Tag Archives: discernment

Good Happy? Bad Happy?

Kids on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

Kids on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar

Ever had to try to explain to a 15 year old why glue sniffing is a bad idea? I have. Now, imagine trying to do so when he doesn’t speak much English, lives on the street without parents, has been glue sniffing regularly for four years, and loves doing so because it makes him happy! I wondered, how in the world am I going to get through to this kid? I needed to find a simple but effective way to talk about the risks and consequences of drug abuse, while acknowledging that he may indeed feel happier when he uses glue in the moment. As I thrashed about considering various strategies, the concept of “good happy” versus “bad happy” emerged out of prayer one morning. Chances are, you have never been tempted to sniff glue, and never will be. However, you probably know what it’s like to seek out or settle for a “bad happy”–enjoying a “feel good” in the moment that you later regretted or caused suffering for others. Think about the times, for example, that you made an impulsive purchase on your credit card, took one too many drinks at the party, got something off your chest in a cruel or thoughtless way, betrayed a friendship by passing on juicy gossip, looked for comfort or satisfaction from the wrong kind of entertainment, or indulged in some other self-gratifying behavior that threatened to destroy or undermine something or some relationship you really cared about. Maybe you did feel happy or happier for awhile, but, if you’re honest, you will also admit that it wasn’t a “good happy”. Your experience wasn’t something that left a clean, joyful feeling that nourished your soul and enriched your storehouse of memories. Whatever you did wound up hurting you or someone else, and the fallout from your actions was anything but happy. If you’re struggling with making poor choices that wind up being a “bad happy”, there are some things you can do to turn your life around.

  1. Think about the choices you’re making. What did it cost you last time you gave in to your impulse or desire, and what is it costing you to live this way?
  2. Make a conscious decision. Instead of just going with your feeling or desire in the moment, force yourself to deliberately choose a course of action, and explain to yourself why you are deciding as you are. When you hear yourself talk, do you buy your rationale? If someone else came to you with the same line of reasoning, what would you say to him or her?
  3. Get ahead of the temptation, and make alternative plans. When tempted to go for the “bad happy” choice, ask yourself if there is another way, a healthier way, for you to have your needs met. What else could you do to bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart that you won’t regret later?
  4. Structure your life differently. What could you do to re-structure your life to provide more support for the good decisions you want to make? Perhaps you need to find new places to go in your free time, new friends, new forms of recreation, a small group, accountability partners, or something or someone else who can help you to stay on track more consistently. In the case of the glue-sniffing street kid that we were trying to help, we found him a job, a new place to live with a caring family, and provided regular check-ins with caring adults, new routines and structures that are minimizing his opportunities for drug abuse and are helping to meet many of his needs in healthy ways.
  5. Focus on giving rather than receiving. Of course, you want to feel the warmth and joy of being loved, but when you focus mostly on loving others first, so much of what you thought you were looking for from someone else is likely to come to you in the giving. The more you focus on loving without expectation of return, the more you can avoid much of the disappointment, frustration, conflict, and even anger that floods you—and often sets you up to seek a “bad happy”—when others don’t give to you what you were hoping for.
Nativity sculpture in the Chartres Cathedral, France

Nativity sculpture in the Chartres Cathedral, France

“Good Happy” Holidays Whether your holidays are times of high expectations for joy and love for you, a dreaded time of loneliness and conflict, or something in the middle between these two extremes, it is a particularly good time to think about “good happy” versus “bad happy” as you make your plans for the holidays. For me, the best happy I know comes when I have spent sufficient time just talking to God about my life, my desires, my questions, my longing, and all the people and all that matters most to me. Sometimes I will simply focus on how much God loves me or on what it means that God took the form of a human being in Jesus, and that he gave his life so generously to others, even to the point of dying for us. When I genuinely seek to be close to God, alone or amid others, I feel something deeper than “happy”. Sometimes it is pure joy. Other times I feel at peace and content, and the drive to seek “bad happy” dissipates. Sometimes I find this place of peace and joy through silence and solitude in prayer. Sometimes, it’s worship that re-orients me and frees me to let go of selfishness and wrong-headed behavior. Other times, it’s doing something for someone else with no other expectation than inner satisfaction for doing good, or maybe hoping to see a smile cross their face or light up their eyes. You have heard it said many times, “Let’s not forget the reason for the season,” and “Be sure to keep Christ in your Christmas.” These are not just clichés. These words are wise counsel to help you lift your eyes off of yourself to the one whose life, death, and resurrection have given us an opportunity to experience life in ways not possible otherwise. You have to find for yourself what spiritual practices and lifestyle choices produce the “good happy” your heart most desires and that fits with Christ’s calling on your life. But before you plunge headlong into the holiday activities, pause for a moment. Think about what you can learn from your life experience. Make conscious decisions about how you want to go forward. Find good alternatives to the poor choices you are likely to be tempted to make. Structure your life in supportive ways. Focus on giving rather than receiving. Above all, seek to be as close to God as possible, as often as possible, and in every way possible. Take time, multiple times, to focus on Jesus this Christmas, so that your heart and mind will be nurtured by the only enduring Source of life, love, and contentment—the best possible “good happy” you could ever experience. [Jesus said,] Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28) I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10, NIV)

Icon of Jesus and child

Icon of Jesus comforting a child

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Use Your Head!

A friend of mine gathered his family of four around the television. It was a big day. Everyone was excited. The Holy Spirit had whispered in his ear that this would be a good week to buy lottery tickets. Millions of dollars would be such a huge blessing to this family encumbered with debt and college tuition looming. They would be sure to use some of it to advance the kingdom of God, too! Clutching their tickets, they could hardly wait for the show to begin. What a surprise (to them and no one else) when none of their numbers were selected. What went wrong?

Various

What was I thinking?

We may raise our eyebrows at what seems like an obvious case of wishful thinking, but who hasn’t let their hopes make a monkey out of them at one time or another? We get so emotionally involved with what we’re doing that we spiritualize our own desires, biases, and preferences. We conclude that God is leading us forward when we are actually leading ourselves astray. Simon and Garfunkel sum up well this common human weakness in their hit song, The Boxer: “All lies and jests, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Hmmm Hmmm. Hmmm.” What’s the remedy? Various Am I suggesting that you stop trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you, contrary to what I argued in my previous essay, “Spirit-Led Living: A Simple Path”. No, not at all. Rather, I’m cautioning you against naiveté and false expectations. In any discernment process, instead of just going with your feelings and what you want to be true, you need to prayerfully use your head, too. Learning the hard way It started with an overwhelming sense of compassion and grief. None of the kids I met on the streets of Yangon had fathers. Begging for food was a daily occurrence. One orphan boy had been living on the street for much of the past three years. Their clothes were filthy, their bodies skin and bones. Was I being called to give them the helping hand they needed in order to transform their lives? Soon, everything seemed to be falling into place. We were successful at getting two of the kids off the streets and into homes, and three of them back into school. They looked so proud in their new school uniforms, and seemed so eager to ride their new bikes to school. It felt great to be doing something so concrete and meaningful for the poorest of the poor.

Various

Trying to sort out the truth

Four months later, I found out that the kids had been lying to me about having to pay school fees. School is free for children in Myanmar, but no one told me; and when someone did, I chose to believe the kids and their ready explanations over the adults who knew better. Then I found out that they were lying about going to school at all. Some of them actually did go to school occasionally, but I eventually found out that the one who I thought was my star pupil had been lying from the beginning. They were using the “school money” for food, games, movies, gambling, and sometimes drugs (glue). If you’re thinking, “What did you expect? You should have known better,” you are simply making the point of this essay. Yes, I should have known better, but I was too driven by my own emotions, personal needs, and desires. I wanted to believe that we were making more progress than we actually were. I didn’t check up on them as I should have, and blinded myself to what I should have been able to see. VariousWe’ve now addressed the issues, and have made the necessary corrections in how we are going to work with the kids going forward. We hope to not make the same mistakes in the future, but the past six months have taught me again how easy it is to fool yourself. No matter how experienced you may be, how knowledgeable, how prayerful, or how full of love and compassion, there simply is no substitute for paying attention to what is truly going on, facing the truth, and thinking through what you’re doing. The balance Are you struggling with confusion, disappointment, frustration, or hurt from some actions you’ve taken that you thought were prompted by God, but now question? If so, maybe you need to make some adjustments to your discernment process. Don’t over-react, but don’t miss the learning opportunity either. If you feel yourself in the grips of emotion or driven by your desires to the point that you or others are starting to question your judgment, maybe you need to take a step back and take an honest look at what’s going on. For the sake of those you care about, for your sake, and for the sake of whatever work you are doing for Christ in the world, beware of just believing what you want to believe. Pray more, not less, but don’t expect answers to come in the form of sentimental feelings and implausible revelations. And don’t expect the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and guidance to replace your responsibility to think through your course of action. Ask God to guide you through your rational thought process as well as through your feelings and desires. Listen to those who know you well and who can be a bit more objective. Face whatever truth the Spirit wants to reveal to you, and use your head. Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And,  “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).

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