Finding Happiness in Difficult Times

We’re a week or so into February, so today’s article has a bit of romance for Valentine’s Day and much application (finding happiness in life) for the other days of the year. I came across this true account from Reader’s Digest:

My cell phone quit as I tried to let my wife know that I was caught in freeway gridlock and would be late for our anniversary dinner. I wrote a message on my laptop asking other motorists to call her, printed it on a portable inkjet and taped it to my rear windshield.

When I finally arrived home, my wife gave me the longest kiss ever. “I really think you love me,” she said. “At least 70 people called and told me so.”

In Genesis 29, Jacob initiates what will be one of the great romances of all time; no cell phone message could compare to it. Although this romance had a happy ending (he did marry his beloved Rachel), Jacob’s life was complex, stressful, and messy. Despite great hardships, his life was rich and filled with happiness. How can this paradox be? The answer is no surprise: God.

Jacob had been scared, lonely, probably overcome with guilt, and walking into the unknown. He had stolen both the family birthright and Isaac’s blessing from his brother Esau; Esau was so angry with Jacob for his low-down scheming that he planned to kill him. To preserve his life, Jacob hurriedly exited Canaan and headed toward relatives in Haran (what we now call Iraq).

All alone and away from home, Jacob faced an uncertain-looking future. But then he experienced God at Bethel, and his mentality was transformed. Life might be unstable, but God was faithfully at his side—no matter what.

The lesson applies to us: If we are in the lowlands—but learn to be emboldened by experiencing God—we can find courage to pursue better times as we hold God’s hand.

Better (but not utopian) times may be around the corner

In Genesis 29, Jacob had been hiking for 600 miles by foot—alone. He knew he was approaching Haran, where Uncle Laban (Rebekah’s brother) lived. He and his uncle were strangers.

He spied shepherds approaching a community well, which was covered by a large boulder. The boulder probably prevented animals from becoming trapped in the well and was heavy enough that several men were normally required to remove it. Water was a precious commodity in the Middle East.

As Jacob greeted the locals at the well, he discovered that they knew Laban. He asked if there was “shalom” (peace) with Laban.

The Hebrews understood that if someone was healthy, blessed with family and friends, and able to put bread on the table, he was at peace. The ancient Middle Easterners understood that peace—not looking for some magic charm that would fix all of life’s problems—was an important key to happiness. If someone was at peace, he was expected to be satisfied.

Sadly, many of us are addicted to our own adrenaline and do not savor the blessing of being at peace. We feel guilty if we relax. We nurture discontent and think that more (of whatever) will make us happy. Unrealistic expectations make for frustration, which makes for unhappiness.

The BBC did a study in 2003 and published some interesting conclusions about happiness. According to the October 2, 2003 article, the happiest localities in the world are (in order): Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico.

What might surprise us is that none of these peoples are noted for being wealthy (Puerto Rico is the best off financially). People do not typically go hungry in these nations, but many of these people live in what we consider poverty. Circumstances have changed in these nations, so this information may not be current. Still, it makes the point.

The United States was rated as the 16th happiest nation (even though we are the wealthiest nation in the world). Wealth does affect one’s sense of happiness, but other factors are more influential.

The BBC study found that the following ten factors (in order of importance) determined one’s level of personal happiness: genetic propensity to happiness, marriage, making friends (and valuing them), desiring less, doing someone a good turn, faith, refusal to compare one’s looks with others, earning more money, growing old gracefully, and not stressing oneself about one’s personal intelligence.

Since the Hebrews seemed to equate peace with happiness, the Jewish people have long greeted one another with “Shalom aleichem” (“peace to you”). Note the Aaronic blessing:

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (ESV, Num. 6:24-26).

Jacob settles down—for a while

Jacob sees Rachel, the shepherdess, at the well. The Talmud suggests that Rachel was 14 years old, which meant she was 21 when she finally married Jacob. Jacob tried to nudge the shepherds along so he could spend time alone with Rachel. He tried to impress Rachel with his strength, lifting the boulder from the well by himself (though he was nowhere noted to be an unusually strong man—a girl can bring out the Tarzan in many men).

Because Rachel is Jacob’s cousin, he justifies giving her a kiss. Yet, on the other hand, cousins often married in that culture. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

Endogamic marriages (i.e., within the circle of one’s relatives) were preferred by ancient tribes. The chosen suitor for a girl was her cousin; it was actually forbidden for the eldest daughter to marry outside the family.

Modern law rightly forbids first cousins from marrying because children of such a union are likely to suffer from genetic conditions and deformities. Back then, the human race was younger and mutations were less frequent.

Years earlier, when Isaac needed a wife, Abraham sent his servant to this same family to find a wife for Isaac. Jacob was to follow this ethic—in contrast to his brother, Esau, who had married a Canaanite woman.

Uncle Laban initially showed goodwill toward Jacob, and Jacob found himself with a new home, a job, and the promise of marrying Rachel in the future. He embarked upon a new life that was rich and meaningful, yet not without its downside. Laban would later take advantage of him, trick him into marrying Leah, and cheat him of his wages repeatedly.

Jacob would eventually leave Laban in the same way he left Canaan: by stealth, fearing for his safety. Such is the nature of life: we can be free from trouble and woe only for brief periods in this life—but that does not mean we have to wallow in misery on earth. Jacob did not.

The lesson: our attitude affects our happiness

Do we melt down or recoup? defines meltdown as, “a situation in which a rapid rise in the power level of a nuclear reactor, as from a defect in the cooling system, results in the melting of the fuel rods and the release of dangerous radiation and may cause the core to sink into the earth.” From this original definition comes the buzzword definition used in popular culture (also “a decline or breakdown in a situation or condition.”

Meltdowns are tragic. Our nation’s economy experienced a meltdown in late 2008 and 2009 that affects us today. I have sadly seen families, churches, and Christians melt down. I have wept many tears over the years when these heart-wrenching situations arise. People can hurt so badly—it breaks my heart. Strange as it seems, God’s heart is broken, too (as seen in Hosea, for example).

Jacob could have been near a meltdown when he fled from Esau. At Bethel, he met God and chose trust over self-confidence. He understood that God was watching out for him, that he needed God, and that God was to be his focus.

Returning to Canaan years later, he wondered if Esau’s grudge was still festering. In escaping exploitation and the mushrooming hatred of Laban in Haran, would he be walking into a worse situation back home?

In Genesis 32, Jacob meets God once again. Jacob wrestles with One he first assumes to be a man, but later understands as an appearance of God. Grappling with God is still the best way to handle our fears, anxieties, and disappointments.

Although Jacob acts wisely when seeking to reestablish a relationship with Esau, he understands that he is in God’s hands. Our faith in God changes our perspective; God does not remove the stresses, but He strengthens and guides us through those painful times.

Jacob chose God-confidence over self-confidence. Rather than melt down, we can find strength and confidence in God as we comb His Word, pour out our hearts to Him in prayer, are encouraged by godly relationships, and rejoice before Him in worship. We can get back into the rink.

Jacob had his hardships, and we could argue that Laban victimized him. But Jacob chose to be a pilgrim, not a victim. A pilgrim moves on and boldly faces the unknown; a victim tries to grasp the past and focuses upon his wounds and losses. A victim is insecure and grasps the familiar; a pilgrim finds security in God, not necessarily in “sameness.”

Jacob would live a tenuous life for some time. The blessings God had for him were yet future, but he or his posterity would experience them in time. He would become the father of the God’s special nation, Israel.

But life is lived in stages, and we must meet the prerequisites of life if we are to move on to the higher stages. Jacob could wait, because he had learned that God did have a plan for his life. Jacob learned that there was no instant magic touch that would bring him to his destination. He would enjoy the journey—but he would pay his dues.

Most of us wish that God would wave His wand over us and fix our families, our nation, and us. But God’s way is the way of steady growth. He wants us to walk with Him. Although we cannot always enjoy the journey, we can enjoy much of it.

How happy we are is correlated with what we value and how willing we are to adjust to circumstances beyond our control.

Solomon leaves us with a balanced perspective in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

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