Thursday, July 10, 2008

Potholes on the Road to Happiness

Morgan Freeman (as God) and Steve Carrell as Evan Baxter in "Evan Almighty."

Series on “Real Happiness”, Part 4
Romans 12:1-2
June 22, 2008

VIDEO: The March of the Unqualified

Isn’t that good to know? That you don’t have to be perfect for God to use you. As a matter of fact, the more think you’re perfect (think of the Pharisees), the more useless you are to God.
I’d take it a step further: you don’t have to be perfect to know the happiness I’ve been talking about the last few weeks. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and we can be happy about that.

These last few weeks we’ve been thinking about happiness: what it is, how to get it and to keep it. We found that the paradox of happiness is that the direct pursuit of happiness doesn’t make anybody happy! Instead, God’s word says again and again that happiness is a byproduct of seeking God.

And maybe you’ve been coming the last few weeks and you find yourself saying, “That’s nice, and I heard a thing or two here and there that’s helpful, but what you’ve talked about so far barely scratches the surface of the stuff I’m dealing with.” If that’s you, this Sunday’s for you.
Here’s the reality: a lot of people deal with all kinds of chronic anxiety and depression, and an idea there and a technique here isn’t going to change that, at least not very quickly. Is there anything that you can do about this deep-seated anxiety and depression that is Biblically sound and that really works?

I want to give you some hope in this area. But before I do, let’s be clear about two things.
First, some people by personality make-up are more prone to anxiety and depression. That doesn’t mean that there’s something spiritually wrong with you. It’s just the way God shaped you.

There’s even some evidence that the anxious and even depressed among us (the ancients called it the melancholy disposition) are among the most brilliant and gifted. The greatest preacher of the 19th century was Charles Spurgeon. He pastored the world’s first mega-church, Metropolitan Tabernacle in London. He wrong dozens of books, hundreds of magazine articles and started an orphanage in London. He was called the Prince of Preachers while still in his twenties. And he had a life-long battle with depression. He was very candid about it, and wrote a chapter about his depression in his book Lectures to My Students.

Another man of God who had this problem was Adoniram Judson. He and his wife Ann were the very first American missionaries. After his wife Ann died in Burma, Adoniram went through a deep depression. His friends were afraid that he’d even try to take his life. He lived alone in a hut for almost a year, only coming out when he had to.

Don’t think that Spurgeon or Judson were less spiritual because they had these struggles, anymore than someone with a deformed leg or bad eyesight is less spiritual. Some that’s just the way we come out of the box—a little different that most people. Different isn’t bad, it’s just different.

Second, sometimes the way out isn’t a “cure”, but learning how to use our struggles and limitations as means of growth. The very things that we think of as our biggest problems are there as our biggest opportunities.

Your weaknesses are opportunities for God to work in your life. So if you have a tendency to be kind of negative about everything, if that’s just part of your psychological make-up, have you considered the possibility that God’s call to trust and enjoy God is one of the ways that He’s stretching you in your faith? If you’re always anxious, did you ever consider that God’s call to “be anxious for nothing” is God’s call for you to grow in that area? Not only that, without that specific weakness, that’s an area you could never grow in.

Here’s another video clip, from the 2007 movie “Evan Almighty.” Morgan Freedom plays God (in disguise as a busboy in a restaurant) giving advice to the troubled Joan Baxter (played by Lauren Graham).

CLIP: HOW DOES GOD ANSWER PRAYER? (Real Player, 0:48-1:26)
(The portion we played was only the movie clip)

I think there’s a lot of truth there. Our limitations are God’s opportunity in our lives. Let me put it this way: which requires more faith and growth: for a naturally positive person to “rejoice in the Lord always” or a naturally negative person? Consider this: our personality barricades to happiness can become faith-bridges for us to cross on the road to happiness.

Happiness and Our Bodies

About 40 million Americans have chronic problems with stress, anxiety and depression—that’s more than the population of California, about 12% of all of all Americans.

Many Christians think these are all spiritual problems. They think that it’s all a matter of faith. I wish it were that simple. I once heard a Christian teacher say, well-meaning I think, that “I am a spirit who has a soul who lives in a body.” That’s really more like Plato that what the Bible teaches. The Bible says we are whole being—heart, soul, mind and body. What affects one part of us affects all that we are.

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah struggled with a deep depression right after one of his biggest triumphs (the contest with the prophets of Baal). (By the way, that’s one of the times we’re most vulnerable to a low—right after a big high.) He actually begs God to let him die. What does God do? He sends a messenger who has Elijah eat, drink and get some sleep. Then he was ready for his next step with God. One way God deals with the potholes on your road to happiness is through your body.

So diet and exercise and rest can affect our mood and our capacity for happiness. How many people here like the lift your get from caffeine? Long distance runners talk about the “runner’s high”—brisk exercise releases endorphins into our bloodstream giving us our “second wind.” In the Ten Commandments, God says, “Six days you shall work” and then rest on the seventh. Work, good manual labor, is good for you and good for your emotions. It helps make you happy. Some of the unhappiest people I know are couch potatoes. Chopping wood would be good therapy for them.

Proper medical care is part of happiness as well. We’re all suspicious of an artificial happy pill, as we should be. When I was in grad school, I had to have a kind of painful surgery. During my recuperation I took a pretty powerful pain pill that made me think weird thoughts. One day I was lying on my bed in my dinky old apartment on Carpenter Street in Athens, Ohio, looking at a crack in the wall. I’d take a pill maybe 30 minutes before when this thought went through my head: that’s an awfully nice looking crack in the wall. Only a pill could make that cracked wall look nice.

No, we’re talking about proper medical care, not happy pills. Should believers take antidepressants? Yes, under the right circumstances. The Bible recommends the proper use of medicine (1 Timothy 5:23). If an antidepressant is being used just to get me back even, not to make me dopey, if it’s prescribed by somebody who knows what they’re doing, I don’t see any Biblical problem with taking an antidepressant.

Happiness and the Body of Christ

So one way God can touch is in our struggles is by what happens to our body—how we treat ourselves, what we eat and what medications we take. Another way God meets us in our need for relief from nagging anxiety and depression is through the Body of Christ, the church. I see this happening through three means: friends, wise counsel and spiritual directors.

Let’s start with friends. Friends in Christ, fellow believers, strengthen one another by encouraging one another, praying for each other, and holding one another accountable. In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes, “I have found it over and over again how hard it is to be truly faithful to Jesus when I am alone.”[1]

sent out his disciples two-by-two. All kinds of ministry in the New Testament was done by people paired in twos or more (like Paul and Silas in the Book of Acts). The lone ranger (like John the Baptist) was the exception, not the rule. We live better, truer and more faithful lives when we don’t try to do it on our own. We are happier when we have someone else to help along the way.

This kind of spiritual friendship can take place through prayer partner, or a small group. But it can hardly ever happen through a large group or through your spouse. A large group is well, too large, not intimate enough, and not an environment where you can be really open. And your spouse knows you way too well. 99% of the time you need someone of the same gender to be your spiritual friend. Call me a sexist, that’s just the way that it is.

Recognize, reduce, replace, remind, recall

Sometimes we need someone to render wise counsel on our road to happiness. These are people who are gifted by God to do three things: to recognize our negative patterns, to help us to reduce these patterns and then to replace them with new and positive patterns.

Recognize, reduce and replace: that’s a powerful combination. In a minute, I’ll add to those three two more “R” words: remind and recall. Those five “R” words are your best signposts to drive around the potholes on the road to happiness, whether you flesh them out with some help (which is what most of us need to do) or if you coming at this flying solo.

Philippians 4:4-9 has the first three—recognize, reduce, replace. It says,

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
6Do not be anxious about anything, [RECOGNIZE] but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [REDUCE]
8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. [REPLACE]

This is what wise counsel in the body of Christ does: it helps us recognize, then reduce and then replace godless patterns with godly patterns.

Did you know that repeated patterns of thought or bodily motion create “neural pathways” in our brains? A neural pathway is a literal groove, a kind of a rut in your brain. Sometimes that works for you. You’re using well-worn neural pathways when you drive home from work and it seems that the car know the way. And that can work against you in dramatic ways when the negative way you respond to a situation gets stuck in your head.

What we need is a way to retrain our responses in a God-trusting, God-honoring ways. Wise counsel in the form of gifted and trained Christian therapists is a good step, but let me suggest a further step: the help of people called as spiritual directors. Sometimes they’re the same people; sometimes not.

We’ve talked about RECOGNIZE, REDUCE and REPLACE; the spiritual director helps us do two more things: to REMIND us of liberating Biblical truth and cause us to RECALL God’s history of work in our lives.

REMIND: A spiritual director reminds you of foundational Biblical truths that touch your point of need. Let me give you three quick examples.

Be reminded: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God’s essential stance toward His children, those who have connected to God through Jesus the Son, is that of LOVE.

Be reminded: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). The idea here is “cease striving” (NASB) or even “pipe down!” The point is that only God is God and that He doesn’t need your advice on being God, including the shape of circumstances around you.

One more—be reminded: “5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) You can’t solve whatever that’s bugging you, so give it to God to work on. He’s pretty good at this!

Last there’s RECALL—recall what God has done in your life. You may think you’ve good a lot to be unhappy about until you recall the good that He’s done. What’s your personal record of God’s work in your life?

Sometime ago, a fellow believer let into me mercilessly. He dumped on me in a way that made me feel like my whole life and ministry was a mistake. If what this person said was true, I would have been more use to God if I’d spent by life running a convenience store. I really was crushed.
That very night, I had a dream. (I’m a little uncomfortable sharing this.) I saw myself leading a seminar on the very topic that I’d been attacked on. As the dream ended, I heard a voice say, “That’s the way I see you.” I woke up and realized I’d had a dream sent from God to tell me what His opinion was, and that the other person’s opinion was just wrong. There were many more details, but I wouldn’t feel right about sharing them.

A number of years ago, a man in a church I was serving, one of the most level-headed guys you’d ever want to meet, asked if he could come by for a chat. I could tell that something was bothering him. What he told me has stuck with me and been an incredible encouragement to me. One Sunday as I was preaching, he said he saw two angels standing on either side of me. (You have to understand that this was NOT the kind of guy just to see things; not an emotional or person or anything like that.) He said he’d come just to tell me that—that angels stood with me in my ministry.

When I RECALL those experience with God, it brings me comfort and yes, happiness.
Folks we are just common people with an amazing God. We are the unqualified. Know this: you don’t have to have it all together to be used by God or to find your happiness in Him. What we can do is grow in our seeking after Him, and know increased joy as the byproduct.

I want to close today by having some extra time for prayer. If you need someone to pray with you, don’t be embarrassed; we need each other. As the music plays, let’s pray. You might even feel led to come to the mike and pray for us all. Let’s come before the Lord and experience His lifting grace. Let’s pray.


[1] New York: Crossroad, 1989, p. 58.

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