Suffering and Happiness – the Physical, the Spiritual, and the Small Stuff February 16, 2011Posted by orualundone in Uncategorized.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the connection between the state of our physical bodies and our emotional and spiritual mindset. We may be spiritual beings, but how our bodies feel can greatly effect our emotions, how we act, even how we view God. If we’re cold, hungry, tired, or in pain it’s very difficult to act in a godly fashion towards others or to think about praising God. Of course we’re always told to rise above such things, and it is important to be able to do that when necessary. But what if it’s not necessary, because the source of discomfort is something extremely fixable?
I enjoy reading Gretchen Ruben’s blog “The Happiness Project“, which is her journey to try and create for herself a life which is, on the whole, happier than it had previously been. These sorts of books, projects and blogs are extremely popular right now, and I am very ambivalent about them, as I think many Christians are. The idea that happiness is something you can achieve on your own or create for yourself runs against all Christian ideals, which hold that God is the source of all joy and happiness. And yet, some of the tips and tricks offered are helpful and effective in making many aspects of life easier, more fun, or more pleasant. It’s hard to argue with that.
One of the things frequently mentioned on the Happiness Project Blog is to identify your problem. In other words if you are cranky or sad or anything else, try to trace the source of that feeling back to it’s cause and look for a simple solution. This worked for me earlier this week when I found myself in a state of high anxiety, near a panic attack, really, for several days on end. My heart was racing, I was sweating and nervous. I had several reasons to be anxious, but none of them warranted such an extreme or persistent reaction. I spend a lot of time praying for God to relieve my stress and anxiety, but nothing changed.
Finally, I took a look at my behavior and realized that I had recently changed my beverage habits. In addition to my normal tea, I had added morning coffee and been drinking soda with dinner. Plus, I had run out of advil at work and brought in a bottle of Excedrin which contains tons of caffeine. In short, I wasn’t under spiritual attack, per se: primarily, I was just over-caffeinated. I cut out all caffeine and today I feel fine. All the same stressors remain, and I am appropriately concerned about them, but not to the point where it effects my ability to function or trust God.
God, of course, could have magically lifted my anxiety and physical symptoms and calmed me. But that wasn’t really the problem. It wasn’t a lack of faith so much as that I had, through inattention, put myself in an unhealthy physical situation, and I needed to fix it. Praying certainly helped me think about the problem and find the answer, but the source wasn’t spiritual or emotional – it was purely physical.
The Bible has a lot to say about suffering and sacrifice. Jesus tells us if someone tries to take our coat, give it to him, and our sweatshirt too! Paul tells us of all the things he has suffered to bring the Gospel to the corners of the Earth. Many people are martyred for Christ. However in every instance that suffering or sacrifice is discussed in the Bible, whether it is something we are doing willingly or something God is leading us into, it is always for the benefit (physical or spiritual) of someone else, to spread the Gospel, or as way for us to grow and depend on God more. Despite what certain sects of monks have said over the centuries, the Bible is not big on suffering for no reason.
Going without a coat in the winter because you gave it to someone who needed it an can’t afford a new on is a form of suffering for another’s benefit, and trying to rise past the physical discomfort to still have a good attitude and relationship with God is a noble goal. But going without a cold in the winter because you forgot it and were too lazy to go back for it has no purpose and will probably not result in anyone’s growth or benefit. Fasting to grow closer to God is laudable; skipping lunch because you’re busy and then feeling terrible all day is not. In fact, your discomfort is more likely to make you snappish and unpleasant towards others. Christ is not served and the Gospel is not spread by you taking out your bad mood on friends, family, co-workers, or strangers.
In fact, I would say that needless discomfort is actually a kind of sin, if it ends up negatively effecting you, those around you, and your relationship with God. We are all extremely influenced by our physical bodies, and while learning to not let your mood, attitude, or actions be solely determined by how we feel is a valuable spiritual lesson, there is no point in learning to rise above a feeling that didn’t need to exist in the first place. When suffering has a goal or purpose it is much easier to get perspective on the situation and let God be our comfort and joy. But when you are miserable for no reason, it’s difficult to overcome because you also have to add the annoyance you feel at being miserable for no reason and you know there is no greater purpose to the suffering.
I am guilty of this often. I get very cranky when I am hungry, and I get very sleepy and lazy when I am cold. Often to the extent that I am not even in a frame of mind where I want to pray to get beyond those feelings and instead just give into them. And yet I will wait too long to eat or opt not to bother to go to the trouble of putting on a sweater, even though if I stopped to think about it I would realize that those simple actions would improve my physical and emotional state greatly in a very short time.
The world throws enough unavoidable pain, trouble, and discomfort our way in life, and still more we may choose to help others or to preach the Gospel. Making our lives harder for no reason only depletes the emotional resources we need to deal with actual, inevitable hardship and is a form of ingratitude. We have a hard enough time maintaining a close relationship with God, treating others well, and having a good attitude without putting up more barriers for no good reason.
It is important to know ourselves and know how we react to various situations so we can avoid the things that we know make us susceptible to sinning towards God and others. Just like we would consider it wrong to not seek treatment for a disease, we have to remember that we have a responsibility to ourselves and those around us to take care of ourselves as much as possible so that we are able to sacrifice for others when need be, instead of being a burden on them through bad attitudes, complaining, and ungodly thoughts and actions.
So in terms of happiness projects and self-improvements, I would say that they can hugely beneficial to us as Christians, as long as we aren’t counting on them to provide true happiness where there is none or to make fundamental changes in our hearts that can really only come from God. What these sorts of tips, tricks, and systems can do is help us get rid of habits or problems that turn into unnecessary barriers between ourselves and a full spiritual life. Being a Christian and putting God and others first doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be practical or problem-solve basic things on your own. Rather it means we should do everything we can to help ourselves focus on God and to help others, including not allowing problems to exist that really don’t need to.