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Yes, I recognize there’s a danger in pursuing happiness—we can always get carried away with it. Don Quixote gives a wise warning when he says, “Pursue not pleasure, thou mayest have the misfortune of catching up with it.” Still, I notice that most of those who warn us against too much happiness are the people with plenty of it.
This is a piece about what we call “small or lower-level irritations”. The speech is legitimate because we all recognize the difference between habitual and severe physical abuse and nagging. But C.S. Lewis, John A. Hutton and others are right, these lower-level irritations, if they’re constant, can rub your nerves raw and drive you to inner madness. At that point they’re no longer petty annoyances, they’re a needle in the eye, a fishing hook caught in the lip.
If your explosion point arrives, what adds to the agony is the protest that you’ve gone over the top. “You’re acting like this over a silly remark?” In vain you try to explain it wasn’t just—! Barely controlling the fury, you try to explain and what you get is, “Ah, you’re easily annoyed!” And what hurts most is this: you can’t shake the feeling that they may be right and it throws you back into your frustration and misery!
You’re stuck in the middle. Uncertain that the problem doesn’t lie in you, half convinced that it’s the fault of the other and without a clue what to do about it. You’ve talked about it until you’re weary, you don’t want to bring in an outsider because it might sound trivial. Besides, it might shame the one you’re having the difficulty with and you don’t want that. All you’re sure of is this—the sunshine’s being stolen.
Somebody said of Christ that you could always tell where he’d been because he left a trail of sunshine behind him; little knots of people, scattered all over the place and on street corners would be bubbling with pleasure. Even as a boy, we’re told he grew in favor not only with God, but also with people! He was nice to be around. The famous Scots scholar, A.B. Davidson, was sure that Christ never smiled and I think that’s very unlikely; but the one thing I’m absolutely certain of is that he made many others smile.
Happiness isn’t the supreme concern but it’s nonsense to say it doesn’t matter! Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 gave advice he said would be helpful to his readers. He insisted it was advice and they didn’t have to take [something modern church advisors and preachers need to remember] but he said, “I think you’d be happier if you took it.” And why should that matter to an apostle of the sovereign Lord? Why should he care about passing matters of this world?
What fools we are, what blind fools we are—those of us who have every reason to be happy—when we dismiss as of no account the happiness of others. Misery blots out the sun! Misery so depresses the heart that not even gospel sounds fine. With our stream of petty criticisms, our ill-tempered, crabby and childish demands that everyone toe our line we can steal the sunshine out of people’s lives; making it harder for them to live with optimism and cheer.
Here’s a sobering text. God swears to judge the false teachers in Israel because, “With lies you have made sad the hearts of those I have not made sad.” (Ezekiel 13:22) It is no little crime to shrink without good cause someone’s pleasure in living. To speak and behave so that people are in a constant state of misery is to steal the sun.
I suppose it’s possible that tens of millions will approach the final judgment, not accused of ethnic cleansing, of murder, adultery, racketeering, drug-pushing, child-porn or multi-national destruction of small nations. They’ll have no fear of any of that. But how many millions will go there branded on their foreheads as: Daily Thieves of Sunshine?
When Israel woke up to find themselves enslaved by Egypt, it wasn’t only their bodies that were in shackles, by filling their days with misery, by withholding happiness from them, Egypt succeeded in enslaving their hearts.
“Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment...And I will bring you into the land I swore to give to Abraham...’ Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel; but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:6-9 RSV)
Could he have brought them better news? Did any nation understand better, words like “bondage,” “deliver,” “redeem”? But Egypt had beaten the heart out of them; they were too far-gone at this point to pay attention to words, no matter how rich or true or hope-filled.
Governments have a difficult and awesome responsibility here. To create and defend laws that steal the sunshine out of the lives of countless people is a major crime or blunder.
At the individual level too, people ally themselves with the Dragon by depriving others of happiness for no good reason, making them sad, especially if they’re making sad those who are the most vulnerable to them. Bully a stranger and he’ll walk away or avoid you, bully your wife or husband or anyone who loves you and they can’t walk away—they experience the misery and have to live in it. And the pain is even more painful because they love us and think we love them. We increase the level of injustice when we inflict it on our own who are made vulnerable by their love for us.
And if he/she can find no fair treatment with us, where will she find it? If she can’t expect some tolerance from us—not to say sweetness—where is she to look? If we won’t credit him with some fineness of character, we, to whom he has committed his life, how will the world begin to look? If the place where they’re to find light and warmth is a place of coldness and endless petty criticisms and sulking how will they keep from becoming dispirited?
If our hearts one day are transformed into the likeness of the Lord Jesus we will go through the rest of our lives wincing at every remembrance of the needless pain we heaped on others—especially those who loved us more than their own lives.