The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.
In a church meeting I once attended, a visiting speaker opened his remarks with the following question: “Do you think Jesus loved himself? Of course he did!” he insisted enthusiastically, responding to his own question. “How else could he love others so much if he didn’t first love himself?”
Over the years since, I have been on the lookout for scriptural support for this idea. In all that time, I have yet to find a single verse of scripture that speaks of Jesus’ self-love. Countless scriptures tell us that he loves his Father and loves us. Indeed, those two themes are apparently among the most important in all the scripture. But that he loves himself? Not even a whisper. It seems that the topic didn’t interest him.
Although I have never heard another person in the Church even mention the issue of Jesus’ self-love, I hear a lot of talk about whether we love ourselves-whether we feel good about ourselves, for example, or whether we can forgive ourselves, or accept ourselves. I have wondered whether it is wise and helpful for those who are commanded to follow Jesus in all things to expend our energies trying to secure a self-regard and self-worth that the Lord appears never to have valued. The scripture sometimes cited in favor of such efforts-the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves1-has increasingly become inverted in our modern age to mean that we must love ourselves so that we can love our neighbors. But is this really what Jesus was teaching?
My understanding of this commandment is that we are to feel just as happy for another’s good fortune as we would for our own. It is a description of the kind of love that bound Jonathan to David, even though David would supplant Jonathan, King Saul’s heir, from the throne. Whereas envious Saul spent the last decade of his life trying to kill the one who would take the scepter from his house, humble Jonathan symbolically transferred his own kingly raiment to David-loving him, the scriptures say, “as his own soul.”2 Who can read that epic story of friendship and declare in summary, “My, how he must have loved himself!” No, from that story, and from the commandment that memorializes the love it describes, we learn that to love another as oneself is to have our souls so “knit together in unity and in love”3 that we make no distinctions between ourselves and others in our hearts. We rejoice with others in their successes and join with them in their sorrows. As Paul wrote, we “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being [ourselves].”4 This, I believe, is the kind of love Jesus was talking about, which is worlds apart from the idea of an indulgent love of self.
Notwithstanding this, when we feel down, the world urges us to try to feel “up”-to stop being too hard on ourselves, to dwell upon our strengths, and to forgive and love ourselves. By contrast, the scriptures specifically condemn those who become “lovers of their own selves.”5 Don’t seek to find yourself, Jesus famously warned.6 Rather, “preach naught but repentance.”7 “Come unto me [and] I will show unto [you your] weakness.”8
Whether we are feeling up or feeling down, the scriptures suggest that the path of rescue lies in the one direction our natural-man9 tendencies keep us from looking. As absurd as it may sound, happiness apparently lies not in our trying to feel better about ourselves but rather through our allowing the Lord to help us see truths that at first might make us feel worse. In these lowest moments-the moments when we give up resisting what we haven’t wanted to see-we are finally immersed in the joy we have always sought but have never found, a joy that comes not because we have lifted our hearts but because we have finally allowed them to break.
Perhaps, like me, you have sometimes felt “stuck”-unfulfilled, for example, or complacent, or unhappy, and unable to find a way out of your struggle. Or perhaps you have felt flawed, or forgotten, or unfairly burdened. Maybe you grieve as you find your faith at times waning, or your desire to do good diminishing. Maybe you have concluded that even God can’t save you.
Whatever our struggles, a great truth at the heart of the gospel reveals a most surprising path to happiness.The path is always right before us, but it begins in the one place our burdened or complacent hearts are keeping us from looking. Happiness, like heaven, may seem above us, but it turns out that we don’t obtain either of them by climbing.
Part One: A Surprising Truth
Make Sense of Happiness
A man I’ll call Jeff Watson stared blankly at his computer screen. The curtains to his home office were drawn tightly shut, the darkened, hemmed-in room mirroring his soul. His wife of eighteen years had taken the children to her parents’ home for the weekend. He was alone. Terribly and frighteningly alone.
They had finally had the talk he had long run from-the exchange in which divorce was not only raised as a possibility but the preliminary planning had begun. Who would have the kids? She wanted them. So did he. In the cool arithmetic of those trying to bridle firestorms of emotion, they agreed that they would let the kids choose, off-loading that heart-aching choice to the only people in the family who didn’t deserve to have to make it. Jeff wanted desperately to believe that it was a scene from another person’s life. But it wasn’t. This was his life, and everything he cared about was collapsing all around him.
Jeff confided in me after a sleepless, tear-filled night. His soul struggled so desperately for sustaining breath that he could barely squeeze in words between his heavings. At first, I thought he was gravely ill. “No, Jim,” he choked, “it’s not that. It’s-” And then my friend started bawling. I had never heard pain like I heard in his anguished, sobbing cries.
After my multiple attempts to try to get him to tell me what was wrong, he finally was able to say, “Tammy’s left me, Jim. It’s over. Everything-everything’s over.” And then the wave of sorrow overcame him again.
I sat in stunned silence, my mind racing to understand what I had just heard. The Jeff and Tammy Watsons of this world don’t get divorced. Those of us who were privileged to know them had hope in our own marriages partly because of what we saw in theirs. What I was hearing was impossible.
But sometimes the impossible is what’s most true, even when it’s heartbreaking. I listened as Jeff talked about years spent in secret struggle. What a lonely and difficult thing to suffer in such an outwardly happy way! He spoke of the burden he had long carried of living a hypocritical life, of not loving as he had long preached that we should love, of growing in bitterness even as he professed to forgive. He spoke of the foreboding future he now saw: rumors, innuendo, a release from his Church calling, a possible end to his career. He could barely speak about his children and what this might do to them. “Where did I go wrong?” he pleaded, more to the universe than to me in particular. “What have I done to deserve this?”
With these thoughts, the sorrow in his voice turned to anger. He was angry at his wife, angry about his predicament-angry, alas, with God. And he was terrified by all of it.
In this heart-wrenching, pivotal moment, I didn’t know what to say. Everything I could think of sounded trite. So I just listened. He thanked me for my understanding ear, but the truth was, I didn’t know what else to offer him.
I’ve thought about this experience over the years since. The Lord might have stopped me from speaking that morning, knowing from his divine perspective that it was not the moment for counsel. Or perhaps I was simply unprepared to be the tool in the Lord’s hands that I otherwise could have been. Whichever the case, the blank I drew in the face of Jeff’s heartache caused me to question my own understanding of the anatomy of happiness. If I was speechless about his predicament, I was very likely lost concerning my own as well. More earnestly, I began to ponder the following question: When we are struggling, where is happiness actually to be found?
What I have learned in response to this question has been one of the biggest surprises of my life. It turns out that when I am unhappy, almost all my intuitions about happiness lead me astray. The promising path is routinely the one I’m not taking-in fact, the one I would never consider taking because it seems from my unhappy place to be absurdly and obviously wrong. Let me give an example of this from the scriptures.
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden [Jesus invited], and I will give you rest.10
So far so good.I certainly want the Lord to relieve me of my burdens and give me rest. But then Jesus introduced the way that our burdens can be lifted, and this is where the surprises begin. For he teaches that our burdens are lifted only as we take upon ourselves an additional burden!
Take my yoke upon you . . . and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.11
Think about what this means. When we are feeling burdened, weighed down, and heavy, Jesus is telling us that relief comes only as we do what all of our intuitions tell us is the last thing we should do-take upon ourselves an additional burden. Although yokes distribute burdens between partners, Jesus is asking us to take on the burden of a yoke we aren’t presently carrying. This is an additional weight, or at least it seems to be, and therefore what sounds like an added measure of heaviness.
This particular weight, it turns out, is different from all others. It is a weight that lifts, a burden that is light, a heaviness that brings peace to the soul. Which, of course, sounds absurd. So the world, with all good intentions, looks for happiness in other ways-embarking on paths that seem, by their very natures, more happy and promising. As I have walked my own share of such paths, I have learned that what they offer is a mirage-a kind of cotton candy to the soul that leaves us emptier or else more puffed up than before.
So where does this leave us? As I have studied and pondered upon this question, I have been awakened to an incredibly helpful idea-a great truth that Jesus and all of his prophets have freely taught but that I had nevertheless been missing: Happiness so often seems elusive because it rests on a paradox-an apparent contradiction that lies at the very heart of the gospel. This book is an attempt to bring out into the open the liberating paradox that is at the center of our beliefs. It is a book about happiness, and the surprising way it is found.
I believe that you will find this to be both an easy and a challenging book. I think you will find it easy to read-interesting, surprising, hopefully even engaging. But if you are like me, you will also find it difficult, at times, to put into practice. And the reason for this is precisely because happiness rests on believing Jesus even when what he is telling us seems mistaken. Come take this burden, that you may be light,12 he tells us. Lose yourself that you may find.13 I believe we will discover together that no words of Jesus are more important than those that don’t seem to make sense, and that we will find great and surprising relief in this discovery.
Paradoxes can seem difficult to penetrate at first, precisely because they seem like they can’t be true. The divine paradox will seem this way as well, so we need to lay the groundwork for it carefully, so that we will understand both what is at stake and the liberating happiness that it makes possible. I would just ask that you not depart from this journey together before the payoff comes. Through Parts 1 and 2 of this book, we will explore the doctrine of the divine paradox. In Part 3 we will explore its practical implications, and then in Part 4 we will discover the surprising way that happiness is found. As with any journey, the last half can be reached only by walking the earlier half of the trail.
Hang in there. Enjoy the stroll. What at first may seem like a burden will end up being easy and light and will bring rest to the soul.14
We will start on our journey at the beginning-by discussing first what a paradox is, and then by naming the great paradox from which happiness flows.
(c) 2012 James L. Ferrell
All rights reserved. Published by Deseret Book Company. Reprinted with permission.