Did anyone else grow up hearing, “Whatever makes you happy,” when you asked any questions regarding what you should do with your life?
They’re such well-intentioned, warm and fuzzy words. It sounds wonderful. Freeing. The world is at my fingertips! Of all the jobs I could have, decisions I could make, people I could marry, I get to choose whatever makes me happy.
Our own pursuit of happiness is even protected by law. It’s an unalienable right.
My own happiness was—and often still is—my compass for most of my life since I’ve had a will and the power to make decisions.
Should I marry my boyfriend? Well…does he make me happy?
Which college should I go to? Well…which one makes you happy?
Should I go shopping this afternoon? Or invite a friend to lunch? Well…which plan makes you happy?
I don’t think it’s a horrible way to navigate life decisions. I also don’t think it’s a bad question to ask. I made it into adulthood with only a handful of regrets and as a pretty happy person.
Doing whatever made me happy helped me stay true to who I thought I was and what I thought I wanted. It felt authentic and genuine. The only problem was this: what made me happy didn’t always stay the same.
The trouble I had with using my own happiness as a compass was that I never had a true north. There were no fixed points. It’d be like having a compass that one day feels like east should be west just for the heck of it. By basing my decisions on feelings and emotions that changed by the hour, I was often left dizzy and confused about why I sometimes felt so empty and dissatisfied.
I’ll give you an example. Growing up, I believed I should marry someone who made me happy. You hear that everywhere, right? So in my pursuit of love, the measuring stick was just that. How many gifts is he buying me? How much love is he showing me? What is he willing to do to win my heart and show me he cares? If it’s enough to keep me happy, then it should be enough.
This was how the first whole part of my relationship with Brenin went. He was romantic, thoughtful, creative. He won the prize every time he made me smile or laugh or love him more.
But we dated for 3 years before marriage—all of them long distance. So he made me happy when we were together, but when we were apart? Well, there were other people who could have made me happy. And when it came time to decide about marriage, my happiness level no longer felt like a reliable litmus test.
If he doesn’t make me happy 100% of the time, do I still marry him? Will anybody evermake me that happy? Does anybody ever make anyone that happy? No wonder everyone gets divorced!
It wasn’t until I reframed the way I thought about marriage that I was able to make a confident decision in choosing him. Rather than making my happiness the chief motivation, I asked myself this: “Do I want to commit to spending the remainder of my days loving and serving this man?” When I was able to answer this with a “yes,” I knew I could do it. I wasn’t always able to control how happy he made me, but I would always be able to commit to my role in serving and loving him.
So, I want to propose a different way of thinking and decision-making. I believe there are questions we can ask ourselves that will prove better guides and guardrails. Instead of, “What makes me happy?” what if we redirected the object of the question? What if, instead of the question being about what will best serve us, we asked, “What decision has me loving God most? What would serve Him?” and, “What would point me in the direction of loving my neighbor as myself?”
I know this is not a revolutionary concept. I know I didn’t make this up, and I may not even be the first one to raise that question to you.
It’s not a revolutionary concept—but it is revolutionary when it’s a belief that leads to action.
All those years, I figured pondering my own happiness would lead to greater freedom, a world of possibilities. Instead, it led to frustration and confusion about why other people didn’t seem to care about my own happiness as much as I thought they should.
But here’s what I was missing: the world was not created to bow down to my—or your —happiness. It was created to bow down to and glorify its Creator.
What I thought would set me free was actually holding me captive.
It is so interesting to me that we naturally equate acting on our own selfish impulses as freedom. We say “whatever feels right for you,” and the cringe-worthy “live your truth,” but what we’re unable to see in our spiritual blindness is that obsession with self is not freedom at all, it’s the trickiest kind of enslavement.
When have we ever truly been fully satisfied when we give in to our every desire? Look at how it wreaks havoc on our relationships! Look at how we’re temporarily satisfied but soon looking for the next thing that will bring us pleasure.
And yet, our guard goes up when we hear words like being a “slave to” or a “servant of” Christ. Submission and humility have been redefined by our culture as oppression and weakness. I understand why this is. Broken people have misused their power and have taken advantage of those with quieter voices, fewer rights, and less influence. I’m not excusing anyone or belittling the stories of those people. What I am saying, though, is the sinful acts of sinful humans don’t change the meaning of the words submission and humility—even if it changes our perception of them.
Could true freedom and happiness really come from holding the position as a servant instead of a master?
Here’s what I think we aren’t realizing when we make ourselves the master of our fates and our happiness the compass to follow. We don’t realize that we’re trapped in our own type of slavery, a slavery to ourselves. We are the master and the slave, and there will always be conflict when the master acts only upon his or her fleeting set of feelings and emotions.
But Jesus is a good master: full of love, without sin, righteous and fair and true. He doesn’t call us to servanthood to deplete us of joy and our individuality, he calls us to servanthood to save us from becoming slaves to the masters which only bring death.
Being a slave to Christ will be the most freeing position we’ve ever experienced, because he knows the parameters to give us that keep us healthy. He is the Creator! He knows what his creation needs and how his creation works. He desires life and freedom for his children. He wants us to live in our gifting and what makes us come alive.
I remember early in my walk with Jesus I was hung up on this thing that Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
I thought, how can it be freedom if I’m not allowed to do whatever I feel like doing? Is it even freedom anymore if there are limits? It felt like a trick—like as a kid my parents giving me $5 and saying, “Now, you can either go spend this at the dollar store on gum that will be gone tomorrow or you can save it and put it toward something more important down the road.” Like, obviously they want me to save it. So now if I go blow it I’ll feel sort of bad about it and might not enjoy it as much.
Is that really freedom?
Or, it is possible that freedom really does come with some guidelines and guardrails? Not with the intention of behavior control or a cruel cosmic joke, but actually for the sake of our own flourishing?
After all the hard questions, the deep theological thought, and weighing every argument, here’s what I’ve come up with: we were made to serve God, not ourselves. When I get this backward, I’m discontent, confused, and frantically searching for what I think will finally bring me life.
But when I get it right—meaning, I remember my humble position as the servant to a good master—I experience a joy that remains despite unfavorable circumstances, an identity that’s true no matter what I do, and love from a God who gave up His own freedom for an undeserving people so we’d know how He feels about us.
To me, that’s the greatest freedom I’ll ever experience.