The Happy Christian

Christians know they are supposed to have joy, but what about happiness? That sounds too much like Oprah, or the old Norman Vincent Peale. David Murray has responded with The Happy Christian, a thoroughly practical book that explains why and how no one should be happier than a follower of Jesus. When I started the book, I immediately thought of several glum folks who would benefit from it. But the further I read, I realized that I needed it too. I’m guilty of several of the negativity “sins,” such as black-and-white thinking, filtering, and mind-reading.

Murray notes that 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes and 10% is determined by our circumstances. That still leaves 40% that can be influenced by our thoughts. So even if you’re the son of Rodney Dangerfield stuck in traffic, you have a fighting chance to turn this around with the proper thoughts.

Here is where Murray’s prescription differs from the schmaltzy advice often found in culture, and sadly, even in the church. He doesn’t encourage grumps to deny reality and blindly think positive thoughts, but to fill their minds with the truth of the gospel. Given who God is, and what he has done for us, how can that not produce a positive attitude? He defines Christian happiness as “a God-centered, God-glorifying, and God-given sense of God’s love that is produced by a right relationship to God in Christ and that produces loving service to God and others” (xix).

The book is full of practical advice for young and old Christians. Here are a few items that meant the most to me.

  1. Murray warns preachers to focus more on what Christ has done than what we must do. He writes: “Most sermons major on “Do this; do that. Don’t do this; don’t do that.” And if “Duty, duty, duty” is the preacher’s demanding message, “Disobedience, disobedience, disobedience” is the hearer’s condemning conviction” (49).
  1. He insightfully weighs in on the controversy of common grace (what he calls “everywhere grace”), an issue that divides the Protestant Reformed Church from other Reformed churches in West Michigan.

Murray says: “Just because God has a special saving love for His people does not mean that He has no love of any kind or degree for unbelievers. I don’t believe the Bible supports this idea of God coldly and callously feeding unbelievers simply to fatten them for slaughter. No, His acts of kindness and compassion toward them are motivated by a loving desire to do them good, demonstrate His goodness to them, and call them to Himself.”

“That’s not to say that God loves them with the same love He reserves for His people. But it is love nonetheless. Even though it is a lesser love, it is not a little love. God loves the unsaved more than we have ever loved anyone (110).”

  1. Murray has wise advice on the issue of forgiveness. His view is similar to Chris Brauns’ counsel in Unpacking Forgiveness. We must offer forgiveness to all, but we must not grant forgiveness unless the offender repents. Conferring forgiveness without repentance “is ungodlike, it avoids dealing with serious issues, and while it might offer temporary and superficial relief, it does not produce long-term satisfaction to the conscience or reconciliation (159).”

Murray offers a model prayer for someone caught in this situation: “Lord, Jim has done me great wrong, but won’t confess it or ask for forgiveness. I can’t therefore forgive him without misrepresenting You or damaging his spiritual welfare. However, I’m not going to carry this pain around to burden and burn my mind and heart for years. I’m handing this over to You because You said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’

Lord, You know I don’t want Your vengeance executed on Jim, but with this prayer I’m promising no more vengeance on my part. I hand that right over to You. I promise not to dwell on this incident. Instead I transfer it to You and trust You to put it right in Your own time and way. You know I am ready to forgive Jim fully, freely, and forever, should it ever be asked for. Please help Jim to understand Your view of sin and forgiveness through this painful time. Amen.”

Christians shouldn’t go through life with a perpetual scowl. If you’ve been frowning a lot lately, The Happy Christian offers step-by-step instructions to think and feel better about life. Highly recommended.

3 Comments

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  1. Interesting. If 40% of our happiness is determined by our thoughts, then this suggests cognitive therapy is indeed a viable candidate for Christian counseling techniques and (perhaps) supports a nouthetic model (notwithstanding the extreme conservative abuses that argue the Bible ONLY is to be used). Incidentally, Chris Brauns’ Unpacking Forgiveness is a must read and is full of practical insights and solid biblical exposition.

  2. Does he nuance the idea in point #1? It makes sense in theory, but I wonder if its really true in practice. My pastoral (and personal) experience is that if people are living in disobedience, or even in laziness, they will struggle with unhappiness no matter how much we tell them (or ourselves) that God loves and forgives by what Christ has done. Preaching surely must be Christ-centered and cross-focused, but if it doesn’t produce a substantial measure of obedience and hard-work, happiness seems to elude the soul.

    Few things make me as miserable as knowing I have neglected responsibilities. I’m relieved that I don’t have to go to hell for it, but I’m not really happy either. Nor does it fully help to remove the responsibilities and tell me I don’t have to do anything at all. Some of the happiest moments are at the end of a satisfying day’s labor. Honestly, and its probably heresy, taking an evening to help someone in need makes me feel much happier than an evening of telling myself how much Christ loves me. Seems like we need not only to be convinced of His love and work for us, but the God-centeredness of life in Christ in rebuke of our self-centered orientations that make us miserable.

    On the other hand I have dealt with a few “perfectionists” that definitely struggle with happiness because of a lack of belief and relying on grace.

  3. An excellent post Mike. Thank you for this book review, and the insights that came with it!

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