A couple years ago, a member of the Bishopric in a previous ward shared how happy he is in the Church. He shared how happy the gospel makes him and his family. He finished it off with, “I don’t even know how people outside the Church do it. I don’t even know how they find happiness.”
Now, there is nothing wrong with this testimony. I fully take him at his word that the Church and the gospel have made him and his family very happy. I also fully believe that he doesn’t know how people outside the Church find happiness. His testimony also led me to believe that he is profoundly disconnected with why people struggle in the Church and why so many members are inactive or leave the Church.
I have heard the equivalent of this testimony countless times before, yet this was the first time I was hearing it as someone struggling to keep my seat in the pews. This quest for happiness and perfection as a primary focus of our doctrine and experience in the Church almost offended me for the first time. And I was left wondering why.
Sometime during my years in the Church, the Plan of Salvation began being replaced in both text and teachings with the Plan of Happiness. The message was that the gospel makes you happy. Families make you happy. Obedience is taught as a 1:1 correlation to your overall happiness. People are miserable without the gospel in their lives. We are the only Church with the fullness of the gospel, and subsequently, we are the only people capable of total happiness both now and in the eternities.
At this point you may be feeling very defensive of the Plan of Happiness…..because it has brought tremendous joy and happiness in your life, and in the life of your family. This article is not challenging that. I, too, have benefited greatly by implementing the Plan of Happiness in my life. But, what do we even mean when we talk about happiness?
Some of my thoughts on happiness coalesced watching the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out. In the movie, we glimpse the inner dialogue people have as Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear and Disgust interact in the minds of the characters. Generally, Joy is running the show and the other emotions have more minor, and often troublesome roles. The implication is that when Joy is running the show, a person is happy. Sadness is bad. Anger, Fear and Disgust are bad.
This runs very parallel to our experience and expectation of the Plan of Happiness. It reminds me of a primary song growing up:
If you chance to meet a frown, do not let it stay,
Quickly turn it upside down, and smile that frown away.
The stress becomes trying to keep Joy in the driver’s seat. Every bad thing that happens in our lives requires a positive spin. “It was a learning experience.” “I learned <insert virtue>.” “He (or she) has important work to do in the afterlife.” “I know the Lord has a purpose.”
There is no room in the Plan of Happiness for Sadness.
The pressures of Joy are immense in our faith. The pressure of perfecting oneself, being the perfect parent, an obligation to multiply and replenish the earth, be the perfect spouse, be an A+ student, be the golden child, accept any calling any Church leader asks of you, read your scriptures daily, have a prayer in your heart, always have a good attitude and keep on turning that frown upside down. And whatever you do, never express anger, fear, sadness, disgust or doubt.
The things that Joy does are all good things. And yet in the movie Inside Out, the heroine is Sadness. The young daughter in the story has a traumatic event in her life that Joy is powerless to fix. No amount of positive spin can make it all better. Joy then resorts to trying to distract her from her pain. And to the surprise of everyone, only Sadness is finally able to just sit with her and understand her grief. Sadness gives legitimacy to her experience and doesn’t attempt to spin it into something it isn’t.
I think we have lost something in redefining the Plan of Salvation as the Plan of Happiness. Spiritually for me, there is something off in our culture of perfectionism and pursuit of happiness. We have lost the ability to be with those whom this world has broken. We walk by like the Priest in the Good Samaritan. We walk on the other side of the road from the wounded because our covenants demand we remain pure and untouched by the world. In our vision of perfect families we scorn those that do not measure up. We are perpetually the older brother of the prodigal son chaffing that the grace of our Father has welcomed the undeserving back with full love and devotion.
Christ chose to become Sadness, and be our hero.
Christ didn’t come just to pave the straight and narrow yellow brick road back to the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom. He came to endure every ill and trial this world could throw at Him. He was betrayed by those He loved. In his darkest hour, He simply asked his closest friends and disciples to stay awake and be with Him, and they could not. He was spit on and scorned. He was tortured and killed in a horrible way. And He descended below it all so that he could understand and empathize in an eternal way with every sadness and every pain that we would experience here.
I see in the role of Sadness in the film, an architype (in simplistic terms) of Christ. Christ can sit with you in your grief and your loss and your pain. It isn’t just about making it better or different. He offers understanding and empathy. You are not alone.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are they that mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are the merciful, pure in heart and the peacemakers. And ultimately, blessed are they that are persecuted and reviled for Christ’s sake. Notably absent are ‘Blessed are the obedient’ or ‘Blessed are the perfect, the perpetually happy, the prosperous, or the temple recommend holders.’
We need to radically redefine the happiness Christ offers. It is not protection from the world. It isn’t freedom from pain. In fact, you could argue that suffering and pain is why you are here. Fear of just what types of horrors this world can unleash upon the innocent is exactly why a third of our Father’s children chose not to come here. There is no guarantee of an easy, privileged life. There isn’t even a guarantee that in coming to this world we would hear the gospel or the Words of Christ.
We are here to be unjustly treated by the world. Perhaps you are one of the privileged few to have found the gospel and lived with a measure of peace and prosperity, surrounded with love and family. But this is not the norm for this world.
Fiona Givens said, “There is something essential for the schooling of the soul that is apparently only to be found in suffering. Now I’m very visual person, and when Christ says pick up your cross and follow me, I see him out before us dragging his cross. And we’re all spread out behind him carrying our own. As we enter the waters of baptism, we covenant to bear each other’s burdens. Picture that with me. You are struggling along under the weight of your cross, and your friend besides you, or perhaps somebody completely unknown, collapses under the weight of his or her cross. As you bend down to help that person with the burden, of necessity you must touch that cross. It is only then that you understand the nature and the depth of the pain that person is carrying. Platitudes fail. It does not help to say, “Read your scriptures more often. Attend all three services, as boring as they might be, every Sunday.” It is only then when we touch the pain that we are in a position to be able to mourn. To be able to enter that second covenant. To mourn with that person. It is only then that we can truly comfort. Only then, when we understand the pain, can we offer words of comfort that reach deeply. And only then can we take upon ourselves the name of Christ.”1
What is happiness?
Now this may all seem very depressing. But understanding these truths is key to managing our expectations and perspective of what happiness is. My particular faith journey has included my eyes being opened to the suffering of many within Mormonism. For many, Mormonism has not brought them happiness. Sometimes we look at those who have lost faith and say it is their own fault. But often we are complicit in their loss because we are unwilling to touch the cross they bear. Or we refuse to really know their burdens. In our pursuit of our own exaltation, we simply can’t be bothered. In the end we find ourselves miserable and alone in our own obedience.
Happiness is being known – by friends, family, and your God. It is also in the self-revelation of beginning to know one’s own self. This life is a journey of self-discovery and finding out who we are within. We sing in primary of being children of God, but then spend the rest of our lives finding out what that means.
Happiness is knowing that your friends, your family, and your God stand by you in all of your imperfections, weaknesses and mistakes. This can be found in a supportive ward community and/or a loving, ministering Bishop. There is joy in bearing one another’s burdens, especially the burdens of those we love. There is joy in being accepted as whole and complete, without reservations.
Happiness is forgiving and being forgiven. The peace Christ offers is to have a conscience free of the guilt of wronging others. It is also the art of forgiving ourselves throughout the journey. It is the ability to surrender hate and enmity. It is the unburdening of our lives of baggage carried for decades.
Happiness is hope. The most devastating losses I have endured – crosses I have personally touched – are of those for whom hope is lost. Yet in Christ, we are promised new life and a grace that fills all the holes where hope is lost. It is trust. This doesn’t always give us the answers or direction we seek, but it allows us to move on and continue to learn and change.
Happiness is being able to mourn and suffer with those we love. Are our Heavenly Parents in Their celestial joy beyond tears? We read in the Pearl of Great Price that even our Heavenly Father weeps for us. Most of us envision a heaven where everything proceeds in perfection and without sadness. But sadness is part of knowing joy. Joy is unknowable without sadness.
Happiness is the embrace of loved ones who know us. It is standing before God knowing our offering to Him is enough. It is hope and trust in a plan that we won’t ever fully understand. It is touching the cross of another and lifting their burden. It is the peace that can only be bought traveling a road of sadness.
1God’s Costly Love by Fiona Givens http://affirmation.org/gods-costly-love/
PS – This is the second of three articles written on Trust, Sadness and Grace. Look for Grace in a few weeks.
Tom has also written:
- Trust (August 2015) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/trust/
- Seeing Through My Tears (January 2015) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/seeing-through-my-tears/
- Doctrine of Celibacy (October 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/the-doctrine-of-celibacy/
- What Words Can’t Define (August 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/what-words-cant-define/
- A Difference of Opinion (June 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/a-difference-of-opinion/
- Shame and Affirmation (June 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/shame-and-affirmation/
- Cool Tolerance (March 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/cool-tolerance/
- It’s Complex (August 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/its-complex/
- Christmas Cards (January 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/christmas-cards/
- What the Heck is Traditional Marriage? (July 2013) –http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/what-the-heck-is-traditional-marriage/
- Defending Marriage (May 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/defending-marriage/
- Why Does the Lord Allow His Covenant People to Err? (April 2013) –http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/why-does-the-lord-allow-his-covenant-people-to-err/
- The Catalyst (January 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/the-catalyst/
- The Victoria Theater (June 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/the-victoria-theater/
- Of Pain and the Journey (September 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/of-pain-and-the-journey/
- I See the Image of Christ in My Gay Son, Lord (August 2012) –http://mitchmayne.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-fathers-poem-to-his-gay-son-from.html