there are many more. David wrote that he felt like God was drowning him. Elijah pleaded with God to kill him. Paul despaired even of life. Even Christ Himself was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

We need to talk about these things because they are written for us to talk about. The book of Job (the whole thing, not just the first two and final chapters) exists for a reason. Half the psalms in Psalms exist for a reason. I Peter exists for a reason. All those stories about the suffering of the godly exist for a reason. I don’t think it’s so we can ignore them and talk about upbeat passages that we’re comfortable with (“Do not be anxious!”) instead.

Finally, it’s not helpful. Here, I want to focus particularly upon our singing. In contrast to the Psalms, which offer the mourning consolation and sometimes simply self-expression (see Psalm 89, which contains nothing resembling a resolution), our hymn repertoire is overwhelmingly, relentlessly, bouncy and cheerful. The help we offer to suffering brethren frequently sounds like “Sing and Be Happy”, which admittedly is fun to sing but seems to have learned compassion from Dolores Umbridge.

We can do better than this. Indeed, we must. We can be open about our own griefs and understanding toward Christians who can’t get over theirs. We can be honest with the word and grapple with the hard questions about suffering that it presents. We can weep with those who weep in our singing as fully as we rejoice with those who rejoice.

Will all this sadness and suffering deter seekers? I think the opposite is true. When we act like we don’t have any problems, we aren’t being genuine, and insincerity is always repellent. If, on the other hand, we are willing to be vulnerable and honest, if we offer consolation and meaning to those who mourn, it’s more than likely that mourners will start showing up.

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