There is a popular personal fulfillment catchphrase that is popular in today’s culture that is often scripted on decorative wall plaques, t-shirts, and coffee mugs: “Do what makes you happy.” While this is the touted mantra of our day, is there really truth in this statement? Will doing more of what makes us happy – make us truly happy? In this episode, Leslie unpacks a biblical response that illuminates the misleading notion of seeking personal fulfillment above all else. Rather than seeking the high places of self-focused happiness, seeking to serve in the lowest position will lead us to discover the true happiness that comes from living like Jesus and pouring out our lives for others. And this episode will encourage you to do just that.
Leslie Ludy: Hey, everyone! It’s Leslie Ludy, host of the Set Apart Girl Podcast: Biblical Encouragement for Women of All Ages. Today I want to talk about something that is so prevalent in our culture. There’s this mantra called “Do what makes you happy.” If you go to a decorating store or a clothing store, oftentimes you will see that slogan on coffee mugs, wall decor, handbags, and t-shirts. Do what makes you happy! And as I’ve seen this slogan crop up more and more, it’s really brought to mind what I call the “personal fulfillment myth” of our day.
There is a message in our culture that targets us, especially as women saying that life is all about being personally fulfilled. We need to go after the things that make us feel good, make us feel happy and build our lives around those things. The opposite is not necessarily true – that you should go out and do something that makes you miserable – but I see a real danger in building your life around “personal fulfillment.” That’s what I want to talk about today, looking at this from a biblical perspective: Does God intend us to build our lives around being personally fulfilled and doing things that make us happy?
Popular Myths We Believe
Leslie Ludy: So many of us, when we get into the mindset of the culture in this area, become convinced that we really can’t be happy until we’re in a perfect set of circumstances. There are a lot of women who feel like, “Well I really can’t be happy until my romantic life is perfect.” Or, “I really can’t be happy until my material possessions have reached a certain level and I have a specific type of comfort in my life.” Or, “I need a better job … I need a different or a better marriage … I need my husband to change.” Or, “I need a different church.” Or, “I need a more personally fulfilling career or ministry path, and if I don’t get those things, I have every right to be miserable, depressed, and discontent.”
So often when we fall for that idea, we feel this sense of entitlement to doing only the things that make us feel happy rather than willingly and joyfully doing the tasks that are sitting right in front of us. Whether you’re a mom at home with young children or you’re a student in school or you’re working a menial, tedious job that isn’t really that enjoyable, so often your mind can be elsewhere. You have diapers to change and little kids to feed. You have data entry to do or you have a test to study for, and none of it really brings a sense of personal fulfillment or happiness per se. It’s so easy to avoid doing those things thinking, Well, I really shouldn’t have to do this because I’m entitled to do things that make me feel happy. And therefore we often neglect the things that are truly important that God has put right in front of us because we’re in this pursuit of personal fulfillment.
The Consequences of the Personal Fulfillment Myth
Leslie Ludy: One thing that has really brought this understanding home to me in the past 5-8 years is that Eric and I have talked with missionaries and ministry leaders all over the world who desire people to come alongside them, Christian men and women who will come to these ministries or come alongside them on the mission field and joyfully serve, joyfully and willingly do whatever needs to be done – even if that means scrubbing toilets, changing diapers, or fixing meals. And even if it isn’t that person’s first choice of what they think would make them happy and fulfill them. But the caveat to that is that it’s very rare to find Christians who are willing to do unglamorous tasks because every one today has been trained to only do what makes them happy and brings them personal fulfillment, rather than having the mindset that, “I’m here to serve and to pour my life out, even to the point of personal discomfort and sacrifice for the glory of God.”
Now I do believe that as we follow God’s pattern and design for our life, it does bring tremendous joy, fulfillment, and happiness into our lives. In fact, there’s no greater place of true fulfillment than in the center of God’s will. But when we base every decision around what we think will make us feel good or not feel good, we can live very selfish lives. Even a lot of moms today with kids at home are often fooled by our culture into thinking that unless they somehow get this outside life of their own (i.e. they need a career, a fulfilling hobby, or things that have nothing to do with their family, they need to put boundaries around the time that they spend serving their families) they won’t be happy.“ It’s not very exciting to clean up messes, change diapers, and feed kids all day long, so I need to go out and add this bonus thing to my life that’s really going to fulfill me.” Rather than saying, “This is where God has put me today, He will give me grace for this today, and even if it isn’t the first thing that I would have chosen to do with my life or my day, this is what’s sitting in front of me, and I will do it joyfully as unto Him.” And that’s really where true fulfillment comes from – joyfully surrendering to Jesus Christ, not demanding our own agenda to be fulfilled.
So often as young moms – because I’m in that season of my life with six kids at home – there’s this common idea that I often hear from young moms [that says], “I had children to enhance my life, and my life has become more complicated and messy since I had kids.” [There is] this disillusionment. Before we have kids, we so often have this romantic dream of our home being like a Pottery Barn Kids catalog and the room [and] the nursery just being perfect and right out of a magazine and the children being happy and perfectly well-behaved. And then, when reality hits, and you realize, “Wow! I had to stay up all night with a screaming child.” Or, “My children throw tantrums. My children make messes. My children inconvenience me all the time.” It can be a rude awakening to realize, “Wow! This is a sacrifice.”
Now having children and saying yes to that step of saying, “Lord, I open my life to serving a family,” can bring tremendous joy and fulfillment, but it all depends on your attitude and your approach to it. If you are saying, “I will willingly, gladly, and sacrificially serve this family that God has given me,” it can be a great joy and delight. But if you’re saying, “Well, unless this perfectly fulfills me, enhances my life, and benefits me in some way, then I’m going to be discontent.” Then raising children can be a miserable season of your life. And this isn’t just for young moms, this is an example of how that personal fulfillment myth can really wreak havoc on our homes, our families, and our lives.
Adopting a Mindset of Sacrificial Calvary Love
Leslie Ludy: Amy Carmichael was a missionary to India. I quote her all the time. I’ve been reading a little book of hers where she talks about different struggles that she went through as she was raising all of these children that she had rescued from temple traffic in India. When she first started caring for these children, she was under a lot of pressure to do work that was more important in other people’s eyes. Everyone looked at what she had chosen to do as beneath her and as demeaning. All she was doing was feeding these babies, changing them, and caring for them. She could have been a very well-known evangelist traveling the world, speaking at conferences, and winning thousands of souls, but instead she was pouring her life out for these little children.
God really challenged her with that story of Jesus, the King of Heaven and Earth, who knew that He came from God and He knew He was going to God (see John 13:3), and yet He still chose to wrap that towel around His waist, bend His knee, and wash the dirt off His disciples’ feet. She wrote in one of her books, when she was struggling, “Lord, I do not care for the work that I have been given to do.” It doesn’t personally satisfy me is what she was saying. And God’s response to her was, “Did Jesus care for Gethsemane and the Cross?” Did He do those things because it was personally satisfying to Him? Or did He do that for our sake?
That question answers itself. When we look at what Jesus did for us, how sacrificially He gave, how much He poured out, He was not considering His own reputation. He was not considering His own comforts, and He was not considering His own personal happiness and satisfaction. And yet, because of the way that He poured out His life, we are redeemed and rescued and can spend eternity with Him. It really does put us to shame when we come face to face with what He’s done. When we’re nitpicking and complaining about the task sitting in front of us, all we need to do is look to the example of Jesus Christ.
The Bible says that, “for the joy set before Him,” Jesus endured the Cross. That is such a powerful statement, because I believe there is tremendous joy in choosing to humbly serve others, humbly do that task that is sitting right before you, regardless of whether you think it’s going to personally fulfill you or make you feel happy and that really is the example that Jesus set for us when He left His throne and all His comforts in order to make that ultimate sacrifice for us.
Philippians 2:7-8 reminds us that we are to have that same attitude as Jesus Christ who being in the form of God did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking on the form of a bondservant.”
The question remains: Does God intend for us to be happy? If we are taking the form of a bondservant just as Jesus did? If we are willingly making ourselves of no reputation. If we are putting that pursuit of personal fulfillment aside and saying, “Lord, the only thing that matters is joyfully serving and pouring my life out for You and for Your glory.” That question always remains: Does God intend for us to be happy?
One of the most powerful answers to this question can be found in an old, classic sermon called “Ten Shekels and a Shirt.” It’s by Paris Reidhead. I probably listen to this sermon once or twice a year because it is just so powerful! He’s really challenging our motives of why we give our lives to Jesus and why we serve Him. Is it for personal fulfillment, for personal benefit? Or simply for the glory of God? And in that message, He says, “Yes, God intends us to be happy but as a byproduct and not a prime product.” In other words, that should not be our motive for coming to God. “Lord, I want to receive You because I think You’re going to bring some kind of benefit to my life.” Instead, “Lord, I give my life to You because You are worthy.”
I want to look at a very practical aspect of this issue of setting personal fulfillment aside and serving with a joyful heart. I really believe it all boils down to serving with the right motive. Another quote by Amy Carmichael says, “If I put my own happiness before the well-being of the work entrusted to me; if, though I have this ministry and have received much mercy, I faint, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”
Examining Our Motives For Serving
Leslie Ludy: That is such a powerful quote because it’s so easy to get into a job, a ministry, or even a marriage and family for the wrong reasons. We might envision receiving applause, recognition, or gaining that sense of personal fulfillment or satisfying some kind of personal dream that we have, but if we get involved in any kind of serving for the sake of our own happiness, we are going to grow wearied and burned out the moment things become challenging.
Again, there are many rewards that come from serving and from having a family and from being in ministry and from having a poured-out life, but there are also many difficulties. Choosing to serve means purposely choosing sacrificial love.
I knew a young woman one time who went overseas to be part of an orphan ministry. She had envisioned sending all of these cute photos of herself with these little adorable children back home to her friends and family. She imagined staying in a comfortable mission house and being able to read Bible stories and play games with these children. And of course, these children would always be happy and well-behaved. She pictured people applauding her for her sacrifice and love. But from the moment she set foot on foreign soil, she was shocked by the whole experience. She encountered dirt, filth, noise, smells, discomfort, sickness, and danger far more than she ever could have expected. The work she was assigned was difficult and tedious. The children were challenging. There were definitely no sweet, cuddly photos to post on her Facebook page and no warm, fuzzy stories to share on her blog. This was hard work! It was full of difficulty and challenge and because she had gotten into it for the wrong reasons with the wrong motive, she was unprepared for that challenge. Within weeks she was on a plane back home. Later she admitted that her motives for getting into ministry were completely wrong. She said, “I thought I was going to help others, but in reality I was only doing it for myself. Then when things got difficult, I didn’t want any part of it.”
I can say from personal experience that even things that may look like exciting ways to serve –like writing books and speaking – are not always glamorous and fun like many people assume. There are a lot of pressures, spiritual attack, inconveniences, and stress that comes with that package. That is the case for any type of serving – a mom raising a young child or someone who leads a huge organization – if you’re doing that for the glory of God, there will be difficulty along the way, and if you do it for your own happiness and comfort, you will be frustrated and disappointed. But if you do it for God’s glory, you will receive the unmatched reward of His grace, His presence, and His strength. If you are in any kind of role of serving, or even if you’re just in a job that you don’t feel is satisfying to you, I encourage you to remember those words from Amy Carmichael, “If I put my own happiness above the work entrusted to me, I know nothing of Calvary love.”
Be reminded why you are doing this in the first place. Is it to make you happy? Or is it to bring glory to Jesus Christ? Answering that one simple question can put everything in perspective and give you the strength and courage to keep going when you feel like giving up.
Now that doesn’t mean that we are always to say yes to every opportunity to serve. There needs to be a clear direction from God in what to say yes to and what to say no to. We need to be led by His Spirit when we make decisions on how to serve, when to serve, and who to serve. But it all boils down to this: If our chief desire is to obey Him, bring glory to Him, and joyfully pour our lives out for His glory rather than just to pursue our own happiness and fulfill our own personal desires, we can be confident that He will not only lead us and direct us but give us a joy that cannot be found through any earthly means.
Leslie Ludy: I challenge you this week to start asking a new question about whatever it is that you’re doing on a daily basis. Not: What will make me happy? But: What will bring God glory? And if we live with that question continually on our hearts, we will find true joy.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s episode. If you would like to go deeper into this idea of finding true joy and looking to the right source for your joy, no matter what your circumstances, I hope you’ll join me at our upcoming Set Apart Conference. It’s a weekend for women of all ages, and I’ll be going deeper into the topic of joyful living. It’s taking place May 25-26th in Colorado or you can join us anywhere around the world via simulcast, and you can stream the conference up to three months after the weekend of the event. I hope you’ll visit SetApartGirl.com to learn more and consider joining us in May for this amazing weekend! I pray you have a blessed and Christ-centered week!