The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to Be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World by David Murray
Is another book on happiness and positive thinking needed? Certainly this topic provokes cringes, cynicism, and discomfort—a knee-jerk reaction which is not without a basis. Perennially opportunistic “charlatans” and “hucksters” profess to have new techniques in this endeavour, There is a great deal of material that amounts to a rip-off, misleads people, gives false hope, evades reality (pretending there is no evil/sadness/pain/sin), ignores key dimensions of human experience and the human condition. Or all of the above! Some more noble material is descent but lacks a firm philosophical or theological foundation.
Christians have a further difficulty in this area of study. A fair amount of the popular material goes to one of two extremes: (a) it is steeped in unhelpful non-Christian ideology and presuppositions–such as the denial of the reality of pain and suffering or (b) the material comes from a Christian perspective, but is narrowly limited to religious dimensions–with little more than tepid commentary on a few Bible texts, sprinkled with painfully abstract platitudes, and generally ignorant of the world around it. These are generalizations—but it seems there isn’t much material that is both robust and theologically sound. It’s a shame!
David Murray handles the subject skilfully. With a healthy dose of realism, he provides Christians with strategies to live happier and more positive lives. He observes that the Bible is a realistically positive source. Not pessimistic, but not naively optimistic either. Murray doesn’t suggest we embrace “positive thinking” per say, but rather “realistic thinking” and a “positive faith”. He presses home that “optimism is not faith, but faith is optimistic”.
The approach taken is balanced. It is focused on biblical truth and the finished work of Christ. Nevertheless, Murray frequently appropriates “common grace” insights from scholars in positive psychology and various cognitive studies. Murray certainly has read the popular and academic literature—which is exciting to see. Clearly, he does not dismiss psychology outright as some well-intentioned Christians may do at times. He uses such data frequently in assisting the reader in gaining an understanding. He is relentless in harnessing these insights into a Bible-centered and Christ-centered perspective. Yet, Murray does not follow his academic and popular sources slavishly merely due to their “expertise”. At times he takes a different path and explains why he disagrees.
The book is refreshingly concrete and is rife with actionable lists. Murray’s six questions centering on our moods and “thoughts-facts-feelings” in the chapter “Happy Facts” were exceptionally helpful. He also helpfully shows how thought patterns distort reality. A serious Christian believer will no doubt be terrified to be found distorting God’s Word, but through our thought patterns we often distort the God’s WORLD. Murray shows the pervasive negativity in our culture, especially in regard to media and political discourse, and so we need to do extra work to be positive.
Murray’s chapter “Happy Work” shows the relation of work to happiness and shows that it is more than “a means to an end” (though it isn’t our ultimate end either). He provides an excellent theology of work’s importance and centrality to God’s plan for us. Another one of my favourite chapters is “Happy World”, which is an excellent and passionate exposition of the Christian doctrine of “common grace”. I was thrilled by the author’s approach and it helped me to rethink my perspective on the world (and people) around me and God’s “everywhere grace” (which is a moniker Murray uses for “common grace”). Murray doesn’t quote him, but surely he would agree with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Murray provides a healthy amount of personal examples, especially in the chapter “Happy Differences”, which describes his journey to embracing cultural diversity in his attitudes to immigrants. I was especially encouraged to see this since I’m troubled by how often Christians have negative attitudes towards immigrants and people that are different. It’s great that Murray links differences and diversity into this discussion of happiness. Murray shows how embracing cultural diversity and interacting with people that are different than us helps us to be happier. There’s a great line in this chapter which says that “the gospel smashes superiority and inferiority complexes”.
Murray makes satisfyingly broad applications—taking the game far beyond the emotional or thought life, into an intersection with community, family, work, and other areas. I’m excited to see not only how this book can make individual Christians happier, but also at how it may positively influence the Christian communities which gather together corporately in worship. Sadly, we Christians have at times made our faith seem gloomy–we have often not exhibited the joy and love which Christ gives us. Murray forcefully shows how we should look forward to the future with bright, expectant hope—a hope which also transforms our present perspective!
I suppose I could come up with a few quibbles, there are some points which might have been expanded or clarified. However, they do not in any sense weigh down or dampen my enthusiasm for the book. There is precious little that I would change in this book. It’s a wonderful book, well worth reading for any Christian. There’s a lot of material to digest and I expect to return to it when I can. It’s a challenging book, but also one that is full of inspiration and hope.
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