Article based on ACD Phone Sermon broadcast August 18, 2007
By Brian Knowles
ack in 1998, talk show host and moralist, Dennis Prager, wrote a book entitled Happiness is a Serious Problem. It’s one of my favorite books. Prager begins with the premise that “…happiness is far more than a personal concern. It is also a moral obligation,” (p. 3). Until I’d read that book, I’d never thought of happiness in moral terms – certainly not as a moral obligation.
One night Prager was lecturing on this subject and a lady in the audience spoke up and said: “I only wish my husband had come to this talk.” She explained that he was a very unhappy person and that because he was it wasn’t easy to be married to him. She loved him, but his chronic unhappiness was a burden to her.
Prager used that example to illustrate the point that married people have an obligation to be as happy as possible for the sake of the person to whom they are married. Writes Prager, “We owe it to our husband or wife, our fellow workers, our children, our friends, indeed to everyone who comes into our lives, to be as happy as we can be,” (ibid. p. 3).
You may not have thought of it that way before. I hadn’t. You, like me, probably thought that you had the right to be as miserable as you wanted to be, “so long as it didn’t hurt anyone else.” That’s the problem: our unhappiness does hurt others.
Writes Prager, “We do not enjoy being around others who are usually unhappy. Those who enter our lives feel the same way,” (ibid. p. 4).
Unhappiness is like a contagion – it spreads and infects others. In organizations it is often a reflection of leadership. My wife and I shop at several different supermarkets. Each one has its own spirit – and that is often the result of the tone set by the store manager. At one store, none of the employees ever seems to be happy. At another, everyone is friendly, helpful and solicitous of customers. Guess which store we prefer to shop at.
The same thing is true of church congregations. If the pastor is an old grouch, the congregation is probably grouchy too. One clue: If the pastor tends to emphasize corrective or authoritarian sermons delivered with an angry demeanor.
A Second Reason Why Happiness is a Moral Obligation
Prager gives a second reason why we are obligated to be happy: People behave more decently toward others when they are happy. He asks, “Do you feel more positively disposed toward other people and do you want to treat other people better when you are happy or when you are unhappy?” How do we tend to treat others when we’re in our “old crab” mode? What’s the difference between how we treat our mates, our children, or our co-workers when we’re in a good mood, or in a bad mood?
A Third Reason
Prager offers yet a third reason why happiness is a moral obligation: “…unhappy religious people reflect poorly on their religion and on their Creator…unhappy religious people present a real challenge to faith…either they are not practicing their faith correctly, or they are practicing their faith correctly and the religion itself is not conducive to happiness. Most outsiders assume the latter reason…Unhappy, let alone angry, religious people provide more persuasive arguments for atheism and secularism than do all the arguments of atheists,” (p. 4).
People judge Christianity by the Christians they encounter, and by their behavior. They look at the Christian historical track record. Sam Harris, an anti-religionist and author of the book The End of Faith, calls for an end to all religion on the basis, among other things, of its track record of inhumanity to man. Harris indicts Catholicism, Protestantism, the Bible itself, Judaism and Islam for horrific acts of murder and cruelty that were, during certain periods, the norm, not the exception.
If a religion is characterized by its murders and cruelty, why shouldn’t it be done away with? Evil is as evil does. If a religion does evil, then it is an evil religion and it should be eradicated. Jesus seems to agree with this assessment:
“Watch out for false prophets,” he said, “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you shall recognize them,” (Matthew 7:15-29).
A word of qualification: Every person, and every religion, makes mistakes and does some things which in retrospect turn out to be evil. The Dutch Reformed Church, for instance, provided a rationalizing theology for the odious phenomenon of Apartheid in South Africa. Early American Christian denominations found ways to justify slavery in this country. The Roman Catholic Church conducted the cruel and grotesque Inquisition. Catholics murdered Protestants and Protestants murdered other Protestants. They all did it in the belief that they were doing God a service. The issue is, over time, have these things characterized a religion, or were they temporary aberrations? Which way do the scales tip?
Am I justifying the evil that religions have done in the name of God? Never! Evil is evil, no matter who commits it. But if we are going to claim to represent God on this planet, then we have a moral obligation to glorify him in the way we live and treat others. Everything we do should reflect favorably on the God whose name we bear. We are called to be light and salt in a dark world. Our moral obligation to live a godly life extends far beyond the issue of happiness. It involves every area of living.
It involves how we treat our husbands and wives, our children, our parents, our co-workers, our friends, our neighbors and people in the larger community.
As lights in the world, we don’t have to be aggressive in-your-face Christians who are always preaching at someone, lecturing, arguing or practicing spiritual exhibitionism. We don’t have to make a show of giving thanks for a meal in the restaurant. We don’t need to display garish bumper stickers proclaiming our faith. We just need to quietly and unobtrusively live the life. It won’t take long for people to notice that you’re different.
Every Idle Word
When I was a “baby Christian,” one of the first things I did was clean up my language. At age 21 or 22, I worked for a sign company in Vancouver. All day long I’d drive around in a truck assisting the man who serviced neon signs for the company. One day we were driving along Kingsway and he said, “Brian, I’ve noticed something odd about you.” “What’s that?” I asked. “You never swear.” Now I could have taken an opportunity to preach at him, but it would have been inappropriate. Instead I said, with a slight edge of self-righteousness, “That’s because I don’t need to. I have an adequate command of the English language so that I can make myself understood without swearing.” Since he swore profusely, that comment could have been taken as an insult, could it not? Instead, he curtailed his own swearing and things worked out quite well.
Another example comes from a time when I worked in a saw mill in British Columbia. It was at a place called Sioux Valley, about 95 miles north of Vancouver. One of the men who worked there kept to himself. He appeared grouchy so people avoided him. He had a gimpy leg, and seemed self-conscious about it. I’d always say “Hi,” to him, and occasionally I’d ask him about his leg. One day he said to me, “You know, you’re the only person here who’s ever showed any concern about my leg. I appreciate that.” He then explained how he’d injured it in a mill accident some years before. From that time forth, we had a cordial relationship, and that small example proves the rightness of the proverb that says, “If a man will have friends, he must show himself friendly,” (Proverbs 18:24). A friendly person is not an unhappy person.
Without much awareness, I was experiencing what it means to “live the life” of a Christian. It’s a matter of quietly, unobtrusively, living up the moral/ethical standards espoused by Jesus and his apostles. It’s about loving, caring, and producing good fruit. It’s about doing behaviors that reflect positively on Jesus Christ and his body, the Church.
If we act out monstrous behaviors, then people will think that the God we serve is a monster. If we “follow the way of love” (I Corinthians 14:1), then some may come to understand that the true God “is love” (I John 4:8). Jesus taught that the entire Bible is meant to teach us how to love God and fellow man (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus was referring back to something Moses had written fourteen or fifteen centuries earlier: “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. Do not hate your brother in your heart…Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord,” (Leviticus 19:16-18, excerpts).
Hatred, grudge-bearing and revenge-taking have no part in the Christian moral repertoire. No Christian should ever endanger his neighbor’s life, let alone burn him at the stake, torture him, confiscate his property or otherwise abuse him. (This is not to say that Christians do not have the right to self-defense – we do, but that’s a very different matter.)
How Our Actions Affect Others
Living the moral life means considering, and making adjustments for, how our decisions and actions affect others. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will not do anything to our neighbor we would not want done to ourselves. It’s that simple.
Consider the extended family unit for example. A family is not made up of independent, isolated human islands. It is a living organism. Like a chain, it is only as strong as its weakest links. Family members whose behavior is immoral or unethical, can be a drag on the whole family.
Think about your extended family --- your blood kin, the people you’re related to by marriage, and all the people connected to those people. In any large family, you’ll find people with criminal records (one out of every 200 Americans is presently in jail), alcoholics, drug addicts, sick people, weak people, wealthy people, broken people, people with birth defects etc. etc. The wealthiest people in families are constantly being hit on for “loans” and financial help by those who have been financially irresponsible. Those who own the largest homes end up hosting most of the family social events. Other, less responsible or ethical, family members end up as parasites on the goodness of well-off members.
Now we can look at this scene from two perspectives: from the point of view of the strongest people in families, and from the perspective of the weakest.
Galatians 5:13-14; 6:2; Romans 15:1-2: Read and think about these two passages and what they mean to you.
If we are strong, healthy, in good financial shape, and mentally sound, we have a duty to help others who are less blessed. We should use our blessings to bless others and in turn, to glorify God. And we can start in our own families and work outward. But we shouldn’t make people dependent upon us – we should help them become strong and autonomous. We may need to help them with aspects of character development, health, job-hunting, exercise, moral support, finances or whatever they need to get the pump primed for success. If someone needs money, and you loan it to them, insist that they pay it back. I’ve found that people in families who loan money from each other almost never pay it back. It takes character to pay one’s debts, even when it hurts.
Don’t misunderstand me: if we are in a weakened condition, we should be able to turn to our families for help. All the homeless people out there came from families. Many have been abandoned by them. Did you know that Tyler Perry, the author of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” and the hit TV series “House of Payne,” was once homeless? Today he gives God the credit for pulling him out of that life and bringing him into success and prosperity.
Recently, we heard of a case where a woman, who owed her son and other relatives money, inherited a substantial sum of money. Instead of paying the debts she owed, she went out and bought a Mercedes. She explained, “I’ve always wanted a Mercedes.” Now the chances of her paying off her debts are even slimmer because of the expenses involved in maintaining a high-dollar car. Her greed, lack of personal integrity, and lack of character worked a hardship on other family members to whom she owed money.
The point is: every action we perform whether good or evil has a ripple effect. No one is an island. Our ideas have consequences, and our actions have consequences, many of them unintended. A family is only as strong as its constituent members. Some day I’d love to write an article about Abraham and his family; or about David’s. All these factors were in play in those two families. The strong members built up the families; the weak members tore them down and weakened them. Whichever element prevailed at the moment affected the state of the whole family.
God expects moral behavior because all behavior affects everyone.
All behavior has that ripple effect, and sometimes the waves it creates are tsunamis. Everything in life is cause & effect. All of the world’s troubles today are the result of specific, particular, causes. Change the cause and you change the effect.
The values we hold determine our behavior and our behavior affects everyone in our sphere of influence. All that we do in life has a ripple affect. First it affects those closest to us, and it spreads outward in concentric circles. Each event generates another. Before long the whole family, the whole neighborhood, the whole community is affected. If one person lets their home become a dump, it can affect home values throughout the neighborhood. If the people in one house are “party animals,” a whole community can be negatively affected.
Sin begets sin, evil begets evil, and bad behavior can become a contagion. If terrorists take over a neighborhood in Bagdad, they run it like a gang runs a neighborhood here. One evil leads to another. Evil is like cancer: it metastasizes. That’s true in families, neighborhoods, communities, towns, cities and even countries.
It is in our best interests to help fellow Christians behave in a godly way. Note the words of James in James 5:19-20. If we learn to bear the infirmities of those who are weak in families, families will be strengthened. If we take an interest in, and learn to help, our neighbors, neighborhoods will be strengthened. The effects of good works ripple on and on into communities, cities, and nations. We are here, as I said, to be light and salt. We are here to live the moral/ethical life because all that we do affects others. Our behavior and example as Christians reflects on God. Our values determine our behavior.
Let’s try to accept God’s mandate for moral and ethical behavior so that the ripple affects we create produce only good. When you get a chance, open up your Bible and study closely I Corinthians 6:1-20. Now consider this statement by Dennis Prager: “…moral values matter more than anything else and are what most determine an individual’s and a society’s behavior,” (Think a Second Time, pp. 156-157).
Our values are tested every day – at both micro and macro levels. We are challenged to be truthful, loyal, kind, generous, loving, caring, sensitive to the needs of others and proactive in meeting others at their real points of need. And happiness really is a moral obligation.