There’s this place in the Gospels where Jesus tells people that if they want what He’s offering, then they will have to deny themselves.
Of all of the ideas intrinsic to the Gospel message, I don’t know of any more offensive to contemporary culture than the call to deny oneself. It brings to mind notions of austere asceticism and images of self-flagellation. It says to us, “Give up who you think you are. Stop assuming the things you assume. Reject that which you believe will make you happy.”
I think that last one is the hardest for me to do; to reject the things that I think will make me happy. I don’t know that I could stop pursuing my own happiness even if I tried. And so I think, in His strange grace, God gifted it to me.
Happiness has always been my True North. At the end of the day, if all is going well, the evidence will be that I am happy. Am I happy? Then all is well. Am I unhappy? Then something is wrong. My pursuit of happiness was the avenue by which I traveled. Never stray too far, lest you lose your way back.
And I didn’t stray. Rather, the path disappeared from beneath my feet.
When you lose your path, you panic. You look for anything that resembles your familiar route. I can recall, during the darkest days of depression, going to bed thinking, “Maybe I will wake up happy tomorrow.” In the morning I would wake, and the first question on my mind would be, “Am I happy now?” The answer always came back: “No.” I thought that every night and every morning for months. The path never re-materialized.
I never would have left the path of happiness on my own. I simply do not have the bravery or emotional/spiritual fortitude necessary to take Jesus seriously in His call to deny myself. So in a strange act of grace (acts of divine grace tend to be strange) God removed the path. He removed my happiness. He gave me depression.
Now, not being a theologian, I suppose I ought to confess my ignorance. Did God actually give me depression? Or did He merely allow it? I have no idea. I’m comfortable with either option. What I do know, though, is that spending many months in the absence of happiness forced me to consider a substitute. What could take the place of happiness? What could possibly direct my life the way my instinctive sense of “this will make me happy” did?
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but eventually I discovered another path. It was not happiness. It was something different. Familiar but substantively better in every way. It was a different type of path, but it took me places happiness never could have. It showed me sweeping vistas from which I could look down on the old path of happiness and see its meandering circling course. And happiness seemed kind of quaint and unimportant from these new vantages.
So what was this new path? In a word: Joy. More specifically, the joy of the Lord. The joy that belongs exclusively to the Father Himself. The Joy that He is utterly delighted to share, if only we will deny the things we presently expect to fulfill us.
Lest you think I’m not happy any more, let me assure you that I am often quite happy. But happiness has a new and less profound role in my life. Happiness now is submissive to joy. When I am happy, it functions as a vague foretaste of the main course: joy. And lest you think that I have utterly conquered depression, let me assure you that I have not. But depression too has a new and less profound role in my life. Depression too is now submissive to joy. When I am depressed, it functions as a signal that I may be straying from the path of joy – perhaps looking for my old routes of happiness.
It’s a strange thing to be able to reflect on depression as a gift. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but somewhere along the way I became thankful for that season of estrangement from happiness. It allowed me to put happiness in it’s proper place. And while the season of stumbling through the brush between happiness and joy was painful and certainly left some scars, the path of joy – the joy of the Lord – delivers things that happiness could only promise.