It must be about five years ago that I suffered a very public humiliation. It wasn’t the first time and it definitely won’t be the last, but this time was notable because I was humilated by a dress. Not that the dress was the dreadful, far from it. It was gorgeous, the most beautiful print, and I’d wanted it for ages, but the northern girl in me refused to pay full price for it and I waited until I found a secondhand one at a cheaper price!
On the morning of Humiliation Day, I was so thrilled to be wearing it. It was a fab, sunny morning and I swaggered along, taking my boy up to school. I was feeling all smug and lovely in my bargain dress, and we’d walked almost half the journey, when a car slowed at the side of us and this sweet lady leaned out of her window.
Now, let me just interject here to say that I thought she was about to compliment me on my new dress. I mean, it’s so thrilling to follow a compliment about clothes with a comment about how cheap they were! You know exactly what I mean!
On this occasion, however, rather than saying, ‘Gorgeous dress, madam! Where did you get it from?’ instead she called out, ‘I’m so sorry, but do you know your dress is all torn at the back?’
All torn?! At the back?!! Yes, yes, of course I knew. I always go out wearing torn dresses! NO I DID NOT KNOW!!
That was the response in my head.
Outwardly, I politely smiled and thanked her as I backed myself into someone’s hedge. With my derriere firmly planted out of sight, I realised she wasn’t joking. The zip on the dress had broken from top to bottom—literally my bottom—and I’d walked the entire length of Grove Hill flashing my pants at the whole of town! Despite my son’s protestations that ‘It’s okayyyy, no one will notice,’ I grabbed his backpack as I rolled my eyes, and slung it on my back to cover my now shredded modesty. We galloped home so that I could change my dress, but I had to telephone the school to explain why we were going to be late. We arrived at school, only ten minutes later than usual actually (which was a miracle), me sweating—not that nice lady glistening that posh ladies do, but that proper full-on sweating like Guy Fawkes at a bonfire party—and profusely apologising to the school administrator… who, to my consternation, could do nothing but laugh. Proper belly laughing. Tears-streaming-down-her-face laughing. This time it was her turn to apologise, but she explained that since talking to me on the phone and hearing the story, she’d been imagining me walking up the hill unknowingly flashing my knickers! She thought the news might make the local papers!
Was I offended? Heck no. I decided my dignity was long gone and we laughed together.
Pseudobulbar affect (PBA), or emotional incontinence, (I rather like that expression) can be characterised by crying uncontrollably when something is only moderately sad, or even laughing when a situation is sad and should warrant the shedding of a tear. Whilst PBA is commonly seen in patients with traumatic brain injuries, strokes, or even multiple sclerosis, something akin to PBA is something most of us have experienced. I definitely have emotional incontinence!
In this house, we’re the kind of people who laugh when the proverbial hits the fan. When life is hard, when we feel like we’re drowning in difficulties, we choose to find something to laugh about. If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll remember my dear friend, Louise, is famed for describing my family as leaping from one happy crisis to the next. Believe me, I’ve learned to see the funny side of life, I don’t think it’s necessarily an inherent characteristic, and besides, people are funny, but please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to offend anyone or have you think I’m being disrespectful in any way. I’m not at all diluting or ignoring the difficulties we all experience, but my way of dealing with things, most often, is to laugh. Not as a reaction but more as a choice, and it got me thinking. You see, if we laugh when we’re happy, or laugh inappropriately when we’re sad or embarrassed, what really is laughter? Why is it there at all? And what does it mean to be happy? Is God even a happy God? Is it possible to be happy when we’re grieving or struggling in some other way? I'm not clever enough to answer all these questions, but let's just consider them anyway.
It’s well known that laughter has physiological and psychological benefits, and I like to think that it’s one of our inbuilt, God-given medicines. Robert Provine, Ph.D, is a leading expert in the USA on the psychology of laughter (Sounds like a great job!) and he suggests that laughter is less about humour and more about relationships. Provine contends that laughter has a bonding effect between individuals in groups. So whilst jokes are great, people tend to laugh more in conversations and through interactions.
A pair of cows were talking in the field. One says, ‘Have you heard about the mad cow disease that’s going around?’ 'Yeah,’ the other cow says. ‘Makes me glad I’m a penguin.’
Laughter is contagious. If you laugh, it’s likely I’ll laugh too. Just think of the canned laughter on TV shows. You hear the recorded laughter and generally laugh along in response.
Provine’s research has also found that women laugh 126 percent more than men. (That’s not a surprising fact to me.) Apparently, men want to make women laugh and women are usually the laughter appreciators. To say women are actually laughing at men might be cruel but not altogether inaccurate…
I would also add to Provine’s findings by saying that I think laughter is a means by which we can forget the rubbish for a while, a form of release if you will. Laughter, by means of endorphin release and muscle exercise, actually makes us feel happier.
On a recent CBS talk show, a clip of which has now gone viral, Stephen Colbert answered a question asked by his guest, Dua Lipa, about the connection between his faith and comedy. He talked about his love of the new movie, Belfast, and said,
‘It’s funny, sad and funny, and it’s funny about being sad, in the same way that sadness is a little bit of an emotional death but not a defeat if you can find a way to laugh about it, because that laughter keeps you from having fear of it. And that fear is the thing that keeps you from turning to evil devices to save you from the sadness. If there’s some relationship between my faith and my comedy it’s that, no matter what happens, you are never defeated. You must understand this in the light of eternity and find some way to love and laugh with each other.’
What is Happiness?
Looking into Scripture, I realise that happiness is not the absence of sadness, and yet, in any tragedy that you might experience, can you be truly happy? I think it’s a question that desperately needs to be answered. The assumption is that happiness and sadness can’t be experienced together, but that’s not biblically sound. Scripture makes it very clear that happiness—deep joy and contentment in God—absolutely coexist with grief and sadness. Happiness is the firm belief that God is good and God does good even when our life is difficult, even when we can’t see around dark circumstances. God actually describes Himself as happy and He says He wants us to be happy, that is, perfectly content, perfectly fulfilled, in Him. Happiness is a covenant state of being for God’s people, it’s not something He simply tolerates. Happiness is something He gives you and wants you to celebrate.
I read that there are something like 2,700 passages in the Bible that relate to happiness, with 85 verses that are directly about happiness.
If you’re like me, you might have been raised in a church where you were taught, not explicitly necessarily, but where it was implied that happiness was trivial, fluffy, the emotion that non-believers experienced, and most certainly it was inappropriate for Christians to experience. Instead, I learned that Christians should feel joy. Joy, not happiness. And we know that song:
J-O-Y , J-O-Y,
Surely that must be,
And others inbetween.
Happiness was a big no-no because it simply wasn’t serious enough. Joy, now joy was good. Joy was deep. Joy was serious. The child-me believed it without questioning, but the adult-me says, ‘Are you joking?!’
Humour is from God, there’s no doubt about it. Humour is one of His characteristics, and since we are made in His image it’s right that we would have humour too. Have you ever noticed that God says the funniest things in the Bible? You know, the pharisees and the scribes were often critical of Jesus because he laughed with the sinners. It’s amazing to see how God applies this gift of laughter to us since we’re made in His image. Yet sometimes we think that coming before God is only a serious thing, and we swap out serious for staid. You can have a holy attitude as you approach God but still be happy. They're not mutually exclusive. You might not believe me but let me show you something.
In 1 Timothy 1:11, Paul is giving Timothy his marching orders and sending him off to share the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and he talks about the ‘blessed God’, in the Greek, the makarios (mak-ar’-ee-os) God, which means ‘happy’. God is telling us He’s a happy God. Our calling as Christ followers is to share the great news of the happy God—of course He’s holy—but if He wasn’t a happy, joyful God would you really want to run toward him and throw your crown like a frisbee before Him? No, we’d all be minding our Ps and Qs, afraid. If you have children in your life, you don’t want them to be nervous and afraid when they come to you, and it’s like that with God.
True happiness is not based on circumstances. Maybe you crash into Costa for your coffee hit to feel happy, or feel happy driving fast down the M4 late at night, or scoffing chocolate whilst watching a movie. But that’s happenstance, not biblical happiness. When God talks about happiness in the Old and New Testaments, He’s talking about that state of being which is rooted in your delight, your contentment, and your fulfilment, of being tied to God’s character. Your God is good, He does good, even if you’re in a bad chapter, a sad chapter, of your life. You can’t see around the corner. Your happiness shouldn’t be tied to caffeine or if you can fit into your skinny jeans (I can’t fit in mine, by the way)—that isn’t biblical happiness. That’s the kind of happiness the world talks about, the emotional happiness that is circumstantially based. Biblical happiness, those 2,700 references we talked about, that is the kind of happiness God imbues in His children and that’s based on who He is, not your circumstances.
Now I know that it’s easy to plaster on a smile and fake it. I’ve seen enough people wearing enough veneers to know that’s a reality. I can even think of times when I’ve been out with friends, told them I was doing great, laughed my way through the time, and I’ve got home and realised I’ve not been honest, that I’ve not felt safe enough to say how I'm really feeling or what I’m walking through. And maybe you’ve done that self-same thing at church when people say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ And you give them the ecclesiastical answer of, ‘Oh hi! I’m just fine. How about you?’ It’s not real. It’s just getting through the best you can. Well that’s not how we should be approaching Jesus. We need to become more alert in our time alone with the Lord instead of that being a performance too. We don’t want there to be that veneer in the way between us and God. We have incredible intimacy available to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but I think so many of us keep God at arms length instead of walking in the reality of that intimacy.
We have to recognise that biblical happiness in life is connected to intimacy with God, and that pathway is wide. God’s not like a stern parent, nit-picking over every single mistake ready to smack us on the bottom when we mess up. No, when we get it wrong, God is our Father and sees we’re His children, learning. My pathway through parenthood hasn’t been an easy one and I’m by no means a perfect mama, but if I had one piece of advice to give to new parents, it would be to say yes more than no. Now I’m a disciplinarian. I expect respect and I expect the rules to be followed, but at the same time I’m all about having lots of fun. I want Toby to have the freedom to mess up, not because he’s being rebellious, but because he’s a child, and I want to be able to accommodate the consequences of any mistakes he makes. I’m not saying God changes the rules, but I am saying that His arms open wider than we realise. God is a happy God! If we can really allow ourselves to soak in the idea that God is a holy AND a happy God, the makarios God—He calls Himself that—I really believe it will change how we move toward Him.
Being happy, expressing biblical happiness, isn’t about being phoney and isn’t based on how we feel. I realise you may be walking through deep, dark valleys at the moment and I’m not talking to you today from a place where I’m ready to do a jig every day. Life is hard sometimes. There are things in life that make us unhappy, when we question where God is.
How do we hang on to happiness when, inevitably, we will face hardship? Jesus said, ‘In this world you WILL have trouble…’ There’s illness, uncertainty, death, divorce, loss of all kinds, unemployment and so on, so how do you hang on to the happiness? Happiness is NOT incongruent with sadness, or badness, or any other difficult time or emotion. It’s just not. We only need to look at some of the characters of the Bible. These are real people with real lives. Take Hannah for example, in 1 Samuel. She was devastated through infertility. She grieved, and she grieved loudly in church. Year after year she cries in the temple at her failure to conceive a child. In fact, her crying is so loud the priest thinks she’s gotten drunk before worship, but she explains that she’s deeply grieving before the Lord for her want of a child, and ultimately God gives her a son named Samuel (which means ‘God hears’). Yet that baby was a long time in coming. Does that mean Hannah wasn’t happy when she was grieving? Remember that the biblical definition of happiness is to be content and fulfilled in Christ. So you can simultaneously grieve and feel contentment and fulfilment in Christ. If you hang on to Christ, even if you can’t see His goodness or you disagree with His timing, you can still have that low level contentment of ‘I trust Him, even if I can’t see round the corner of my circumstances.’
So, how do you find this biblical happiness? Well, there are three things that might just help you:
Focus on your relationship with God, the promises of God, rather than on your mistakes or what someone’s done to you. Pray the promises, not the problems.
Focus on others, see them as image-bearers of God. I have neighbours who insist on playing their music outside really loudly every time the sun shines! Most of the time, I just want to go and pop a bag of cat poo through their letterbox! I do not feel warmly towards them. But I really find it helps me to remember that they bear the image of God. He made them, just as He made me, and they are covered in His fingerprints. Once I start seeing them as His creation, I put the cat poo down and pop my ear plugs in instead. I calm down. I see the music-playing neighbours as God’s treasure, not as my enemies.
Be grateful. Expressing it genuinely turns you away from the problem and puts you in a positive place. It realigns your heart.
How do you know what’s emotional happiness and what’s true biblical happiness? The pursuit of biblical happiness will never cause you to walk away from the tenets of Scripture, because God gives us the perfect parameters for not just holy living, but also happy living, biblically. So, if you think there’s something you have to do in order to be happy that is counter to the Word of God, well that’s a lie you’ve believed. This is where fulfilment and contentment come into play too—you don’t get that by going away from the word of God.
With things over which we have no control—just like these present times—those things aren’t about our choices, or wandering away from God’s will. It’s not wrong for us to want those circumstances to be lifted off us. Do I want God to heal me? I pray for it every day. Should I pretend to be happy even though I’m ill and hurting, and want so much to be well? No! But should I trust that God is good and does good even when He doesn’t heal me physically, or heal those I love, when He doesn’t make my circumstances right right now? Absolutely.
God’s plan for us is not trapped by our sense of time and space. That’s where we, as mature Christians, have to understand that our happiness isn’t based on today or tomorrow. Our life is but a vapour, just passing, and our hope rests in who Jesus is and where He’s taking us to.