The Happy Christian Review

May 20, 2015

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A Positive Faith and Life

David Murray is professor of Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and also pastor of the Free Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Murray blogs at Head, Heart, Hand and has written several books including Jesus on Every Page and Christians Get Depressed Too. His latest book, The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World, provides an interesting counterpart to the latter. In fact, many readers might find Murray’s credibility to write The Happy Christian enhanced by the fact that he dealt with depression in Christian perspective first.

Now, he offers readers an encouraging volume to help them have a positive faith and life. As he explains, “What we think and believe about God, about ourselves, about others, about our problems, and about our world dictates and determines the quality of our whole lives: our happiness, our relationships, our creativity, our productivity, and even our physical health” (xi). He later says that he has written The Happy Christian “to help you live a powerfully optimistic and meaningful life in an increasingly pessimistic culture” (xii). Murray wants to help readers ultimately see how “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

To generalize slightly, Murray’s book connects the dots between the findings of recent research in the field of positive psychology and the biblical teaching on the importance of finding our joy in Christ. In the introduction, Murray explains the nature of positive psychology, shows some of the most recent findings, and makes plain how this particular field is catching up on wisdom already found in Scripture. The benefits and advantages of positivity are fascinating to see, but as Murray notes, they shouldn’t surprise us as Christians.

Playing on the mathematical aspects of positivity versus negativity, Murray’s chapters focus on some spiritual math equations. I guess “equations,” isn’t technically accurate. Rather, they are inequalities. Each chapter has a specific domain that it focuses on, and through it, Murray shows that focusing on the positive aspects outweighs and is better than fixating on the negatives. As Murray explains, “I will identify the major causes of negativity and unhappiness in our lives and outline ten biblical and practical ways to tilt the balance of our attitude, outlook, words, and actions in a way that will lift our spirits, compel attention for the Christian faith, and make the church an energizing force in a life-sapping culture” (xx).

This may immediately sound to some readers as if Murray were simply offering a different version of the prosperity gospel. Rather than wanting to downplay sin or suffering, Murray is arguing for a return to the “overall positive balance of biblical truth and the elevating experience of real Christianity” (xxi). Along with this clarification, Murray comforts cautious readers saying, “Although I’ll be referring to scientific research at times, this book is based on the Bible because I believe there is no more realistically positive book in the world than the Christian holy Scriptures” (xxiii). In the end, Murray is picking up the good and true from science but balancing them well with the full counsel of God.

The Flow of the Book

Turning to the actual flow of the book, the first chapter is about “Happy Facts” and prioritizing facts over feelings. Or, one could say the opening chapter sets the tone by focusing on the importance of renewing your mind. Chapter 2 continues this thread by focusing on the type of media we intake and how good news should be prioritized over bad news when possible. This is not a call to ignore important and relevant bad news but rather a caution that overly fixating on negativity in our media diet (by excessive news watching for instance) is not spiritually or psychologically healthy for us.

This discussion of good news leads into the next chapter “Happy Salvation,” which urges readers to focus on and believe the gospel of “done” rather than “do.” In other words, the Christian gospel is about what Christ has done for us rather than what we can do for Him. Leaning into this and really believing it leads to true peace in our hearts and minds. The community that is built on what Christ has done is the focus of chapter 4, “Happy Church.” Here, Murray explains how readers can focus on Christ rather than the shortcomings of other Christians. The chapter is an encouragement to be a part of Christian community in the local church and to be Christ-centered in our relationships with other believers.

Chapter 5 is about the future and specifically how we should be characterized by hope. There is a healthy use and focus on the past, as Murray explains, but there is also a damaging use we should avoid. We should be more focused on our future hope than past failures. In connection with this, chapter 6 encourages readers to be focused on the grace rather than sin we see around us in our world. Rather than a call to ignore sin, Murray wants to help readers see the common grace of God that is visible to those who have eyes to see.

Chapter 7 deals with the subject of encouragement, with Murray encouraging readers to be more quick to praise than to criticize. In a similar vein, chapter 8 encourages readers to be more apt to give than eager to get. Chapter 9 advocates working to the glory of God rather than seeing our work as impediment to our play. Finally, chapter 10 champions the happiness of diversity over the boredom of uniformity.

Practical Theology

For a book aimed at a popular level audience, The Happy Christian is an easy, though not particularly quick, read. Murray’s paragraphs are short, his writing crisp, and his transparency refreshing. One could easily plow through his book and move on. But, that would be a misuse of the book and miss the intentions that Murray himself has for readers. Instead, readers would do well to read the book and spend time thinking through how many, if not all, of the correctives Murray’s spiritual math might offer them. Pastors and counselors should find this book a useful addition to their library of resources. For anyone struggling with depression, anxiety, or other related issues, there is much wisdom to be found and applied in Murray’s book.

While not a silver bullet solution to serious problems, Murray’s book is practical theology at its best. The endnotes of the book are mostly Bible references, validating Murray’s earlier claim to offer a book informed by science but based on Scripture. He clearly writes as a pastor and shepherd of people who wants them to not simply have their best life now, but to be grounded in God’s Word so their joy is found in Christ. At the end of the day, true happiness is possible, but not in the way the world initially thought. Positive psychology may be stumbling on truth already found in Scripture, and writers like Murray are helping readers appropriate that wisdom in their daily lives. We all want to be happier. Murray’s book is here to help readers actually see how that has been made possible through Christ.

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