Woman #1: It’s always been a puzzle to me as to why we can’t be happy.
Woman #2: I am happy most days because I’m just – I don’t know – God made me a happy person.
Man #1: I usually wake up happy, and that’s just from waking up in Colorado.
Woman #3: Well, I think everyone, um, struggles with unhappiness at some point in their life. The way I usually combat it is going to Starbucks and having a big old coffee.
End of Teaser
John Fuller: Well, today maybe you’re feeling happy or maybe you’re feeling sad. Either way, you’re going to hear what God thinks about happiness on our program today. This is Focus on the Family. And your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, I think everyone – but to, you know, accommodate that one percent – most everyone wants to be happy. But sometimes the Christian community can treat the pursuit of happiness as somehow being ungodly, you know, that that’s not the right thing to do.
Today, you may be surprised by what our guest is going to share, that God wants you to be happy and that happiness is a gift from God that we should actively pursue. We’re told in the Psalms – Psalm 37:4 to be exact – to delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart. So today, we’re gonna talk about how to do that on a practical level, especially when faced with difficult circumstances. Here at Focus on the Family, we want to help you thrive in your Christian journey, particularly. That’s our primary mission. And we have a lot of resources available to help you do that and to help you in your relationship with God. We’re putting this one in that category.
John: I would agree, Jim. And our website is focusonthefamily.com/radio. And our guest today is Lisa Harper, who is a very popular author and women’s speaker and an adoptive mom to Missy. And her latest book addresses this topic. It’s The Sacrament of Happy: What a Smiling God Brings to a Wounded World.
Jim: Lisa, welcome back.
Lisa Harper: It is so…
Jim: Former staff member…
Lisa: Former staff member. Listen, I loved my days on staff at Focus. And Jim, you taught me how to jump on skis.
Jim: Yeah, by falling.
Lisa: So I will be forever grateful to you and Jean.
Jim: You know, I was a lot younger then.
Lisa: We were both a lot younger then.
Jim: That may have been the last time I jumped on skis, actually.
Lisa: Yeah. But you’ve aged much better than I have, but anyway…
Jim: I don’t know about that.
Lisa: …We can think back to those glory ski jumping days. Yeah, it’s great to be back with y’all.
Jim: Lisa, let’s get into it. This is a great book, The Sacrament of Happy. Some might challenge that, and we will in a minute. But your subtitle, also good – “What a Smiling God Brings to a Wounded World.” And I think everyone wants to be happy, but it can feel elusive to attain. And then sometimes, it can feel unholy…
Jim: …To be happy. So what do you believe is the key to happiness? Let’s go right to it.
Lisa: Well, yeah, I’ll kinda focus on your “it sometimes feels unholy” or spiritually immature to pursue happiness. And that’s what I thought or what was kind of tacitly endorsed to me growing up. I was a happy-go-lucky – or at least I seemed to be a happy-go-lucky kid. I was faking it most of the time just covering up a lot of deep pain. But I learned in church to kind of dumb that happy side down because church was a place where you, you know, you didn’t use your outside voice, and you wore skirts. And I grew up in the south in a Baptist church, so I had to wear, you know, white tights and shiny shoes. And – and we just weren’t allowed to be happy unless happy looked kind of subdued…
Lisa: …Ordered, absolutely ordered. And so by the time I was in high school, I heard a sermon on JOY, and it was the acronym “Jesus Others Yourself”. And literally from the pulpit, this pastor said, “Joy is what God has called us to. Happiness is what the world offers.” And he said, “Happiness is based on happenstance. So don’t seek happiness. You seek joy.” So I thought happiness was something you jettisoned like spiritual floaties when you learn to swim. I thought, “Well, if we’re growing in intimacy with Jesus, we’re not allowed to be happy.” And it wasn’t ‘til about three or four years ago I started studying that theme of happiness in Scripture to see if it even was a biblical pursuit.
Jim: Yeah. And you found something like 2,700 passages where there were terms related to happiness.
Jim: I mean, that – that kind of blows, I think, many of us away…
John: That was astounding to me, yeah.
Lisa: Oh, it blew me away.
Jim: I got to confess to you, I am more of a division between joy and happiness person. I think – I do think happiness is a little flaky…
Jim: …If I could say it that way…
Lisa: …I did too. I absolutely did too.
Jim: …So what did you find in this study?
Lisa: Well, I was just undone. First of all, I had to repent because I thought, “Lord, I think I have just dumbed down something that you actually wired in me. Um, there’s not just 2,700 references to it, there’s 85 direct happiness verses. God describes Himself as happy – which slayed me. Because you know, as a kid I grew up – I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t believe in God, believed him to be a holy God. But the God in my imagination was kind of an unsmiling kind of king…
Lisa: …You know, I thought if I stepped out of line, he might whack me over the head…
Jim: The rules guy.
Lisa: …with a 50 pound – absolutely. And I revered him. But the idea of a smiling God that would beckon me to launch myself into His arms, that was – that didn’t feel biblical to me.
Jim: You know, one thing that’s helped me – and I can’t remember if I just thought of this or somebody mentioned it to me years ago – but it was have you ever thought of God’s belly laugh? And I just like that thought. You know, what does the Father sound like when He’s really laughing…
Lisa: I do too. I do too.
Jim: …And I think that it almost feels inappropriate, which is sad because I think laughter is part of God’s character.
Lisa: It absolutely – but there’s so many things about God that we deem as inappropriate. You know, that’s why the prodigal son just shocked people when Jesus told it because it mirrored another rabbinical story. But Jesus changed the ending and said, “God, the Father, runs toward us.” Hebrew men didn’t run because they didn’t have Hanes-His-Way. So they – no Hebrew man is going to hike up his robes – that was considered so improper. And so you’ve got this God who belly laughs, this God who runs toward His kids.
When I was studying happiness in the Old Testament, it’s usually translated “blessed”. It comes from the Hebrew word “asher”. In the New Testament, again, and most of our English Bibles, it’s translated “blessed”, but it’s “makarios” in the Greek. Both of those translate perfectly as happy. It’s just we – when we translated the Bible into English, it’s almost like we made it a little – a little more holy, a little more appropriate.
Jim: Lisa, I need to – people that are hearing this and, to an extent, part of me hearing this, wants to respond to that and say, “Well, wait a minute. You know, when you’re before the Lord, it’s a serious moment. And you need to have a serious attitude.” Speak to that because that’s not always the case. He makes us it in His image…
Lisa: That’s right.
Jim: …He gave us, I believe, humor. I believe humor’s from God, not from the other guy…
Lisa: Oh, He says funny things throughout Scripture. Yeah.
Jim: …Oh, I know. And – but in that regard, how can we take a deep breath, especially if we’re out of tradition being taught that? How do we relax?
Lisa: Yes. I think we’ve got to change the paradigm that holy and happy are incongruent because you can be holy completely – not that we can be completely holy, but you can have a holy attitude as we approach the Lord, recognizing that John, the one who was so close to Jesus – he was so close to Jesus…
Jim: The one who God loved. I always love that…
Lisa: …Yeah. He says, “Jesus loves me,” five times in his Gospel…
Jim: That’s written in his own book, by the way.
Lisa: I know. I always imagine the other 11, like, rolling their eyes, like, here he goes again.
Jim: There goes John, the younger guy.
Lisa: But you know, John says, “I leaned against Jesus.” That’s how he was defined. And then he also fell as though dead when he saw Jesus glorified. So – so those are not incongruent. There are times that I think we’ll – when we come before Jesus and He’s glorified, when we get to eternity, I don’t know that we’re going to be giggling. I think I’m going to be face down on the floor just in awe.
Jim: Sure. But I think there will be those times.
Lisa: But there will be those times when you’ll be laughing.
Jim: Yeah. I’m looking forward to it.
Lisa: Absolutely, absolutely. So you know, there’s this one verse in I Timothy that I had read over a million times, never really seen. It’s I Timothy 1:11. And it’s when Paul has given little Tim, you know, he’s mentoring Tim, and he’s given Tim this – basically his marching orders. He’s like, “Okay, you’re growing up. Here’s what I want you to do now, is you go out and share the hope that lies within you, share the glorious good news of the blessed, the makarios, the happy God.” And I went, “That’s our calling as Christ followers is to share the great news of the happy God.” Because if He wasn’t a happy, joyful God – of course He’s holy – but if He didn’t have that side of joyful, do you really want to run toward Him and throw your crowns like Frisbees? No. We’d all be minding our P’s and Q’s afraid. And you know, I think most of us if we think of if you have children, or if you have grandchildren, or you have just kids that are precious to you, you don’t want those kids every time they approach you to have their hands, you know, fiddling in front of them and looking down with fear and going, “Is it okay that I approach you?” You’re like, “Baby, come to me.” Even when my little girl’s in trouble or has done something naughty, I don’t want her to be afraid of me.
Jim: Well that’s a shift for some people. We need to hit the title – The Sacrament issue. You call happiness a sacrament. I think some are going, “What? How could that be?”
Lisa: Some will burn me in effigy. That’s right.
Jim: What does that mean to you? And how would you define happiness in that context?
Lisa: Well, I purposefully chose the word sacrament to get people’s attention because I know some of the people who really most need to grapple with this cannot actually be happy and be a mature Christian. That word might jolt them – might even offend them – because they think, “Uh-uh, uh-uh, sacrament can only be Holy Communion or the Eucharist or baptism or marriage.” Those are the things that in common culture, evangelical or Catholic culture, people are taught these are the holy sacraments.
But the general definition from a theological perspective of the word sacrament is a visible sign of an inward grace. In other words, something we do or something that’s done to us that represents what God has done in us. That description, a visible sign of an inward grace, that absolutely applies to happiness because true happiness is not based on circumstance. You know, you had someone in the teaser say, “When I need to be happy, I go to Starbucks for coffee.” Well, me too, but that’s not biblical happiness. That is the happenstance: “I’ve got a heightened emotion because of caffeine.”
Biblical happiness – that word “asher” in the Old Testament, the Greek word “makarios” in the New Testament, God says, “I’m happy” – that is actually talking about a state of being that’s based in our delight, our contentment and our fulfillment being tied to God’s character. Our God is good. He does good. Even if we’re in a bad chapter, a sad chapter of our life, we can’t see around the corner, our happiness is not tied to caffeine or if I can fit into my skinny pants. That isn’t biblical happiness. That is the kind of happiness the world talks about. And there is definitely that emotional happiness that is circumstantially based. Biblical happiness, those 2,700 references we talked about, that is the kind of happiness God imbues in His children. And that’s based on who He is, not our circumstances.
Jim: Right. Lisa, let’s peel it back though. You weren’t born with this understanding. I mean, I love what you’re saying. And I think many people, especially those who are in an unhappy state, maybe even thinking this is a holy place to be. You know, exuding unhappiness makes me holy…
Lisa: Right. Oh, absolutely.
Jim: …Let’s go back to the panic attack that you had. Let’s give some people the background there. Really, the beginning of your journey of what you were masking.
Lisa: It was. It was. Jim, I was in my early 30s. And I was speaking on – of all things – on authenticity at a Bible study. And I had a panic attack. Now, I’d never had one before, so at first I didn’t know what it was. Matter of fact, I thought, “Am I having a heart attack?”
Jim: Describe it for some that might be having it or might have it.
Lisa: Well, I begin – I begin to sweat. I don’t mean, like, lady perspiration, like glistening. I mean like big man in a sauna sweating, like projectile perspiration. I mean, I was just sweating like crazy. And then I felt this dissociation. Like, I felt like I was almost outside…
Lisa: …My body. And I can remember distinctly – because I was leading Bible study, but I had several friends in the group, and I remember watching one of my friends turn to another and whispering – but I could see what they were whispering as I’m talking – I could see her whisper to another friend, “Is she okay?” And I got tickled. I wanted to go, “No, no. Not at all. I’m not okay,” because sweat is now running down the seat of my pants and it’s quite uncomfortable. And I thought, “This is just the oddest thing ever.” Well, afterwards, after I finished that, assured some friends that I wasn’t having a heart attack, another friend came up who’s a therapist. And she said, “Lisa, you know what just happened is you had a panic attack. And I said, “You’re kidding me,” because again, I’d always kind of thought of myself as happy-go-lucky because I had so masked some of the abuse when I was younger. And she said, “Here’s the deal, panic attacks are kind of like grapes. They come in clusters.” She said, “You need to deal with whatever you have been hiding in the recesses of your heart or this will happen again.” And that began me going to a Christian counselor and really excavating some of the biggest hills in my life and dealing with past sexual abuse, past traumas because I realized this happy veneer I’m wearing is not happy at all. This is just a facade that is my way of pressing down the pain of my past.
Jim: And Lisa, it is hard, but I’m thinking for the listener, again, there may – may be one or many women or men that are where you were. You had another situation at 14 that really – back to the cluster, which was another experience. What happened then? Again, to help those listening saying, “I’m in that same spot” or “that was similar to what happened to me.”
Lisa: Yeah. When I was 14-years-old, I had had – for a couple of years – had really debilitating migraines that would cause blackouts, et cetera. And finally, my mom took me to a neurosurgeon. And he immediately, the day of the appointment, had me admitted in the hospital because I showed several signs of a brain tumor. And they were just convinced I had a brain tumor. Well, long story short, you know, after a battery of tests, they found out I did not have a brain tumor. I had excess cerebral spinal fluid that was pressing on my optic nerve and that’s what was causing the blackouts. But as part of that process, part of that battery of test, this particular hospital mandated that when a child, a minor, came in with something serious, they had to have a psych consult. And so during that two hour meeting with a child psychiatrist, he asked me all these questions to ascertain whether I had a neurosis or was being physically abused. Well, when he explained his findings to my mother – again, I’m 14-years-old and look, you know, as best anybody can tell, like a happy-go-lucky kid. I’m doing well in school. I have a lot of friends. I’m always, you know…
Lisa: …Very upbeat, much – very much an optimist, real involved in school activities, student government, all kinds of stuff. He told my mom – he explained to her that I did not have any neurosis, that he couldn’t see any significant signs of abuse, current abuse. But he said, “Mrs. Angel, your – your daughter is either the happiest, most well-adjusted child I’ve ever met or she is in serious emotional pain.”
Jim: Gosh, that’s such a wide spectrum.
Lisa: I know. Now, my sweet mama – based on her telling the story to me, afterwards I realized he was trying to graciously say there’s no way out of all the children I see that your child is the cream of the crop. I think your little girl’s probably got something buried she needs to work through. My mom missed it because my mom was a happy doppelganger, too. She had tremendous pain she was bearing. So rather than dealing with what was causing us to hold up this happy veneer, we just continued kind of pretending for a lot longer, until I couldn’t pretend anymore. That got too heavy to carry.
Jim: How much time passed between that 14-year-old revelation and when you – I guess it could have been the panic attack you just described. Was that…
Lisa: Yeah, I was about 30-years-old.
Jim: …So that much time, about 16 years.
Lisa: Yeah. And again, Jim, I did what a lot of listeners will do. I wrapped verses around stuff. I made it look, sound biblical when I was dying on the inside. I would paste a smile on my face and use happy inflection and all the while thinking, “I don’t know if I can keep hiking up this hill. It’s just too steep.”
John: And if Lisa is describing where you’re living right now, if you’re feeling like, “I’m being disingenuous, I’m being dishonest, but I don’t know what else to do,” don’t wait 15 or 16 years to start talking to somebody about that. Give us a call. We have caring Christian counselors here at Focus on the Family that can have an initial conversation with you and then steer you toward somebody in your area that you can have an ongoing counseling relationship with and really deal with your stuff. Now, it may be that you don’t relate to that. And we’d certainly encourage you either way to get a copy of Lisa’s book, The Sacrament of Happy. Talk to a counselor or get the book at focusonthefamily.com/radio or call 800-A-FAMILY.
Jim: Lisa, I really want to drive this point home because I think at times we all can fake being in a good place. How do we know that we’re really being honest before the Lord and before some accountability, in terms of fellowship with others?
Lisa: Right. I think, you know, all of us know when we’re pretending. And so even if it’s after the fact, even if you pretend in a conversation with a friend and you go home and go, “Oh, I don’t really feel fine,” you didn’t feel safe enough to say, “I don’t feel fine.” I didn’t feel safe enough to say, “I can’t name it, I just feel this malaise, I’ve kind of been sad for a couple of years,” or you don’t say, “I just had this colossal blow out with my wife or my husband.” But we all know when we’ve put on a little bit of a veneer. I think we need to become more alert in our time alone with the Lord instead of that being a performance. “I’m gonna do my prayers. I’m gonna be a good girl or a good guy before the Lord.” We come before the Lord in the posture that David came before Lord and we go, “Search me. See if there’s any offensive way in me. Lead me into the way everlasting.” I have told the Lord, “In these last 15 years of my life – 20 years of my life – I want really, really short accounts with You. And so if I come to You with a veneer, I want you to spank me, mute me, give me hives, do whatever it is so that when I’m with you, there is very little veil” – we’re in the are ready but the not yet. We don’t have perfect communion with God. We’ll have that in glory. But we have incredible intimacy available to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And I think so many of us still keep God at arm’s length instead of going, “I want you to” – He already knows all of us – “but I want to walk in that reality.” And it wasn’t until I said, “Lord, I want you to clean up the toxic crud of my life that I have been putting veneers over ever since I was a little girl” – of course, He already knew it was there. I wasn’t surprising Him. It was just saying, “I want you to go ahead and do the surgery.” And He’s so kind. You know, He doesn’t use a bomb and blows us apart. He uses a scalpel. So when He cuts us, He cuts us to get out the wound. He doesn’t cut us so that we’ll stay wounded forever. It’s a rehabilitative pain.
Jim: Right. Lisa, you’re – you’ve talked about some of the experiences that you’ve had, whether it’s a distant father, absent father or no father, sexual abuse, which we’ve talked about on this program before in your life and the devastation of that. It wasn’t just one person or one occurrence. It was over a long period of time when you were a little girl. And it brought us all to tears in here. And I don’t want to handle that…
Lisa: I trust you, Jim. You’re my friends. You can talk about anything.
Jim: …Well, no, I appreciate that. But more to the point – the reality that people will do harm to you. I mean, I felt that as an orphaned kid, whether it was a foster parent or my stepdad. We all have somebody who does harm in some way. Could be what we do to our children, right? We don’t intend it as good parents, but sometimes we hurt them in ways that we don’t learn about for years, a little quip here, a little comment there, anger expressed at this, then 10 years later they say, “That really hurt me, Dad.”
Lisa: That’s right.
Jim: I mean, it is part of life. How do we manage that to not just blame others then? How do we not become bitter, which is probably the opposite of happy…
Lisa: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It is. It truly is.
Jim: …Is that bitter. My dad – if my dad would have treated me better. If he wouldn’t have been alcoholic, if he wouldn’t have left our family, if, if, if.
Lisa: Right, right.
Jim: How do we rise above that, especially as believers, to say, Listen, let me, the Lord, cut that away from you so it’s not an anchor?”
Lisa: I mean, this may sound like an oversimplification at first, but that’s why it’s so critical that we do not harness our happiness to another human’s shoulders. It is not based on happenstance. It’s not based on circumstance. It’s not based on how your daddy or your wife or your best friend treated you or mistreated you. It’s based on the fact that our heavenly Father loves us perfectly. He’s a good God. He does good. Even if our circumstances are difficult, ultimately, everything will work out for our good and His glory…
Jim: Now, that sounds right, but that can be hard to do.
Lisa: It is very hard to do. And sometimes you do it blind. I’ll tell you, just in my own…
Jim: Or trusting.
Lisa: …Trusting. In my own little corner of the world, the most difficult day of my entire life – it eclipses the abuse I had when I was a kid – was when I had to leave Missy the first time in an orphanage. And Missy, um, was just devastated because I was her only safe person. You know, her mama had died. I was her mama blan, her white mama. And when I left her in that dank, dingy orphanage with 62 kids and three rooms – and she didn’t think of herself as an orphan. You know, she had lived with her great-aunt. She had this new white mama. And I had to leave her there for legal reasons because Haiti was being Hague ratified, and I didn’t have a – a legal option. But she was screaming, “Mwen regrèt, mwen regrèt!” – which is “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” in Creole. She thought, “I must have done something wrong for you to walk away from me.” And as a woman who’s dealt with tremendous shame and abandonment issues, to leave this precious child of mine – and she didn’t have the ability to understand that I’m leaving to go back to Nashville to work on all the legal realities and get everything pushed up this adoption hill so that I can come back and get you for good. She didn’t understand that. So the only thing I could say to my kid in that moment was “Jesus loves you and He will never leave” – I didn’t say, “I’m not going to leave you”. I love that child more than I can even wrap words around. But I had to leave her that day.
So if my little, at that time, 4-year-old child’s happiness had been solely harnessed to me, her new mama, I would have put a wound on her that she would never recover from. But even at that point – and it was hard and it was awful – but at that point, I’m saying, “Baby, your hope has to be in Jesus. Even in this horror, Jesus is not walking away from you.” And so again, I know for some people that sounds overly simplistic. For me, there were years that I thought, “Okay, I know theologically He’s supposed to be enough for me, but I’m dealing with such deep pain, and Jesus is not wearing skin in my world. I need somebody with skin on to help me with this.”
Jim: Well, Lisa, this has been great. I want to come back next time and continue our discussion…
Lisa: I’d love to.
Jim: …I hope this has helped you, as the listener. I mean, it is good to think of God as a joyful, happy God. He certainly is righteous, as Lisa has said. There are things that bless Him in how we behave and the way we interact with people. And out of our love for Him, for what He’s done for us, we want to behave that way – in a good way. It’s not robotic. It’s not because I have to. I don’t have to eat my oatmeal, right? We’re doing this because God loves us so much that we want to respond in kind. That’s the relationship we’re talking about. And I’m hopeful that this has really touched you and lifted you up today. And Lisa, I’ve got one more comment I want to make. But I want people to contact us today.
John: Yeah. Get a copy of Lisa’s book, The Sacrament Of Happy, and a CD or instant download or get our mobile app so you can listen on the go all at focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: And to you, the listener, today’s program, it’s highlighted why we’re here. This is why we exist. We want to help you grow stronger in your faith in Christ. Over the last 12 months, we’ve had – now, Lisa, you’ve been gone a while, now get this – last 12 months, 170,000 decisions for Christ.
Lisa: Oh, that’s awesome. That is amazing.
Jim: I think it’s one of the most exciting – It’s one of the most exciting things. I love tracking those decisions for Christ.
Lisa: Oh praise Jesus.
Jim: And I want you to participate with us. Be a partner with us in reaching as many people as possible. And so often, that’s achieved when people are at a low point in their marriage, in their parenting, and they call us looking for help. And if you’re in that spot, do call us. Don’t feel any shame to get a hold of us. We’re here for you. And I do believe we have biblical answers for you to help you through that dark moment.
And what I want to say is today with your pledge of any amount, I want to send along Lisa’s book as our way of saying thank you for being that partner. I know you’re going to be blessed by it. And I’ve already been blessed. And it will lift you up and give you a different perspective about who God truly is. So again, become a partner today of Focus. Let us say thank you by sending you a copy of The Sacrament Of Happy by Lisa Harper. And if you’re unable to become a monthly partner at this time, please consider a one-time gift! Any amount you give helps, and with your gift of any amount we’ll also send you a copy of the book.
John: And so make that monthly pledge or one-time gift online at focusonthefamily.com/radio or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: Lisa, I don’t want to leave having that picture of that person who is burdened with sadness. They just – they’re sad today. They’re feeling overwhelmed by something, anything. What do you say to them? How do they get a breath and look up to God?
Lisa: I’d say don’t try to clean yourself up before you lean into the arms of God. But even if they’re listening in the car, if they’re listening at home – if they’re listening at home, get some warm laundry, throw it on the bed and lean back in that warmth and say, “God, give me the grace to sense that You are holding me.” If they’re in the car, just lean back a touch at the next red light and say, “God, give me the grace to lean into Your embrace today, to trust that even if I’m a bad kid today or a sad kid today, You delighted me. You don’t love me any less when I’m not performing.”
Jim: I love that. And just express your love for Him.
Lisa: That’s right.
Jim: I’ve done it in my lowest point and it lifted my heart. Lisa, let’s come back and do it again.
Lisa: Oh, man, I’d love to.
John: And once more, our telephone number if you need to talk to a counselor or if you’d like a resource or if you’d like to donate is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. Join us next time as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.