I love technology, especially apple products. In our household, we have multiple iPhones, iPads, apple tvs, AirPods, a MacBook and an iMac. And I’m probably leaving something out. When Apple announces new technology, I eagerly follow along on a liveblog.
The thought of that new technology in my hands, what it will enable me to do, how cool it will be, the thought of playing around with its new features, all of these things get me excited. I remember one December thinking to myself how cool it would be to have an iPhone X. I’d never had the current model iPhone, always opting instead for the previous years’ model to save costs. But that December, I thought to myself that I wanted the latest phone, and so I got it.
And it was awesome and amazing and cool. And I thought it was the neatest thing ever. It made me happy. For about two weeks. Then it was just normal, something I owned, something I had. It had lost its novelty.
But before I bought it, I couldn’t help but think to myself that when I got the phone, I’d be so happy.
I’ve been known to chase after happiness like that. And not just with material items. I can remember thinking to myself back in 2015 that, when I got a chaplaincy job at a college, I’d be so happy. In my role back then as Associate Pastor at Vineville, I was working on creating a neighborhood park through a public-private partnership, I was teaching bible studies I thoroughly enjoyed, I was working on a staff where I had some great friends, and I liked my boss. Everything was great. And yet, I thought to myself when I got a chaplaincy position, I’d be so happy.
Or as I approached ordination, I remember thinking that when I was finally ordained, I’d be so happy. I labored for that moment, twice as many of you who walked that road with me recall, and was finally ordained. It was one of the most special moments of my life but, now, I’m just ordained. It’s another status that I hold; an important one, but the thrill of achievement has left me.
I’ve been known to think that way about technology, about jobs, about achievements, about any number of things. The pursuit of happiness has, at times, dominated my thoughts and driven my decisions as I think to myself that, when I get the technology, when I get the job, when I reach the milestone, I’ll truly be happy.
The pursuit of happiness is a powerful, driving force, that sometimes operates without us even realizing it. Subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, we think to ourselves that when we have gotten the job, bought the item, moved into the house, gotten married or left a marriage, started a new relationship or ended one; that then we’ll truly be happy.
Really, if we think about it, this pursuit of happiness is remarkably similar to the classic children’s book “Green Eggs and Ham.” Sam-I-Am tries to sell happiness by saying, “Try it, try it, and you may, try it and you may, I say.” If the unnamed character who refuses the green eggs and ham would just try the food in the right location, on a boat, on a plane, with a fox or in a box, he would be happy. And indeed, when he finally relents to Sam-I-am and tries it, he does like green eggs and ham. He has tasted and seen that green eggs and ham are good. He is happy now. But maybe he was happy before Sam-I-Am showed up with his green eggs and ham?
I couldn’t help but think of that classic children’s book and the pursuit of happiness as I heard the words of David, the famous words of David, in verse 8 of our scripture this morning: taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
Let’s hear now David’s Psalm about happiness in Psalm 34, verses 1-8.
The superscription of the Psalm, the words in italics just above verse 1, tell us that David was feigning being crazy in order to flee someone. The event recorded here isn’t recorded in scripture otherwise. There was a moment when David feigned being crazy in front of a king in 2 Samuel, but regardless, David is in trouble. He needs to get away, take refuge, where things are safe. He uses that event from his history to instruct the young through this Psalm in what it means to find true happiness.
David is selling happiness, just like advertisements, just like we sell to ourselves about jobs and careers and relationships and stuff. He’s got a formula here: orient yourself toward God, trust in God, and you’ll be happy. Like Sam-I-Am, David says: try it, try it, and you may, try it and you may, I say, is what David says to us: try out trusting God and you will be happy.
We get sold to all the time. Products on TV ads tell us that we’ll be happier when we’ve purchased their product, whether it makes us look younger, improves our lives through technology, or makes us cool. Products on the internet follow us around. I looked at athletic socks on amazon one day. For the next several weeks, you would have thought I was an athletic sock connoisseur because every ad on every website was for athletic socks. Advertisers are aware that they’re selling us happiness. They’re just like Sam-I-am: You may like them, you will see, you may like them in a tree! Would you, could you, in a car? Eat them! Eat them! Here they are.
Our lives will be happier if we get that product. Just like our lives will be happier if we get the new job, the promotion, the new relationship, end the old relationship, start a new business, take a trip somewhere, or anything else we think will truly, finally, make us happy.
Perhaps this reality is all the more present with us now during this time of higher stress and concern. Whenever I’m stressed or feeling overcome, I always am more tempted to buy things that I don’t need out of a desire to try and make myself happy. One of those items is a new iPad, something I don’t need and have, so far, resisted purchasing. But, that’s in part because you can’t find iPad Pros for sale anywhere. They’re all bought up. So are golf carts. So are Nintendo switches. Perhaps more people are like me than I know: buying things to make themselves happy when the life is stressful.
Which begs the question, why are we so unhappy?
Perhaps we want to jump quickly to whatever we’re feeling now: the pandemic! The news! The election!
But consider that when there isn’t a pandemic, when the news is normal, and when it’s not an election year, we’re still a pretty unhappy people. We can tell because we’re just as prone to buy stuff then as we are now. For some reason, we’re just an unhappy bunch of people.
If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need all this stuff. We wouldn’t put so much stalk in a new job or relationship. We wouldn’t be so eager to leave our current job, or to move away, or to end an old relationship, or to move to a new home, or to take a trip, if we weren’t seeking that which will make us happy. The attraction of the new, and the disenchantment with the old, lies in a common root: unhappiness.
That may not be our first thought, for on a daily basis, my guess is we don’t think to ourselves that we’re unhappy. We go about our day to day lives, doing our normal thing, sometimes content, sometimes happy, but how often is there something nagging at us that says something’s wrong, something’s off, something’s making us unhappy? It’s quiet, but persistent.
Or how often in our dreams, whether at night or in our daydreaming, do our thoughts fly off to some future where we’re truly happy because we’ve achieved what we want, we’ve purchased what we want, we’ve realized the thing we want the most?
Such has often been the case for me. Just like when I was daydreaming of being a college chaplain in 2015. Because of my daydreaming, because I assumed I could only truly be happy in the future, I missed what was happening right then. If I’d focused on the right now, I would have seen what a great existence we had, I would have noted that things were very good, but my thought that I hadn’t quite reached what would truly make me happy meant that I had a nagging longing, an unhappiness, that needed to be filled.
I got to that position and it was great for several weeks. I was really happy. And then the shine wore off and it was just like a new piece of technology, a new car, anything I’ve ever thought would add happiness to my life or make me happy: it became normal and no longer a source of happiness. Just like a new iPhone, it quickly became something I just had.
How often in our pasts has this been true of us? We achieve the thing we thought would make us happy, we purchased the item, we bought the house, we got the relationship, and it turned out to not be the divine source of eternal, unshakeable, happiness that we desired? It reminds me of the wisdom of that unlikely poet and font of wisdom, Van Halen. In their song, “Right Now,” they say, “the more you get, the more you want; just trading one in for the other. Working so hard to make it easier….”
We do, indeed, work so hard to make it easier. That line has always stood out to me. We work so hard to get more money, or to get more privileges, so that we can live an easier life, because we think that then we’ll be happy. We all want less stress, we all need refuge from the ways life wears us down, we all need that relief, that shelter, and so we buy things, achieve things, gain things, working so hard to make life less stressful, less taxing, less demanding, less unhappy; working so hard to make it easier.
Except all that working, all that laboring, makes life more stressful, more taxing, more demanding, more unhappy. We work so hard but we rarely, if ever, end up making life easier. Our working so hard to make it easier is a myth.
If we look back at the things we’ve purchased, the things we’ve achieved, the things we’ve gained, the relationships begun and ended, all the things we’ve done out of that motivation to make life easier, more free, less stressful; all the things we’ve done to try and find shelter from the stress and the ways life wears us down; if we’re honest this morning, we know that these things have almost all failed, spectacularly failed, to provide that kind of happiness. The happiness all these things have provided has been quickly fleeting.
We trust that things, people, stuff, jobs, achievements, will make us happy. And almost always, we have misplaced our trust. Why are we so unhappy?
I was in love back in 2005. Well, really, back in 2004, when I first saw Dana. We’d never met before, but when I first saw her, it felt like love at first sight. Then we met and, well, she was super annoying. Going to Berry College, a small school, we ended up running in similar circles so we kept hanging out with mutual friends, even though our distaste for each other only grew over the fall of 2004.
But, during the spring of 2005, we started hanging out just the two of us and having a good time. Dana started to fall in love with me, although I was oblivious. I was too busy chasing another student at Berry. By April, I’d come to accept that the relationship I was chasing was going nowhere. But I was still oblivious to Dana’s affection.
So one Friday, I came home to my dorm room from playing Ultimate Frisbee to find an email from Dana. It declared that we needed to talk and dictated that I should come to her room at 7:00 on Sunday night. I waited anxiously through the weekend and then went to her room, not sure what I would encounter. What she said was not at all what I had expected.
She sat me down next to her desk, teacher-style, and said that she liked me, but she wasn’t sure I felt that way about her, but I was flirting with her and it was driving her crazy, so she needed me to either date her or stop flirting with her. I was flabbergasted. And, in my confusion and disorientation, I responded to her ultimatum of date me or stop flirting with me with words I have yet to live down, “I’ll think about it.”
Thankfully, this wasn’t a huge turn-off because, when I went back the next day to ask her out, she said yes. And the rest is history.
It’s a great story and it sounds like a rom-com, some fantasy life where there’s a funny beginning to a romantic relationship that is then perfect forever. It’s easy to imagine that the next line of the story, after she said yes to my offer of a date, would be, “and they lived happily ever after. The end.”
But any of us who are married know that’s not the case. Marriages begin with romance, but the couple does not simply live happily ever after without a lot of hard work through moments of unhappiness. They don’t move on through life together without continually growing toward each other, without continually orienting lives around each other, without learning how to live life moving in each other’s direction. The story of the fifteen years Dana and I have dated and been married is a story of having to learn to orient our lives toward each other, grow together, become that proverbial “one” as described in so many wedding liturgies. Because we have done and are doing so, we have a wonderful, life-giving, happy, marriage today, but it came not only because of work, but because of orienting orienting ourselves toward each other.
And that’s what David has to say in this scripture about our divine-human relationship. We must orient our lives toward God, continually, if we expect to find refuge from the stresses of life that will leave us consistently happy; we must become more and more united, one, with God.
Why are we so unhappy?
David’s answer is clear: our lives are not oriented around God. Our lives are oriented around stuff, jobs, achievements, and statuses. We are not moving to be more and more united, one, with God. And so, we are unhappy.
Note David’s language after calling on us to glorify and magnify God with him. In verse 4, he sought the Lord. In verse 5, he looks to God. In verse 6, he cries out to God. And in the scripture we didn’t read, starting in verse 15, we find that God has turned toward us, meeting us in our turning toward him, and it’s in that meeting, that togetherness, that union, that happiness is born, because it’s there we find true refuge from the stresses of life.
That’s what we’re after when seeking happiness in the stuff, achievements, and relationships of life: we’re after refuge from the stress of life, from all the things that make us discontented and unhappy. And David has a word for us that will fix all of that: Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him.
It’s not a quick fix, it’s not as simple as purchasing something on amazon or off a car lot, it’s not as fun as the start of a new relationship, it’s not as thrilling as a new job or accomplishing a major goal, but it’s steady, it’s good, it’s fulfilling, when we orient our lives around God. When we seek after God, when we look to God, when we cry out to God, we find our need for happiness is filled and we are simply content.
Instead of working so hard to make it easier, trying to take refuge, we simply work steadily, daily, with our spiritual disciplines, discovering the joy of the Lord is indeed our strength. Instead of trading in stuff for different stuff, instead of upgrading our lives with various achievements, instead of beginning and ending relationships hoping there to discover true happiness, we must seek after God when we’re unhappy, we should look to God when we’re discontented, we must cry out to God when we’re stressed and life is off, and then, only then, will we find the happiness, the contentment, the joy that we seek.
Stay steady in your prayer life, in your spiritual disciplines, and experience the contentment, peace, and joy of the Lord. Pray daily and be happy. It’s just not quick. Being quick is the power of the stuff that’s sold to us. That’s the power of a new job or an achievement. That’s the power of beginning and ending relationships. They’re fast, they give us a high, a quick influx of that feeling of euphoria. But it quickly dissipates, as we all know, and we’re left just as unhappy, or even more unhappy, than we were before.
Happiness with God, refuge from the stresses of life, from its discontentment, comes at a slow and steady pace. It requires a daily habit. To build that habit, find a means of prayer that works for you. Remember, prayer is about posture, orientation, toward God, not solely about talking to God in your head. You might pray while you garden, while you engage in a hobby, just from engaging in something that God designed you to enjoy. You might pray by reading a prayer book, by reading the psalms, by driving with worship music.
Whatever prayer looks like for you, do it daily. Make a habit by doing it the same time every day after some same activity. For me, it’s after I pour my second cup of coffee. That creates a craving: now when I pour that second cup of coffee in the morning, I naturally crave my prayer time.
If you don’t know what prayer habit fits you best, try out several different ones. Talk to me and I can recommend some places to start. Above all, just try. For that’s how we taste: we try things out until we find a taste, a prayer habit, we like. For when we do, we come to see that the Lord is good, happy indeed are those who trust in him.
We’re the tortoise, stuff is the hare. And the tortoise knows the race, the same race Paul talks about when he says that we are to run the race to which Christ has called us. That race is toward God, it’s oriented toward God, it’s all about God. It’s slow, but it’s steady, happy, joyful. The joy of the Lord is indeed our strength, something we know when we run the race of our lives toward God, when we orient our lives around God.
Just as David notes at the end of the psalm: O fear the LORD, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want…those who seek the LORD lack no good thing. We might lack in material possessions, statuses, wealth, jobs, stuff, relationships, but we won’t lack in peace, contentment, joy; above all, we won’t lack in happiness.
For the happiness that comes from tasting and seeing that the LORD is good is a happiness that will last.
So orient your life around God. Engage in the slow and steady work of spiritual discipline. Look, seek, or cry out to God in all things and especially in the unhappy moments of life.
O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.
One thought on “Why Are We So Unhappy?”
I love this! This is so true