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Just Choose HappinessA Guide to Joyous Living
By Nell W. Mohney
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChoose Life
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Tim, how can you be so happy when you live in excruciating pain?" I asked Dr. Tim Hansel in a conference I was attending. All of us were drawn to this handsome keynote speaker who illumined the words of life and Christian vitality with humor and persuasion. At each session, he threw a rope of hope to those of us who were struggling with ordinary, everyday problems. We left each session feeling that we were "more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans 8:37).
It was in a small social group following an evening session that we learned through the hostess that Tim had been seriously injured in a mountain-climbing expedition. For a while, doctors believed that Tim would not survive. He lived, but daily he faces excruciating pain. I had asked the question of Tim because I know it is one thing to be happy and have a sense of well-being when everything is going well; it is quite another when your body is wracked with pain.
When I asked the question, Tim put down his cup of tea, looked me directly in the eyes, and replied, "Every morning when I get up, I choose to be happy. You can choose to be happy, or you can choose to be miserable. I choose to be happy." Many years later, I heard another Christian author and speaker, Barbara Johnson, say similar words in a conference: "Pain is inevitable, but misery is a choice." I'd like to add, "And so is happiness."
Then Tim said, "If you think I am happy, you ought to know my friend Mark." He described his friend as a football coach at a western university and then added that Mark has no hands. He uses hooks, and he has become so adept at using them that he also plays tennis and rides a bike.
Tim told us that Mark sometimes takes off the hooks. When he encounters amazed stares or questions, Mark unselfconsciously responds with good humor and a happy, accepting attitude. For example, one day Tim accompanied Mark to the grocery store before they left to go to a church meeting. Because Mark didn't have on the hooks, he used both wrists to pick up the items and drop them into the grocery cart. At the cereal counter, two boys about six or seven years old watched in disbelief as Mark found his cereal of choice and used his wrists to transfer the box into the cart. Then came the inevitable question: "Mister, what happened to your hands?" Mark, in mock surprise, looked down and said, "Oh, my goodness, where are they? I must have left them up among the cereal boxes." The boys quickly joined in the search until Mark declared, "Now I remember." The boys asked in unison, "What?" Mark's fun reply was, "When I washed my hands this morning, I must have left them lying on the lavatory."
How would you handle the loss of both hands? Would it destroy your happiness and even lead to bitterness? That story confirmed for me the truth of this statement: What happens to you is not as important as your reaction to what happens to you. This was certainly true of the children of Israel when they left the slavery of Egypt to become a nation during their years in the wilderness, eventually moving into the Promised Land.
When the children of Israel were looking over into the Promised Land, God spoke to them through Moses: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Think of it. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years and finally were at the fulfillment of a dream, yet they were afraid and unsure that they had what was necessary to move into the challenge of a new lifestyle. God was telling them that they could stay in the shadows of fear and despondency (death of the spirit), or they could, in trust and faith, move forward toward life. God said, "Choose life."
Often we have an opportunity to move toward a new challenge, but we are afraid to move out of safe yet unhappy and deadening ruts. God must surely be saying to us, "Choose life." Will we heed the words or stay in the shadows? God has given us freedom of choice, and he will never bulldoze his way into our lives. The choice is ours. As Tim Hansel said during the conference I attended, "We choose happiness at the core of who we are when we invite Christ to live within us not only as Savior but also as Lord. We invite him in as King to reign forever, and not just as president to serve for a four-year term." This is the first step in choosing life and happiness—inviting Christ to live within us.
Are Your Flags Flying?
In 1984, my husband, Ralph, and I did a ministerial exchange in England. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there and loved the English people. Soon we discovered that when the Queen was in residence at Buckingham Palace, her flag flew above the palace. The apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22-23 that when Christ is in residence within us, the following "flags" will be flying in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
These flags don't fly at full mast the moment we choose to invite Christ in. Rather, as we live daily in his presence and open every room of our lives to his loving presence, we feel a new sense of happiness and power. Living with Christ is very different from simply believing in him. As we more fully open our lives to Christ's presence, the flags increase and are more fully opened. For example, we have more peace, joy, and patience. We become kinder, gentler, more generous, more faithful, and more self-controlled.
When our sons were six and eight years old, Ralph was serving as a District Superintendent of the United Methodist Church in East Tennessee. My mother, who lived in a small town in North Carolina, was dying of cancer. Because my father was an invalid, Mother wanted to die at home. This was before Hospice had been established. So my sister, my brother, and I provided household help for them. Also, our doctor, a family friend, checked on her regularly.
As she grew worse, we each took a week away from our families and stayed with Mother and Dad. Sometimes I drove across the mountains of western North Carolina to be with them, and sometimes I went by bus. One Sunday evening after I finished preparing food for my family for a week and making sure that the children's clothes were ready for school and their homework was finished, Ralph took me to the bus station.
Only fourteen passengers were aboard on that cold and starless night. Among us were two young soldiers, who obviously had just completed boot camp and already were feeling lonely. At the first rest stop, they got off the bus and bought cheese crackers and sodas for each of us. As they handed out the snacks, they asked what we did and where we lived. (This was a time when neighborliness was "in" and fear of terrorists had not arrived yet.) When they came to me, I told them where I lived; and for them, that was like seeing an old friend. They lived only thirty miles away in another Tennessee town.
When I said that I was a homemaker married to a minister, the taller young man looked pleased and sat down across the aisle from me. He said very earnestly, "Then I want to ask you a question." He told me that his family members were Christian, but he was not. Still, he went to church with them every Sunday he was home. Always he saw the same two men, and they raised a serious question in his mind. Both men were professing Christians. One was very involved in church activities, but he never looked happy. Instead, he looked weary in well-doing. The young man said, "When I see him, I think, 'If that's what it means to be a Christian, then I don't want it.'" He continued, "The other man has had many problems in his life, but he is always at church and always looks happy. When I am around him, I feel as if a spring breeze is blowing through his life. I say, 'If that's what it means to be Christian, then I want it.'"
Then, with a sense of urgency in his voice, he asked, "If they are both Christians, what is the difference?" I opened my heart and mind and prayed for an answer, and I'm sure I received one because I had never thought of it before. Yet it's the very thing the New Testament tells us so clearly. "The difference in the two men," I replied, "is that one man works for Christ, but the other one lives with him."
That's what the incarnation means: "in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19). As Christ becomes resident in us through the Holy Spirit, we receive guidance and power. This, of course, is an incredible gift from God, but we must choose to receive the gift. As Mary Martin once sang on Broadway in The Sound of Music, "A bell is not a bell until you ring it; a song is not a song until you sing it." I'd like to add, "A gift is not a gift until you receive it."
The Secret of Authentic Happiness
In his classic book The Secret of Radiant Living, English author William E. Sangster describes the gift of incarnation as the secret of authentic happiness and radiant personality. He says that the people who have authentic happiness are usually ordinary persons who do extraordinary things. They are empowered! Sangster says this happens to people who say to Christ, "Abide with me," and really mean it, entertaining with gladness their Holy Guest.
Although Christians through the years have not definitively been able to distinguish between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, there are important reasons we think of this divine indwelling as the Son. Christ himself said, "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30). Also, his name was Emmanuel, meaning "God is with us" (Matthew 1:23). In any case, it is obvious that when we draw nearer to God through Christ, we know him as much as we humans can. Through Christ, we see God in a human setting, hear his words, and share his experiences.
Sangster believes that seeking happiness by itself—apart from Christ—is eventually fruitless. It is like reaching for the bloom on a peach without touching the peach or the tree. The following three circles show the difference between person-centered living and Christ-centered living:
1. The first circle represents an unbeliever. This person has self at the center of his or her life. Christ is definitely on the outside. He has never been invited to come inside.
2. The second circle represents what Paul would call a carnal Christian and we would call a nominal Christian. That person may have received Christ as Savior, but none of the doors of the person's life is open to Christ's presence. The individual is still calling all the shots. Self is still at the center.
3. In the last circle, Christ has been invited to take up residence as Lord and King. All rooms are open, allowing changes to begin. Christ is at the center of the life, and the self inside is being fulfilled to its potential. This is the spirit-filled Christian.
According to Sangster, the Spirit-filled life is the beginning of authentic and enduring happiness. The first thought of the Spirit-filled life is to recognize that we can't do it on our own. This means asking forgiveness for our mistakes and sins, accepting God's forgiveness, and then inviting Christ to live in every room of our lives as Lord. This also involves living in daily fellowship with Christ through prayer, Bible reading, quiet listening, and the willingness to follow his guidance.
Does that mean that we have nothing else to do once we have invited Christ into the center of our lives—that Christ will do it all? Absolutely not! The Spirit-filled life is a cooperative effort involving our growth not only in faith but also in the understanding that, as human beings, we are the totality of our thoughts, our feelings, and our will. Therefore, it is into the wholeness of our personalities that Christ must come and work. We can't merely learn through our minds what scientists, psychologists, and the Bible tell us about happiness—though we will do a bit of that learning in this book. We also must learn some things through intuition. For example, we intuitively know that kindness is better than cruelty and that truth is better than a lie. We also must learn through life experience and observation. It is in the totality of our personalities that Christ must live and work, just as it is in the fullness of him that "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
A part of this cooperative effort involves choosing and developing positive and practical traits that will enhance our happiness. Among these are gratitude, kindness, laughter, forgiveness, time with family and friends, leaving old destructive habits behind, coping with stress and hardship, choosing fitness of body and mind, and living in the presence of Christ.
Sit back and enjoy the trip, but take it seriously; and you will emerge as a happy, growing Christian living in the flow of God's presence.
Digging a Little Deeper
1. According to this chapter, how do we establish a core foundation for happiness in life?
2. Respond to the following statement: What happens to you is not as important as your reaction to what happens to you. How have you experienced the truth of this statement in your own life?
3. How would you explain what it means to "Choose life"? Why does God leave this choice to us? Why do you think we are often afraid to choose life?
4. Read Deuteronomy 30:15-20. How is choosing life similar to choosing happiness? In what way do we "choose happiness at the core of who we are" when we invite Christ to live within us as Savior and Lord? How is this not the same thing as saying that everything will always go well for us or that we will always be happy about every circumstance in our lives? 5. Read Galatians 5:22-23. According to these verses, what are the outward signs that Christ is in residence within us? Why don't these "flags" fly at full mast from the moment we invite Christ into our lives? How do they become more prevalent in our lives? 6. How is living with Christ different from believing in Christ? What are some of the ways you "live with Christ" each day? 7. Read John 15:1-5. What does it mean to abide in Christ? Why is this important? 8. Refer to the illustrations on pages 7–8. According to these representations, how would you explain the difference(s) between an unbeliever, a nominal Christian, and a Spirit-filled Christian?
9. Would you agree with William E. Sangster's assertion that allowing Christ to live and work in our lives is the basis for authentic and enduring happiness? Why or why not?
10. What does it mean to say that the Spirit-filled life is a cooperative endeavor? How can we cooperate with the indwelling presence of Christ?
Excerpted from Just Choose Happiness by Nell W. Mohney Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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