What If Happiness Actually IS the Truth?

“Clap along if you think that happiness is the truth.”
–Pharrell Williams in the song “Happy,” the #1 song of 2014. [1]

Let’s do a little thought experiment.

Imagine you could ask the typical American what their goal in life was and you received this ubiquitous, though thoroughly honest, answer: “I just want to be happy.” That, simply put, is the great truth, the gospel, of the present day.

Then, imagine you asked this same person what they thought was the goal of Christianity. What would the answer be? What would the answer NOT be?

More to the point, does the average American, or the average church goer, think that the pursuit of happiness has anything to do with the pursuit of Jesus?

Is Christianity only for the overtly pious and serious whose only delight is in their stations as worms before a just and holy God? Or is it for those who are armed to the teeth with platitudes and positive spins on even the worst of tragedies, marrying hashtags and blessings at an alarming rate?

Or … as is often the case, is wisdom found somewhere between the two?

A happy medium (pun intended) can be found in Christopher Kaczor’s book The Gospel of Happiness. [2] Instead of being filled with unrelenting inspiring stories meant to pummel the sadness out of you, Kaczor, a philosopher by trade, has gifted the church universal with a truly unique vision of happiness and the Christian life that incorporates the best of what has come to be known in the social sciences as “positive psychology.” [3]

Additionally, Kaczor’s book is welcome not only for its picture of “the good life,” but for its contributions to the current discussion about how science and faith relate.

Thus, it is not a stretch to say that The Gospel of Happiness might be one of the more important books written in recent years that ministry leaders should read. Packed with both scientific and theological insight, Kaczor’s subject matter ranges broadly, with discussions on forgiveness, gratitude, happiness, virtue, willpower, and prayer. All along the way, he incorporates the latest findings in positive psychology and brings Christianity to bear on every subject.

His ability to do so is stunning, and his confidence in how faith completes the scientific findings he references is no more evident than at the close of the book when he says, “In my reading of positive psychology, I have not found a single empirical finding or any recommendation for increasing happiness that contradicts Christian teaching.” [4] He does, however, note that positive psychology, which rejects God or religion in general, can be incomplete. For Kaczor, this is where the Christian faith comes ably alongside, challenges, and corrects.

In that vein, I will briefly highlight four ways that this book could be enormously helpful to ministers and leaders in the church. It must be noted that Kaczor comes from a decidedly Catholic point of view, though this only overtly influences the text in a few places.

  1. To Educate. Kaczor’s wealth of knowledge about positive psychology is enormously helpful. Readers learn bedrock terminology like PERMA (which stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement) and how Christianity can enhance the findings of positive psychology in these areas. To collect and disseminate such large amounts of data would take years were it to be attempted alone.
  2. To Counsel. Often ministry leaders feel overwhelmed by the prospect of giving advice or counsel. Kaczor’s work, however, gives tools to counsel in ways that are congruent not only with the gospel, but also with the latest science available. For example, in engaging with the scientific findings on willpower, Kaczor hosts a discussion on temptation. There, he gives practical steps based on research to help someone (or yourself) break an unhealthy habit. However, he also notes that Christian teaching can aide positive psychology by helping to rid someone of the guilt that often accompanies unhealthy habits, something the social sciences are, in his opinion, woefully unqualified to do. More extreme cases must, of course, be handed off to professionals, but The Gospel of Happiness would be a fine addition to any minister’s counseling toolbox.
  3. To Practice. As mentioned before, Kaczor’s book may be one of the more practical books a ministry leader can read. In the chapter on gratitude he references a way of fighting depression, an exercise used by researchers called the “Three Blessings Exercise,” which bears a remarkable resemblance to Christian contemplation. Kaczor is willing and able to adapt it thusly. In the same chapter, he gives a daily thankfulness exercise that could be another way of practicing the Examen, an already popular practice in Christian spirituality. In another chapter on forgiveness (which alone is worth the price of the book), he cites several ways to go about the process of forgiveness step by step, helpfully delineating between what is called decisional (the choice to begin to forgive) and emotional forgiveness (the emotions involved in being wronged). In short, as far as ways to practice these ideas, you would be hard pressed to do much better than The Gospel of Happiness.
  4. To Strengthen Faith. One of the more helpful things about Kaczor’s work is how it strengthens the faith of the reader if they are coming from a Christian tradition. His own confidence shines through as he notes how practices like the Jesus Prayer enable willpower and how Jesus’s teachings illuminate the science on forgiveness. And while he may tend to harmonize at points, he is often revelatory in his findings. The doubting Christian would find plenty here to strengthen their belief in the coherence of faith.

In the end, The Gospel of Happiness is not without flaws. Kaczor risks alienating a Protestant base of readers by sometimes suggesting exercises that are incongruent with Protestant theology. That would be a shame, because his work here is a great service to the universal church in showing the true meaning of happiness and how the pursuit of Jesus can illuminate that search. And if this happiness just so happens to be the truth, Kaczor may have composed something worth applauding.

[1] http://www.officialcharts.com/chart-news/the-official-top-100-biggest-songs-of-2014-revealed__7577/
[2] https://www.amazon.com/Gospel-Happiness-Rediscover-Spiritual-Psychology/dp/0804141002/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
[3] Positive psychology is a relatively new branch of the social sciences that has been around since the late 1990s. The focus here, as opposed to focusing on the negative experiences of the human experience like depression, is to ask what allows human being to flourish or be happy. More than a few self-help best sellers in recent years have roots here.
[4] Christopher Kaczor, The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology (Image, 2015), 184.

 

Adam Daniels is a freelance writer who has worked in ministry for 12 years, most recently as the Campus Minister at the Campus View Church of Christ in Athens, Georgia. Despite his years of experience in full time ministry and working through a couple of theological degrees, he still has more questions than answers. He is a husband to Jessie, a lover of books, a stumbling disciple of Jesus, and the worst player on his church league softball team. He blogs occasionally at https://idlefaith.wordpress.com.

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Author:  Publish Date: April 12, 2017

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
Karissa Herchenroeder
Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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