Happiness is a choice

Most people are about as happy as they choose to be.

J. David Newman is the editor of Ministry.

Most people are about as happy as they choose to be. Be fore you contest this statement too vigorously, consider the alternative. If happiness is not something we choose, but rests on the activities of other people, we then have little control over our peace of mind, for we are at the mercy of other people's actions.

If happiness is a choice we make, why would anyone choose unhappiness and depression over peace and happiness? Many people, including pastors, choose unhappiness for a number of reasons of which they are unaware. "Some choose unhappiness to punish themselves for guilt feelings. Others choose unhappiness to manipulate their mates and friends by enlisting their sympathies."1

The case for happiness being a choice can be made most strongly when we contrast the way Saul and David related to each other. One day Saul heard the women of Israel singing the respective exploits of himself and David: "As they danced, they sang: 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thou sands' " (1 Sam. 18:7).* How would Saul respond to this evaluation of his fighting ability?

Saul could have commended himself for picking such a wise general. He could have recognized that while David was a more skillful general he was a wiser ruler. He could have chosen contentment over the fact he was less likely to be killed sitting on the throne rather than engaging in battle. Instead he chose to keep " a jealous eye on David" (verse 9) wondering if David was after his throne.

His unhappiness grew so great that he tried to eliminate the perceived source of his unhappiness by killing David (verse 10), but David eluded the spear and escaped into hiding. While Saul was fuming away what mental choices did David make? Did he choose to wallow in self-pity, bemoaning his fate? He knew that he was to be the next king of Israel. Would he seek revenge?

Saul pursued David into the desert of En Gedi. When Saul entered a cave to rest, he was unaware that David and his men were hiding in that cave. David's men wanted David to kill Saul, and David did indeed cut off part of his clothing, but immediately his conscience struck him, and he said: "The Lord for bid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord's anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord" (1 Sam. 24:6).

Sometime later David found another opportunity to kill Saul when he and Abishai crept into the middle of Saul's camp in the dead of night, David said to Abishai: "Don't destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the LORD'S anointed and be guiltless?" (1 Sam. 26:9).

David's attitude regarding his experience with Saul can be seen most clearly in the Psalms. David wrote Psalm 57 after his experience in the cave with Saul. He chose happiness rather than self-pity: "My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music" (Ps. 57:9). When the Ziphites betrayed David to Saul, David sang: "I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you; I will praise your name, O LORD, for it is good" (Ps. 54:6).

Saul let the words of the women determine how he would feel. David determined that his choices, and his choices alone, would determine how he would feel. We are not at the mercy of those around us. However, even if we agree that happiness is a choice, that does not make it happen automatically. We too often allow our feelings to be wounded. We need to remember the words of Peter: "But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God" (1 Peter 2:20).

The ultimate answer to life's problems is Jesus. When we look at Jesus "the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2), how can we ever complain about what others might say or do to us? Since we live in a sinful world ,it is impossible, in our own strength, to always choose happiness, but we "can do everything through him who gives [us] strength" (Phil. 4:13).

This is why the gospel is such refreshing and invigorating good news. God does not bless me when I am good; He also blesses me when I am bad. God does not accept me based on my performance, but He does accept me based on Christ's performance. "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins" (Col. 2:13) and "made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved" (Eph. 2:5).

How marvelous it is that God does not accept us based on our performance. This frees us from worrying about our self-image and what others think. If God thinks well of us, that is all that counts, and we are free to choose happiness.

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J. David Newman is the editor of Ministry.

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