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The Sacrament of Happy Author Q&A

Andy Whisenant | Mar 20th

Tell us about yourself and your family.

I was hot-mess-on-a-stick in my twenties and thirties, totally sabotaged the possibility of marriage, and thus missed the window of biological motherhood. The fact that God radically restored the years I’d allowed locusts to gobble by giving me the inestimably valuable gift of becoming Missy’s mom the same year I turned 50 has left me discombobulated — hopefully for the rest of my days — with gratitude.

My daughter is a radiant, chatty, wiggly, witty, brilliant, beautiful 7-year-old Haitian (whose first mama died of AIDS, unwittingly infecting her with HIV, which is now completely undetectable BY THE GRACE OF GOD!). And please rest assured that I am very levelheaded and decidedly unbiased about her because that’s just how I roll.

Why did you write The Sacrament of Happy?

A few years ago one of my dear friends, Sheila Walsh, and I were invited to walk the red carpet for the premiere of another friend’s movie. But don’t picture a typical red carpet premiere seen on television or in magazines. Imagine more of a burgundy indoor/outdoor polypropylene floor covering kind of event taking place at a multiplex in the suburbs next to several fast-food restaurants. Suffice it to say, we were tickled before we even got there.

Sheila’s husband, Barry, chauffeured us to the event since we weren’t sure we could walk—much less drive—in our snug, fancy dresses. We parked at the edge of the lot so we’d have privacy to make any necessary hair and makeup adjustments before facing the swelling crowd of eight or nine people who’d gathered to meet us. While the place he parked was private, it was—unbeknownst to us—also next to a grassy median that was soggy from recent rain. Therefore, when Sheila lifted her gold silk skirt and stepped gracefully out of the car onto the adjacent turf, her four-inch heels were immediately sucked into the mud, rendering her flailing and stuck like a stork in quicksand.

I sprang into action, heroically yelling for her to hang on while I attempted to squeeze myself out of the back seat of Barry’s claustrophobic, two-door sports car that was obviously designed by sadists. Two broken fingernails and one snagged sleeve later, I finally emerged to render her aid, but as soon as I grabbed Sheila’s arm to pull her to dry land, the heels of my shoes pierced through the muck, effectively pinning me in place too. We grabbed each other frantically like two sailors who realize their ship is going down fast and they’ve missed the opportunity to jump overboard. As we toppled over in an ungainly heap, I really had no option but to fall squarely on top of my more petite pal. After much futile slipping and sliding, we began laughing hysterically and momentarily lost the ability to stand—even had we been able to find some leverage. At which point from somewhere underneath me, Sheila squeaked, “Help me. I’m peeing and I can’t stop.”

Sheila and I were together at a conference recently and got to regale some new friends at dinner afterward with the silly story of our “peetastrophe”—which lit the fuse for others to tell their most embarrassing stories. After much communal hilarity, the woman sitting next to me leaned back into her chair and said with a sigh, “Wow, those were happy times, weren’t they?” As everyone around the table smiled and nostalgically agreed, I found myself thinking, Why do we tend to speak of happy in the past or future tense—like, “Those were happy times,” or “Won’t we be happy when . . .”—as if happy were some fleeting, ephemeral state that we can only reminisce about or pine for? I then found myself pondering the concept of happiness further: “Since the Bible says every good gift is from God and happy is good, I wonder if happy is actually a gift from God—a sacrament of sorts? And if that’s the case, we could actually be happy now and stay happy then. Hmmm.”

How did you begin your pursuit of genuine, God-authored, God-given happiness?

I used to think happiness and holiness were divergent paths. It took a panic attack to shock me into the pursuit of genuine, God-authored happiness. Interestingly enough, it was while I was teaching a Bible study. When I was about halfway through the message—on authenticity of all things—my heart began to beat wildly and I began to sweat profusely. This wasn’t a glowing sheen like athletic models wear either. I mean, rivulets were running down my face, soaking my shirt and the seat of my pants! I kept speaking and acted casually, as if it were totally normal for my body to produce copious amounts of perspiration, but inwardly I thought, Uh-oh, I think Readers Digest listed this as the sign of an impending heart attack. But I’m pretty sure it said you’d also have a tingling sensation in your right arm if it were a heart attack. Or maybe it was the left arm? Oh crud, I really don’t want to have a heart attack right here right now.

After I rambled and spurted for several more absurdly long minutes, the sweat began to trickle down the backs of my legs all the way to my calves. I felt completely disassociated with my body as if I were floating a few feet away from it. I watched— in what seemed like a drunken state—a woman in the crowd frown, lean over to her friend, and whisper, “Is she okay?” Then in blurry slow motion, I stammered a benediction and stumbled off the stage.

Thirty minutes or so later (after the projectile perspiration subsided, my heartbeat slowed down to normal, and I convinced a few concerned friends that I wasn’t having a heart attack), I got into my car, called a therapist, and made the first appointment of what turned into almost a decade of digging. When you’ve become a master faker like I had, the truth gets buried pretty deep. While I believe that all of life’s answers can be found in God’s Word, I’ve realized I often need the help of those wiser than me to find them and apply them to the most wounded places of my heart. Sometimes we need triage before we can get back up and fight the good fight. Before we can actually participate in the fullness of joy instead of just pretending we’re happy.

What does happiness look like in your own life?

It looks like a sipping sweet tea in a rocking chair on a wide front porch…under a tin roof during a Spring rainstorm…while your dog is napping at your feet and making crazy circles with one hind leg because she’s chasing bunnies in her sleep. It is the feeling of contentment, fulfillment and delight all rolled into one. It is the state of being we’re blessed to enjoy and called to inhabit as God’s covenant people.

What are the most common misconceptions you’ve seen that women have about happiness?

  1. That happiness is a far less “spiritual” emotion than joy, so it’s best to jettison happiness like a set of arm floaties once you begin swimming in the deep waters of intimacy with God.
  2. That happiness is based on our circumstances — on “happenstance” — instead of a relationship with Jesus.
  3. That happiness means the absence of sadness.

Why is it so important that we understand that happiness is a gift of God we need to enjoy?

God chose us. The King of all kings, who is perfectly content, fulfilled, and self-sustainably happy in His Trinitarian sufficiency, chooses to include us in His glorious joy. He leaned down from glory not because He needs us but because He wants to be with us. He picked us to be part of His good pleasure because He loves us unconditionally. We can’t earn His acceptance and affection; we can’t undermine it; and nothing — no hardship, heartbreak or even death — can separate us from it. And when believers cling to that truth, to the firm belief that God is good and God does good and God loves us no matter what our current circumstances are, it not only keeps us in perfect peace, it has the power to dispel hopelessness in the world around us.

But when we wrongfully refuse or marginalize God’s glorious gift of true happiness, we emasculate the Gospel. Theologian and pastor Randy Alcorn puts it like this: “The modern evangelical antipathy to happiness backfires when it portrays Christianity as being against what people long for most.”

What is the difference between joy and happiness?

A deep and thorough perusal of the original Hebrew and Greek texts of Holy Scripture reveals that joy and happiness are actually more like fraternal twins than distant cousins. However, because I’d heard joy lauded in church while growing up and happy derided (joy was taught to be based on what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross and/or the philosophy Jesus-Others-Yourself while happy was generally disparaged as being based on our circumstances; what happens to us), I was initially shocked to discover there are actually thirty-seven references to “happy” in the Old Testament and forty-eight in the New Testament. Plus, there are more than 2,700 passages where terms related to happy—gladness, merriment, pleasure, celebration, cheer, laughter, delight, jubilation, and feasting—are used! In fact, Psalms—the book smack-dab in the middle of the Bible and comprised of 150 Old Testament songs—literally begins with the word happy:

How happy is the one who does not walk in the advice of the wicked or stand in the pathway with sinners or sit in the company of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted by flowing streams that bears its fruit in its season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Ps. 1:1–3, CSB, emphasis mine)

And the Sermon on the Mount—arguably Jesus’ most beloved message—could accurately be titled, “How to Be Happy” since it technically begins with the word happy as well:

Happy the poor in spirit—because theirs is the reign of the heavens. Happy the mourning—because they shall be comforted. Happy the meek—because they shall inherit the land. Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness—because they shall be filled. Happy the kind—because they shall find kindness. Happy the clean in heart—because they shall see God. Happy the peacemakers—because they shall be called Sons of God. Happy those persecuted for righteousness’ sake— because theirs is the reign of the heavens. Happy are ye whenever they may reproach you, and may persecute, and may say any evil thing against you falsely for my sake— rejoice ye and be glad, because your reward [is] great in the heavens, for thus did they persecute the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:3–12 YLT, emphasis mine)

Therefore, while with most translations we hear this read from begin with the term blessed—which admittedly has a more old-school, shiny wooden pew ring to it—beginning Psalm 1 with the term happy is every bit as theologically sound. Because the English transliteration of the Hebrew word in the original text of Psalm 1 is asre or Asher which can be translated either “happy” or “blessed.” In the same vein, the Beatitudes typically begin with the English word blessed, but the original Greek word blessed is translated from is makarios, which can also be translated “happy” or “fortunate.”          

When I first began wrestling with the idea that happy and joy are closely related, I felt like I was being naughty—like running with biblical scissors or playing with scriptural matches. I mean, holy or faithful are mainstays of church vernacular and perennial worship lyric favorites, so they’re obviously on the approved behavior list for believers. And pious actually sounds spiritual . . . like some advanced state of Christlikeness only possible with lots of straining and grimacing, akin to a master yoga pose (but without all the Eastern mysticism or questionable workout attire, of course). But the fact that happy made God’s list of laudable behavior sounds almost too good to be true.

Thankfully, it’s not.

What do you talk about the most that is an encouragement to the women in your life?

How perfection is not a prerequisite for intimacy with Jesus. That we don’t have to hold our stomachs in — figurative or literally — when we lean into His embrace. How lingering in God’s embrace instead of wriggling out of it in some vain, exhausting attempt to justify ourselves to Him or to others will flat change our lives for the better and give us access to more peace and contentment that we ever dreamed possible.

Are you on the other side of any parenting/marriage/personal/work challenges that you would like to talk about to encourage others listening?

I have totally conquered the potentially crippling guilt (largely perpetrated by minivan-driving, Pinterest-addicted, Paleo-devoted-therefore-hangry other moms) regarding baking bland, homemade treats for my daughter or anyone else’s offspring. I happily burned my hand-painted apron after discovering the great plethora of snacks for sale at Whole Foods. They even have gluten free options available if you’re determined to remain captive in your wee, dark cell imprisoned by grain-free bars and masochistic, tortilla-free meaninglessness.

What do you hope readers will gain from reading The Sacrament of Happy?

I hope the stiffest of churchgoers with quilted Bible covers, the wildest of rebels with colorful tattoos and crazy piercings, and everyone who falls somewhere in between will lean further into God’s acceptance and affection. I’ll be absolutely thrilled if even one reader’s shame lifts as they begin to believe that God cheers Himself hoarse over every ungainly cartwheel they do in His glorious backyard. That He makes over every stick-figure drawing we present to Him and displays it on His refrigerator in glory. That despite the fact humanity is prone to wander and has a proclivity to make huge messes, our Creator-Redeemer is so completely for us!

Alas, one of my favorite theologians, Dr. Charles Spurgeon (I have a platonic crush on several Godly, literary geniuses like him, C.S. Lewis, A.W. Tozer and Francis Schaeffer), explains what I hope readers will gain from reading my infinitely-inferior-than-the-notes-they-threw-away book better than I can: As there is the most heat nearest to the sun, so is the most happiness nearest to Christ.

May all those who seek you be happy and rejoice in you! (Ps. 40:16 NET)