Decision vs. Emotion

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Abraham Lincoln has been credited with saying, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their mind to be,” but there’s no solid evidence someone didn’t put that saying in Lincoln’s mouth decades after he died. With all due respect for old Abe’s wit, it doesn’t sound that much like something he would have said, since he was equally famous for melancholy moods.

Whoever originated the saying, it’s encouraged many–and discouraged more than a few others. If someone is battling major depression, “choose happiness” can be about as comforting as when Job’s friends told him he could solve all his problems by putting right whatever “something” he’d done wrong. The modern equivalent is “Cheer up” or “Snap out of it,” which professional therapists rank high among things not to say to a genuinely depressed person.

Why a Simple “Decide to Be Happy” Doesn’t Work

However it’s phrased, the implications–and typical reactions to them–are the same:

Implication: “It’s your own fault.”

Reaction: “I knew I was born to be a failure. I never do anything right.”

Implication: “You just need to try harder.”

Reaction: “I’m already spent from trying; I haven’t the energy left to twitch. Haven’t I done enough yet? God must not love me at all: He never lifts a finger to help.”

Implication: “You must be crazy. Things aren’t that bad, and look at all you have to be grateful for.”

Reaction: “I must be crazy–and stupid, and hopeless. Maybe I’ve even committed the unforgivable sin with all this complaining and doubt.”

Not to discount personal responsibility, but no one battling a serious negativity habit (with or without accompanying medical depression) needs the problem compounded with more negative input. Even from friends who see it as positive.

Godly Choosing

Is “make up your mind to be happy” really God’s will for every Christian? Well, there are several places in Scripture where the word “choose” is connected with holy living (quoting from the New International Version):

  • “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
  • Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
  • “Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose” (Psalm 25:12).
  • Choose [God’s] instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold” (Proverbs 8:10).
  • “The righteous choose their friends carefully, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26).
  • “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my [Jesus’s] teaching comes from God” (John 7:17).
  • “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

None of these involves choosing how we feel; they all focus on what we choose to do. Maybe it’s time we stopped making a big deal over the rather nebulous concept of “choosing happiness,” and refocused our free-will energy on godly actions such as:

  • Thanking God for the good things in our lives, whether or not we feel they’re good enough
  • Singing joyful praises to God, whether or not we feel particularly joyful at the moment
  • Reading and absorbing Scripture regularly, whether or not we feel interested in it or even sure we believe it
  • Showing love to others, even when we feel more like grumbling “Why doesn’t anyone do something for me?”

Funny thing about choosing to make such godly activities a habit. After practicing them consistently for a while, we usually find we’ve become happier without even trying.


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You Don’t Have to Know: God Knows!

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Have you ever looked at the political news and moaned, “I don’t know how we’re going to survive as a country”? Or at the environmental news and thought, “I don’t know how we’re going to leave the world habitable for our grandchildren”? A little knowledge–the sort that’s all too aware of problems and at a loss for solutions–is a dangerous thing. Dangerous to our peace of mind, our faith in the good, and our hope for the future.

Sometimes it’s phrased as, “God knows how we’re going to survive”–which borders on taking the Lord’s Name in vain, since it gives the real God hardly a thought: it’s just another way of saying, “I don’t know, and if I don’t know, nothing else matters.” However we phrase it, it makes our well-being, and our sense of security in the familiar, the be-all and end-all–even though we’re going to lose everything in this world in any case, if only by dying of extreme old age after enjoying 100+ years of “peace and security.”

The truth is, God does know how the world as we know it is going to survive. Or more accurately, how long it’s going to survive before He replaces it with a better and more permanent one. And He isn’t going to tell us before that happens, because He doesn’t want us either keeping a constant nervous eye on the clock or figuring, “Well, we’ve got 200 more years to live it up before we need think about improving how we live.” He wants us to live in ongoing faith, trusting that He has the master plan taken care of and it doesn’t depend on our maximizing our comfort in this life. When it comes down to it, earthly security has little to do with joy in life: we all know at heart that earthly comforts are tentative, but a grateful attitude uplifts our spirits even in serious discomfort.

If you’re prone to worry about losing “the world as we know it,” here are some ideas that may help:

  • Don’t lead yourself into temptation by watching the news constantly; news commentators are not noted for their emphasis on faith and optimism. This isn’t hiding-your-head-in-the-sand avoidance; it’s freeing time and attention to focus on things that are good, true, pure, and right. If you’ve been a CNN addict, start by replacing one hour of daily news viewing with Bible study, and see if your overall attitude doesn’t improve.
  • When someone else–especially a fellow believer–starts moaning about what this world’s coming to, don’t commiserate or argue: suggest, “Why don’t we pray about that right now?” This will spread hope and faith–and discourage the determined wet blankets from complaining again in your presence.
  • Keep a “gratitude journal” of the blessings in your life–and finish each day by reading your list over slowly, thanking God again for each item.
  • When facing serious uncertainty or change, make a special gratitude list of the things you can’t lose: God’s love, the promise of Heaven, the eternal fellowship of all saints. Review this list daily and ask God to strengthen your faith in His promises.
  • On your computer screen saver, your bathroom mirror, your place at the table, your car visor–everything you look at regularly–post notes reading, “Trust God,” and “I don’t have to know: God knows!”
  • A blog for naturally melancholy Christians tired of being told to "snap out of it"; for Christians who struggle with mental-health issues and long for assurance God delights in them nonetheless; and for naturally optimistic Christians who want to understand their "gloomy" loved ones.

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  • About Me

    I am the go-to writer for people with tough stress issues and special emotional needs—and for those who love them, organizations that serve them, and anyone who just wants to better understand the world of mental/emotional struggles. Or who just wants to pick up some good stress-management tips! Visit my main website at

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See for copyright details.
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