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The Big Question

Does Christian faith make believers happier?

By Orville James

I met him at a barbecue. He had a smile on his face half a mile wide, which conflicted with his statement, “My wife left me.” I tried to mumble something suitably sympathetic, but his smile expanded to a big goofy grin, and he continued, “Then I lost my job and had to declare bankruptcy.”

I looked at him and said, “I’m really sorry. Can I help at all?”

“No, no,” he said. “You don’t understand. That’s when Jesus found me.”

I started looking for an exit. I’d already categorized him as an eccentric religious nut. But I was wrong. A little eccentric, yes. Crazy, no.

As we talked further, his boisterous faith bubbled out. I heard of a friendship with Jesus that had begun when he was down and evolved from a spiritual parachute to a guiding light, giving him the power to move forward through hardship and challenge. Now his life had new purpose in serving others.

For this man, a spiritual awakening made all the difference. I’m left puzzling the question: Does Christian faith make believers happier?

Part of me wants to say yes, but when I ask colleagues and family (all people of faith), they respond negatively. Some grimace, groan or erupt. “No way! That’s not what Christianity is about.” And yet, surveys by Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center and the Pew organization conclude that spiritually committed people are twice as likely to report being “very happy” than the least religiously committed people.

Immediately, though, questions and resistance surface in me. Is happiness what Jesus came for? No, not really. But what did Jesus mean when he said, “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11)? Jesus’ joy was best seen as an unshakeable peace and a calm confidence, regardless of momentary circumstances. I have known Christ followers who exemplify this state of mind. Some of them even exude a zestful spirit that makes all of life a happy adventure.

At the same time, I’ve known some church people whose religious involvement was like an anvil of duty hanging around their neck. One minister asked a grumpy member of his church if he was happy. When told yes, the minister said, “Then tell your face!”

I believe this visible emotional gap is the result of the difference between mere religion and vital faith. Church involvement is not the same as a trusting friendship with the Living God.

Rather, true faith is an intimate, affectionate relationship that raises and bolsters the emotions, because our perspective is broadened and our expectation enlarged. We see we’re not alone; we feel a Presence; we recognize that this moment and this world is not all there is; we realize there is a Power beyond ourselves who has been revealed in history and is again (and always) active and available. There are unseen, unimagined possibilities — for change, for liberation, for healing. When we open our lives to the Trinitarian God, whose heart is best revealed in the Gospel accounts of Jesus, we experience an internal spiritual transformation.

With this shift comes a new perspective and attitude. Spiritual living spurs growth in our personality. “So I say, live by the Spirit. . . . [For] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:16, 22).

It strikes me that anyone with those personality traits would be a happy person. And this contentment develops from that trusting friendship with the Holy One. I’m pretty sure this experience is not restricted to Christians (I’ve met some pretty cheerful Jews and Muslims, too).

The key is not the system of worship one participates in but rather the relationship of committed trust in God. The Psalmist got it right: “Happy are those who have the God of Jacob to help them and who depend on the Lord their God (Psalm 146:5). Some translations use the word “trust” instead of “depend,” suggesting that there is a happiness that comes from a trusting relationship with the Living God.

Jesus said, “I am come that you might have life . . . to the full” (John 10:10). That is the promise: not just happiness, but life to the full. In an intimate relationship with our Creator, when spiritually connected to the risen Christ, life becomes an adventure that gives satisfaction. We gain perseverance to face challenging circumstances and find meaning and purpose for our energies. Even when failure or an ending comes, there is hope for God’s resurrection and ultimate victory.

I can’t think of anything else that could make you happier.

Rev. Orville James is a minister at Wellington Square United in Burlington, Ont.

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