For many, the start of a new calendar can be the most motivating time of the year. We make a list of overly optimistic resolutions, hoping that the season ahead will be filled with greater health, success, and happiness than the one behind.

This can take on a distinctly spiritual tone for Christians as we start new Bible reading plans and devotionals—often with the unspoken conviction that becoming more faithful to God will, ultimately, make us more peace-filled and joyful.

But what happens when, sometimes only a couple weeks into January, we begin to get discouraged, dissatisfied, and unmotivated—when we start to feel like we’re already failing at having a “happy” New Year?

I know this feeling of disappointment well. Like most people’s lives, mine has had its ups and downs. I’ve experienced some losses: the sudden death of my sister, who was my only sibling; a season of infertility; and a health challenge or two. I still carry deep pain from these experiences and have many days when I move through the world as a mourner.

But, all things considered, the scales have tipped toward blessing for me. To this day, I’ve had a good life by any reasonable standard and am comfortable, safe, and secure. In the grand scheme of history, I’ve enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and freedom. Technically speaking, I have everything I need and much of what I want.

Yet I have also known deep unhappiness. In fact, I’ve noticed a certain kind of melancholy descending upon me over the years—like a slow drip of discontent and disillusionment—almost as if I’ve been expecting something from life that has not yet been delivered. Put succinctly, I feel like life has let me down somehow.

I understand how off-putting and cringeworthy this must sound. I’ve worked in humanitarian aid and social services and know what real deprivation looks like. What could a person like me—with all the love and material comforts I’ve enjoyed—complain about? Why doesn’t my very blessed life feel like a blessing? And why doesn’t my pursuit of holiness always feel like happiness?

My guess is that if you were to ask people today why they participate in religion or spiritual practices, many would say it’s because these things make them feel better. Faith creates a sense of emotional centering and brings them peace.

Yet I have come to believe that this good feeling cannot be the reason we choose to follow Jesus. I agree that things like joy and courage are often byproducts of a deep walk with God. Studies confirm that religious habits do, in fact, positively impact a person’s mental health. But life with God doesn’t always guarantee perfect, uninterrupted happiness.

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Every church I have attended rejected the prosperity gospel outright. Growing up, I was taught that adversity wasn’t to be feared, that poverty and sickness were not signs of failure on my part or a lack of favor on God’s part. I didn’t feel entitled to affluence and knew God was good even when my circumstances were not.

But despite my well-constructed theology of suffering, there were elements of the prosperity gospel’s values that felt vaguely familiar to me. While I did not believe that God was a vending machine for material abundance, I did expect God to make me happy—to bless me spiritually and experientially—if I followed him well.

I knew God may not grant me physical things like health and wealth, but he was supposed to at least bestow intangible goods like fulfillment in work, meaning in ministry, and a joyful intimacy with him, along with a sense of purpose and comfort in my suffering. I assumed that if I believed all the right things, I would feel the right way.

But what I’ve come to realize is that this is, essentially, an emotional prosperity gospel—a sacrosanct rendition of “the good life” ideology that has subconsciously crept into our popular theology. Its tenets are well-known to many of us: Discover God’s will for your life, grow close to him, and you’ll feel a sense of contentment. Make godly choices and peace will be the norm and pain an aberration.

I’d lived in the shadow of a cosmic equation, in the formula of If this, then that. Give this, and you’ll receive that; sow this and you’ll reap that. Cause and effect. My seed money was my theological wisdom, good behavior, and right choices. And the return on my investment would, at least, be deep and abiding joy.

Meanwhile, negative feelings like pain and sadness were marginalized in faith communities and told they didn’t belong. Difficult emotions are often still seen as unholy—fear, anger, or anxiety are seen as resulting from a lack of trust in God or a disregard for the spiritual disciplines. And so we end up feeling a distinct urge to prove our holiness by demonstrating our happiness.

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It is impossible to overstate how much New Thought (the philosophical forerunner of The Power of Positive Thinking) and the prosperity gospel have shaped this religious ideology—which manifests itself throughout Christian books, songs, sermon series, wall decor, and even pulpits in pithy sayings like:

I’m too blessed to be stressed.
God won’t give me more than I can handle.
Everything happens for a reason.
I should just let go and let God.
Pray more; worry less.
Faith over fear.

It's no wonder we feel like we’ve failed spiritually when no facet of our life consistently delivers the psychological outcomes we expect. When we’ve made all the right choices and believed all the right things, we can even feel like God has defrauded us of his favor and abundance.

Many of us have squeezed our lives into a narrow understanding of what it means to be blessed, plagued by impossible expectations of perfect bliss and emotional satisfaction. But this constant pursuit of happiness can be exhausting. Happiness can be a tyrant, demanding all our attention and allegiance. And, when it’s idolized, it can suck the life out of our relationships, our ministries, and our families—none of which were ever designed to deliver complete fulfillment.

Faith is not euphoria or the means to a therapeutic end, nor is God a mechanism by which we achieve self-actualization. True religion is not a method of personal or emotional transcendence. It is not a security blanket or soothing salve. When we center our hope on these things, we will always be disappointed. Accepting and enduring this truth is difficult, but it has made this world a better home for me.

So, then, what good is God’s presence in our life if it doesn’t always feel like emotional prosperity? Why say “yes” to faith in Jesus?

Faith, as I now understand it, is simply the heart’s response to recognizing what is true. It’s saying yes to what we know is right, good, and holy. Our relationship with God is not transactional, like some divine exchange of goods and services. Christianity is more like a path or a road. It is a manner of walking and a way of being, not just a mode of thinking or feeling. God’s presence is good because it illuminates this path and helps the world make sense.

God calls us to hard things in this life. And there is a purpose in our pain, but not in a utilitarian sense—as if suffering is the ultimate spiritual optimizer. Most of us are already familiar with the phrase “God is more concerned with your holiness than your happiness,” but what if our unhappiness is important in itself?

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I believe unhappiness can enlighten our lives by offering us a unique wisdom and clarity. Sometimes unhappiness is the heart’s way of telling us something is wrong or needs tending to. But sometimes it is God’s way of reminding us of what is true and good—of the way things should be in our world.

Since leaving Eden, sin’s curse has separated us from the original intent of our creation. We have eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11)—and yet we are finite in our strength, we don’t know all the answers, and our flesh is mortal. Our souls long for what should be, while our bodies live in the hard reality of what is.

Sadness is part of the human condition. Restlessness is an appropriate, even righteous response to what’s broken. If you struggle with disappointment, frustration, or anticipation, it is not because you are spiritually immature but because we are living after the Fall. Existence will always feel like an incomplete sentence, like a hunger that’s never fully satisfied until Christ comes again in glory and ushers in his new creation.

Whether because of our sin, our fragility, or our unrealized aspirations in the face of reality, it will always be difficult—if not impossible—to achieve lasting happiness in this life. No New Year’s resolution can fix that. And whether your pain is like a boulder or a pebble in your shoe, it is as holy as any moment of happiness you may experience. It can even serve as a lament for the brokenness in the world.

This, my friends, is the holiness in our unhappiness.

For as long as I can remember, I was a faithful disciple of the emotional prosperity gospel. I’d embraced the myth that my life had to feel good, rewarding, and meaningful to be blessed. But I have come to realize that simply existing as a beloved child of God—getting to see him and live, to wrestle with him and know that he is always with me—is itself the greatest gift of all.

Our righteousness is not a bargaining chip for blessing, and God is not a means to some selfish end—he is the end. He is the Way, and he is enough.

Adapted from Holy Unhappiness by Amanda Held Opelt. (Copyright 2023) Used with permission from Worthy Books, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Amanda Held Opelt is a speaker, songwriter, and author of the book A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing.

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