Choosing to Put All True Happiness in God

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader in Arkansas writes:

My biggest religious choice was to follow Jesus. Others in this discussion thread have already shared such experiences. It’s not simply a decision to assent to a particular belief or doctrine. It is the beginning of a personal relationship with God. God has long been as real and vibrant a presence in my life as any of my family or friends. I could no more doubt God’s existence than that of any human being I know.

But we can have our doubts about those whom we know. For many years I doubted whether God really loved me. It seemed to me that he had badly let me down. I’d tried to live and make decisions as I believed God wanted me to. And everything seemed turn to out wrong!

I was like the characters in the story by [Italian writer] Italo Calvino who wondered whether they had either completely misinterpreted the divine will, or whether their awful situation was in fact the result of that will. This period of disappointment and doubt culminated when my spouse—whom I loved more than anybody else in the world—decided to abandon God, and also abandoned me in the process.

Only after that did I finally come to understand what is perhaps the hardest of all Christian teachings: It’s not about you.

A common thread among many who have discussed their abandonment of their previous faith was the decision that they had to leave in order to seek their own happiness, be true to themselves, accept and love themselves, etc. But to follow Jesus involves recognizing and admitting just how unlovable we—myself as much anybody else—really are.

We’ve all messed up our lives. We owe God everything. He owes us nothing. Jesus warned his followers plainly that following him in a fallen world would not spare us any of the world’s problems.

I finally realized what I as a professing Christian should have realized all along: God never let me down. It was my own frustrated sense of entitlement that caused me to feel that way—and robbed me of the great blessing of simply being content in God.

This realization wasn’t a fatalistic acceptance on my part. It liberated me to stop being angry about the bad hand I thought I’d been dealt, and to start enjoying my life, as a servant of God, and as a servant of my fellow human beings. It means giving up many human “freedoms.”

I’m not free to hate anybody who does me wrong, or hold grudges. I’m not free to ignore the suffering of others, or try to shut the world out of my life. I’m not free to pursue my own idea of happiness at somebody else’s expense. I’m not free to ignore New Testament teachings I might personally find hard to accept or follow, or abandon them in favor of what society now considers acceptable in hopes of escaping modern society’s growing hostility.

In return for all that, I have in recent years been in the process of gaining new freedoms. Freedom from fear. Freedom from anger and frustration. Freedom from having to have my own way. Freedom from lack of purpose. Freedom to begin to experience the love of God and the peace that surpasses understanding.

I’ve found it a wonderful life, even as I’ve had to say goodbye to some things, like marriage and children, that I’d always wanted very much. It’s not a matter of choosing religion or love. God is love—a much more genuine and lasting love than anything in this present world can offer.

Our reader follows up with some devastating news:

We learned yesterday that one of our staff members at work was murdered. Her teenage granddaughter, whom she was raising, was wounded and survived by playing dead until the assailant left. He reportedly stole a microwave oven and a cell phone. [News report here]

We live in a small town, so it has been a great shock to the whole community. We’re thankful she was ready to meet God, and that their church has stepped up to care for her granddaughter. I don’t think people around here want to think about having to face such things without hope in God, however many questions regarding theodicy they may have.

Previous Notes on theodicy here, here, and here.