by David Murray
Nelson Books, 2015
Reviewed by J. Stephen Yuille
Are you happy? Think about it. In his book, The Happy Christian, David Murray contends that many of us are not. We struggle with deep negative thought patterns stemming from the fact that we walk by sight instead of faith, focus on self instead of God, and dwell on the past instead of the future. Coupled with the thick cloud of cynicism and pessimism that hangs over our society, our negative thought patterns doom many of us to a perpetual state of unhappiness.
Murray wants to stem the tide of our negativity by promoting what he calls “Christian happiness”: “a God-centered, God-glorifying, and God-given sense of God’s love that is produced by a right relationship to God in Christ and that produces loving service to others” (p. xix). Murray achieves his goal by presenting “ten biblical and practical ways” to change our outlook.
In “Happy Facts” (chapter 1) Murray explains that the “major factor” in determining how we feel is what we think (p. 4). Most of us are unhappy because we think about things in the wrong way. We need, therefore, to re-orient our thinking. “The kind of thinking I’m advocating,” says Murray, “is not so much positive thinking but realistic thinking, thinking that faces the facts…. It’s all about reasoning and persuading on the basis of evidence and truth. And its foundation is not faith in self, but faith in God” (p. 21).
In “Happy Media” (chapter 2) Murray contends that many of us have “spam filters” that allow the negative to enter our minds while filtering out the positive (p. 25). This intake adversely affects our mental and spiritual health. We must, therefore, heed Paul’s exhortation to think on what’s edifying and encouraging (Phil. 4:8). That isn’t to say that we should be uninformed or unconcerned about current affairs, but that we should be sensible when it comes to the media. Do we really need constant exposure to “horrifying” information?
In “Happy Salvation” (chapter 3) Murray celebrates the “gospel of done” (p. 48). Christ’s finished work is totally sufficient. The “gospel of done” brings the troubled mind, troubled heart, and troubled conscience to the cross. “The most important work,” says Murray, “has been done and covers all our laziness, all our foolishness, all our time wasting, all our bad decisions, all our temper tantrums, all our losses, all our inabilities, all our everything” (p. 59). We must seek to live daily in the reality of God’s forgiveness in Christ.
In “Happy Church” (chapter 4) Murray addresses the issue of hypocrisy. When confronted with it, we’re inclined to follow “our natural instinct to give in, give up, and get away” (p. 77). But Murray encourages us to be other-focused by praying for one another, fellowshipping with one another, bearing with one another, and empathizing with one another. Above all else, he calls us to focus on Christ (p. 75), cultivating brotherly love by camping at the foot of the cross.
In “Happy Future” (chapter 5) Murray unmasks the danger of “backward looks” (p. 88). If we focus on past sins, pains, losses, and failures, we’re inviting disappointment. Rather, we must look to Christ, remembering that “the best is yet to come” (p. 92). Hope is “a realistic expectation of and longing for future good and glory based on the reliable Word of God” (p. 92). Hope energizes the present. It increases faith, encourages purity, motivates action, and provides stability. It cultivates expectation which, in turn, cultivates joy.
In “Happy World” (chapter 6) Murray stresses the importance of seeing the whole picture. If all we notice is the negative, then “we’re closing our eyes to God’s work of grace all over the world and all around us” (p. 107). If we look closely, we’ll find evidence of God’s common grace everywhere. When we see beauty, power, wisdom, love, loyalty, patience, humility, mercy, truthfulness, creativity, diligence, or any other virtue, we can trace it back to its “ultimate source” and worship God (pp. 112–113).
In “Happy Praise” (chapter 7) Murray seeks to correct what he calls “distorted Calvinism” (p. 122). While the biblical doctrine of man’s sinfulness is extremely important, it’s imperative that we don’t misapply it to such a degree that we have no appreciation for humanity at all. We ought to recognize God’s image (however distorted and corrupted) wherever it appears. One way to do this is to trace all good back to God, and encourage others to see all good as a gift from God.
In “Happy Giving” (chapter 8) Murray affirms that it’s more blessed to give than receive (pp. 143–147). He demonstrates how this shapes our approach to marriage, leadership, forgiveness, etc. “Sin has ripped every entitlement from our grasp, apart from the entitlement to hell and everlasting punishment. The more we grasp this, the more we will ask ourselves two empowering and elevating questions. How much have I been given? How much can I give?” (pp. 170–171).
In “Happy Work” (chapter 9) Murray challenges the false notion that the only divine calling is church ministry (p. 173). He comments, “Your work is of God. Your work is through God. Your work is to God. Your work is for God’s glory” (p. 174). With this perspective in place, we work hard at whatever God has called us to do, in order to meet our needs, provide for our families, share with those in need, and (most importantly) serve God. In this way, our labor becomes a sacred calling – infused with dignity, purpose, and reward.
In “Happy Differences” Murray calls on us to embrace diversity. Because we love ourselves, we tend to love those who are most like us (p. 193). Such a skewed mindset proves problematic in an increasingly culturally diverse society. We must recognize that “the gospel smashes superiority and inferiority complexes.” Moreover, God intends for Christ’s bride to consist of people from every tribe, every nation, and every tongue. Diversity is a wonderful thing in the mind of God.
Recommendation: Having provided an overview, I want to give you three reasons why you should take the time to read this book.
For starters, Murray provides a very useful and useable tool. He doesn’t consider the subject of happiness in the abstract, but in the concrete. His approach is very refreshing, as he provides numerous “action” lists for putting biblical truth into practice. His six questions concerning “thoughts-facts-feelings” are particularly insightful and helpful.
Secondly, Murray presents a biblical paradigm for happiness. While employing a number of insights from the field of psychology, Murray doesn’t place any ultimate authority in this field of study. There are only two options available when it comes to our foundation for knowledge. Either we build the foundation with man as its central component, or we build the foundation with God as its central component. Any system of thought focused on man will prove finite and unable to bear the full weight of reality. That’s why there are so many conflicting psychological, anthropological, sociological, and philosophical theories out there. Murray is careful to harness what he deems useful from the field of psychology, while rejecting its basic man-centered premise.
Finally, Murray addresses an extremely important motif. Looking around, we see that happiness is the focal point of human existence. Parents seek to cultivate it; musicians express it; governments promise it; businesses market it; and commercials sell it. Why? Most people are desperately trying to find it. Yet happiness proves elusive because most people don’t know where it’s found. They equate it with outward things: possessions, experiences, achievements, and relationships. But here’s what eludes them: happiness isn’t found in changing conditions and circumstances, but in an unchanging God.
While acknowledging the harsh reality of living in a fallen world, Murray points us to a great God: “We confront the brutal reality of our lives, our families, our churches, and our society. But at the same time, we keep steady faith in the Word of God, especially its sure promises of personal perseverance and the ultimate triumph of faith and the church of Christ” (pp. 230–231).
Dr. J. Stephen Yuille is Pastor of Grace Community Church, Glen Rose, TX, Director of Baptist Studies at Redeemer Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX, and Book Review Editor for Spirituality and Christian Living here at Books At a Glance.