You Don’t Have to Be Happy

Let’s be honest. There’s pressure to put the happy in our holiday.

And if gift-giving, family gatherings, and expectations weren’t enough, we’re told to do it all with a bit of cheer.

But what if you don’t feel merry or thankful? And your season isn’t bright?

Everywhere we look, we’re told that happiness is the key to success, health, longevity, mental strength and relationships. But I wonder; is our “don’t worry, be happy” mantra really working?

If there’s one message you won’t hear from Hallmark or see in your Facebook feed, it’s this:

You do not have to be happy. Happiness is not a requirement for a good (or godly) life.

The Pressure to Be Happy

The pursuit of happiness lurks behind every advertisement, self-help book, and good-natured sentiment. Why? It’s woven into the fabric of our society. From the time we’re small, we’re told that individual freedom and personal happiness are the highest values of life.

Think Disney and the American Dream.

In Western culture, our meaning of life is defined by our happiness. Being happy is what makes life satisfying and meaningful. After all, it’s our fundamental right.

And happiness, we are told, is always within reach. It’s not something that happens to us – it’s something we must pursue. In other words, our chance to have a meaningful life totally depends on us.

No pressure.

It’s no wonder depression and anxiety are becoming more commonplace. Because for the majority of us, our experience of life is the opposite of happy.

When happiness becomes the very thing that gives your life meaning, those who are painfully unhappy are suddenly exempt from having a good life. Because a good life, we are told, does not include pain and suffering.

Who can bear that kind of burden? Heaven forbid your health falls apart, a family member dies, your marriage crumbles, or your finances run amuck.

It is because the meaning of life in the United States is the pursuit of pleasure and personal freedom that suffering is so traumatic for Americans (Tim Keller).

The Pressure to Fix Our Pain

If being happy is the hallmark of “the good life”, then suffering is viewed as an interruption to your best possible life.

In Western culture, suffering has no purpose or meaning. We’re told it’s the result of chance or bad luck. Suffering “can’t help you reach your goal; it can only keep you from the things you want most”(Keller).

Our goal is to minimize pain as much as possible so that potential happiness can be preserved. “In this worldview, the only thing to do with suffering is to avoid it at all costs, or, if it is unavoidable, manage and minimize the emotions of pain and discomfort as much as possible” (Keller). Even the goal of many medical, psychological, and civil personnel is to alleviate pain and remove as many stressors as possible.

Have you felt pressured to fix your pain? How many times have you been told that if you only…

  • find your purpose
  • think happy thoughts
  • have a better attitude
  • exercise more
  • love yourself more
  • practice mindfulness
  • eat healthy
  • take medication
  • have more faith…

THEN you will feel better.

In a happy-clappy culture that is hypervigilant about pain, there is little room for the depressed.

Those of us who have experienced trauma and tragedy in life will find it difficult to feel welcome in a world where happiness reigns king.

As Americans, we shy away from those who are suffering because our worldview has rendered us ill-equipped to handle chronic pain. Instead of understanding anxiety, grief and depression as the normal human response to pain and suffering, we are quick to label, medicate and marginalize.

[Society] is not interested in understanding a [person’s] life, or why they are suffering from these symptoms. If the person is very sad, anxious, or unhappy, then it is simply assumed that he or she is suffering from a disorder that needs to be cured, rather than from a natural and normal human reaction to certain life conditions that need to be [addressed]” (Davies on the DSM).

Our quick-fix approach to pain is like putting a bandaid over a surgical wound. We tell people to toughen up and put on a happy face while they are broken and bleeding all over the place.

Sadly, the American church isn’t any better. We buy into the idea that “good Christians” are the ones who are happy in all circumstances. Who stay positive and retain their optimism no matter what. That “real Christians” don’t struggle with anxiety, depression or fear. That the spiritually strong embrace whatever happens to them and endure pain and hardship without complaint.

But that’s not Christianity. It’s Stoicism.

Biblical Christianity – more than any other religion – allows and even encourages expressions of great sorrow, suffering, and lament.

Greater Room for Grief

Historically, “Christians did not see grief as a useless thing to be suppressed at all costs…Tears and cries are not to be stifled or even kept under strict limits…Christians are permitted – even encouraged – to express their grief with cries and questions…” (Keller).

The Bible never tells us to put on a happy face. Instead, its pages are filled with people questioning, complaining, and weeping over their trauma and pain. David, Job, Jeremiah, Paul, Jesus – all great men of faith who were not ashamed to express their sorrow and suffering.

“Instead of stoic endurance…the cry of the suffering creature resounds everywhere in Christianity freely and harshly’, including from the cross itself” (Keller).

What sets Christianity apart from all other religions is that our God is both a sovereign and suffering God. Out of His great love for humanity, God willingly subjected Himself to the suffering of this world in order to save it.

Our God knows first-hand what it is like to suffer – to be hungry, thirsty, weary, tempted, betrayed, rejected, abandoned, stressed, anxious, tortured and murdered by His own creation. When faced with the horrors of the cross, Jesus didn’t try to avoid, fix, or transcend His pain. He walked through it. And we can do the same because the One who walks with us is full of love, understanding, compassion and strength (Heb 4:15).

When faced with the horrors of the cross, Jesus didn’t try to avoid, fix or transcend his pain. He walked through it.

God understands our pain because He has been there. He doesn’t command you to be happy or condemn you for being depressed. Instead, the Bible says He is a “God who comforts the depressed” (2 Cor 7:6).

Throughout history, Christians have primarily dealt with suffering, not by willpower or control of emotions, but through relationship. Our comfort comes – not by being happy – but by being in intimate relationship with the One who understands our pain.

In the presence of God there is room for the depressed. Jesus calls all who are weary, broken, sick, weak and hurting to himself. He is Emmanuel, God who is with us in both the good and troubled times.

Suffering can be a meaningful chapter in your life, but only when you stop trying to eliminate it. Pain can be the vessel that leads to what we want most in life – joy, peace, healing and wholeness. But it requires honest work and a willingness to walk through it.

“Grief was not [meant] to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope” (Keller).

It’s okay to not be okay. You don’t have to fake it with Jesus. You don’t have to be happy and feel pressured to fix your pain. While He works things together for good, God gives us permission to be human in the process. And as His family, may we be quick to love and slow to fix those who are hurting. Let’s create greater room for transparency and grief as we walk with each other through the painful seasons of life.


*The quotes in this post were taken from Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.

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