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Discover what it means to be blessed and challenge the false beliefs many in the church hold about “the good life” and what it means to walk in communion with God.American Christians have developed a long list of expectations about what the life with God will feel like. Many Christians rightly deny the prosperity gospel—the idea that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy— but instead embrace its more subtle spin-off, the emotional prosperity gospel, or the belief that happiness and spiritual euphoria will inevitably follow if you believe all the right things and make all the right choices. In this view, frustration is deemed unholy, fear is seen as a failure of faith, and sadness is a sign of God’s disfavor.
In Holy Unhappiness, Amanda Held Opelt, author of A Hole in the World, grapples with her own experience of disillusionment when life with God didn’t always feel the way she expected it to feel. She examines some of the historic, religious, and cultural influences that led to the idolization of positive feelings and the marginalization of negative feelings. Unpacking nine elements of life that have been tainted by the message of the emotional Prosperity Gospel – including work, marriage, parenting, calling, community, and church – she points to a new path forward, one that reimagines what the “blessed” life can be like if we release some of our expectations and seek God in places we never thought to look.
This is a book that asks “what good is God?” when he doesn’t always make sorrow go away or soothe every fear. It is a book that explores our aversion to sadness and counts the costs of our unrelenting commitment to optimism. This is a book that insists there is holiness to be found even in our unhappiness.
(Get a Good Job)
God is a gardener.
I feel this truth deep in my bones every year in May, when I climb the steep hill behind our house to our small garden patch, where in the past five years we have successfully grown approximately three green peppers, a small handful of strawberries, nine or ten cherry tomatoes, and one enormous zucchini.
The Appalachians are an inhospitable place for a garden. The growing season is short at our elevation and frequent rainfall stunts growth. The soil is rocky, and flat bottomland is scarce. Every year, we are faced with some new weather-related disaster—a freak snowfall in May, a flood, a hailstorm, an early frost. The wildlife is antagonistic. As if being summoned to a casting call for a Disney movie, woodland creatures great and small make their annual descent upon our small patch of vegetables—rabbits, moles, squirrels, deer, chipmunks, black bears, blue jays, and sparrows. Bounty is a concept we are unfamiliar with. The carrots are typically uprooted, the tomatoes blighted, the squash tough, the kale pockmarked by hungry beetles.
Hermann Buhl once said, “Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.”1 Here in the highlands, you can step into an endeavor with all the hope in the world, inspired by visions of vitamin-rich veggie pastas, piled-high salad plates, tangy salsas, and luxurious berry pies. It doesn’t take long for those hopes to be disappointed, your energy depleted, your efforts seemingly wasted.
But for my husband, Tim, this annual humiliation is nothing to be feared. He comes from a long line of Wisconsin dairy farmers. His hopefulness is as hardy as his work ethic. Typical of many Midwesterners, he seems to have a short-term memory when it comes to agronomical failure. His posture is one of steady resolve. He is deeply committed to the notion that work, in and of itself, is good—enjoyable even. No matter the outcome, Tim believes it is healthy to set your hand to a task, to sweat, to feel the strain of muscle for a cause you believe in.
Tim seems to have embraced with his heart and his hands a theological truth I’ve only ever known in my head: We were created to work. In Paradise itself, before the fall, before the curse, before sin had permeated the world with pain, we were told to cultivate a garden, and God said it was good. More than that, we were created to co-labor with God.
This was a truth embedded in the hearts of God’s people, Israel, from the very beginning. In the wide array of early Mesopotamian metanarratives, Israel’s origin story was an outlier, her God an anomaly. Most other cultures of the ancient Near East saw labor as odious and dishonorable. Legend holds that the gods of Babylon needed food to survive, but they didn’t want to be bothered with the work required to plant, grow, and harvest. So they created humans as a slave race, a menial task force to have at their disposal. In Egyptian cosmogony, where natural elements like the sky, sun, rain, and plants were all associated with divinity, humans were regarded as a wretched and lowly race. They were the only nondivine beings in all of creation, and they had the misfortune of being appointed a destiny defined by mundane and tiresome labor.2
But the God of Israel began telling the story of his love for humanity by casting himself as the laborer. The language from Genesis is beautifully anthropomorphic.3 God speaks, names, separates, forms, breathes, and plants. He even performs surgery on an unsuspecting Adam. And then, God rests.
In this story, the man and the woman are given the roles of co-laborers and co-creators. In fact, their identity as workers is part of what makes them image bearers of God. God plants the garden, and humankind tends and keeps the garden. This was his plan from the beginning and part of the goodness of creation. Gardening is an occupation fit for God himself and is given as an honorable inheritance to his children. Work was never meant to be a curse, punishment, or the drudgery of the lowly.4
Work is a holy responsibility. Many scholars believe the act of tending the garden in Genesis parallels the sacred service of maintaining the temple. The image of Adam and Eve’s agricultural undertaking is of a priestly nature—as if the garden itself was a sanctuary and the entire world the temple of God.5 Here we begin to see the connection between vocation and worship, labor and liturgy. Every one of us is born into a bloodline of ancient gardener priests.
Author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper notes that part of the goodness God saw in his creation was the goodness between things—the ultimate state of shalom that existed in the new world6—where the return was equal to the investment, the joy of the labor matched the joy of the harvest, and the earth was agreeable to our sowing and reaping. Relationships were just, and flourishing was not a zero-sum game. God, whose Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos, brought order to disorder. Woman and man ruled over the earth lovingly, rejoicing in the yield, at peace with themselves, with each other, with God, and with the world.
God is a gardener, a grower of good things. And God is with me when I labor, when I cultivate his good earth. Just as I was made in the image of God, I was made to be a gardener. I was made to work.
But was I made for the disappointment, for the disillusionment that sets in when a task I’ve undertaken doesn’t come to full fruition? What about our garden? Was I made to be met by failure, to see my efforts wasted, to feel the sting of a fruitless venture again and again? Was I made for the exhaustion, frustration, and burnout that so often accompany work in our day and age? Was I made for the defeat of all my hopes and dreams and aspirations?
I was made to plant seeds. But was I made to reap thorns and thistles?
In elementary school, when career day rolled around, I always struggled to pick out a costume. Which is to say I struggled to choose a life calling. As a young child, I dreamed of growing up and becoming a cowgirl. It took me until age six to realize that wasn’t exactly a lucrative profession. I then considered more practical occupations such as gymnast, rock band frontwoman, and professional dog walker. My indecision didn’t improve with age. I changed my major three times in college. My employment history could be described as erratic at worst, nomadic at best. I suppose I’m simply a product of my culture, an archetype of the meandering millennial, always in search of the next best thing. The average tenure for workers of my generation is 2.8 years.7 Sometimes I hate that I’m so “on-brand” for someone my age. And there’s nothing millennials hate more than being accused of being a millennial.
My generation is certainly unique when it comes to work. The vast majority of people throughout history have had few options when it came to vocation. Unless you were part of the upper echelon of society, your lot in life was to work your fingers to the bone, day after day, merely to survive. If your father was a fisherman, you were a fisherman. If he was a farmer, you were a farmer. Many were born into slavery or serfhood, the fruit of their labor exploited by a lord or master. Societies were stagnant, a person’s station in life determined by a fixed economic stratum. There was no such thing as upward mobility or a “career move.” Kids weren’t taking occupational aptitude tests in high school. Actually, most kids didn’t go to high school. It may be hard for affluent Westerners to wrap their minds around that level of vocational immobility, but frankly this is the condition that persists for much of the world to this day.
The rise of free market capitalism, wage labor, and industrialization in the eighteenth century initiated a significant change in the way we in the West think about work. European colonialism was in full swing at that time, and global trade was expanding significantly. For Western societies, this meant that various goods such as sugar, coffee, porcelain, pocket watches, and textiles were available to a growing market. Ordinary families may not hope to find occupations they loved or reach an entirely new socioeconomic class. But hard work and a good job could create a path to greater purchasing power and at least a modest amount of financial progress. Work was becoming a means to a material end, not simply a means of survival or the demand of a king or lord.8 Eighteenth-century economist James Steuart noted that in former times, “men were… forced to labour because they were slaves to others; men are now forced to labour because they are slaves to their own wants.”9
Capitalism’s emphasis on greater and faster production of goods ushered in the age of division of labor. Agrarian communities moved toward industrialized cities, unwittingly creating a largely automated, machine-like labor force. Prosperity for some came at an unfathomable cost to others. The vast reach of colonialism devastated indigenous societies across the globe. While Western economies experienced unprecedented growth and goods became more accessible, working conditions in many factories were squalid, the labor of children was egregiously exploited, indentured servitude flourished, and the vile practice of chattel slavery continued largely unchecked for generations.
America survived a civil war, two world wars, and the Great Depression. And with the end of World War II came unprecedented prosperity and an ever-transforming perspective of the nature and purpose of work. My parents′ generation was the first to experience the full benefits of this widespread affluence. Leading expert on multigenerational workforces Haydn Shaw notes that prior to the baby boomer era, work was predominantly associated with sacrifice and survival. Boomers’ parents—sometimes referred to as the Greatest Generation—had endured the Great Depression through frugality and innovation. They had defeated global fascism and totalitarianism by sacrifice and unified cooperation. They were duty-driven and knew how to be satisfied with a little. But boomers wanted more—more out of life, more out of work. In the mid-twentieth century, work became associated not with survival but rather with self.10 Questions like Do I enjoy my job? Is this work meaningful? and Do I like living here? were readily asked by the boomer generation, at least in the privileged middle and upper classes. Work was not so much about making a contribution to the common good, but rather about making your own path, about doing what was right for you and your dreams.
In 1959, Life magazine announced, “For the first time, a civilization has reached a point where most people are no longer preoccupied with providing food and shelter.”11 Advertising through radio and television presented to boomers and Gen Xers new products that would create an ideal way to live, connecting them to a larger global marketplace and community. There was a great big world of stuff and experiences out there. And it was all within reach. If you could find the right job.
Global connection has only grown, with millennials emerging as the largest demographic in the workforce. While capitalism continues to run its course, many Gen Xers, millennials, and Gen Zers are less and less preoccupied with the stuff their professional earnings can buy. We are more interested in the experiences and personal meaning that can be derived from our careers. We’ve internalized the self-directedness inherent in consumerism and transferred it from the need for products to a need for purpose. Christian speaker and author Jefferson Bethke wrote: “Work used to be about making things. Then all of a sudden, work was about making us.”12
Writer and management expert Bruce Tulgan says of professional millennials, “From the first day they arrive in the workplace, they are scrambling to keep their options open, leverage their uniqueness for all its potential value, and wrap a customized career around the customized life they are trying to build.”13 We want our jobs the way we want them.
As much as I hate to admit it, I am a true millennial. I always had the impression that the perfect job was out there for me, something that was suited specifically to fit my own unique gifts and interest. Finding that job, I was told, would forge the path to a happy life. Through that work, I could experience fulfillment, satisfaction, and a prosperity not only of provision but of purpose. I didn’t just want to pay my bills. I wanted every hour I spent on the clock to be a meaningful experience.
Find that perfect job, I was told, and you will “never work a day in your life.”
I’ve had my dream job. Three times.
But before I had my dream jobs, I had a job I thought was ordinary. Uninspiring. It was a landscaping gig at a historic botanical garden in Nashville called Cheekwood. I took the job one year after I graduated from college, during a season of vocational indecision. Immediately following graduation, I’d gone to work as a missionary to India where I’d quickly figured out I did not really want to be a missionary. I moved back into my parents’ basement for a few months to cry and pray and figure out what was next. A friend and I decided to rent a house in Nashville together where my full-time occupation became checking the wanted ads and playing guitar in local dive bars for free pizza.
Rent was due and I needed to eat something other than pizza. Indecision unfortunately doesn’t pay the bills. Neither does open mic night. So, I did something I thought I’d never do and applied for a position in manual labor. When the human resources department at Cheekwood called me in for an interview, the only question they really asked me was, “What’s your favorite flower?”
“Petunias,” I said.
I was hired on the spot.
The setting of this job (a floral dreamscape) was top-notch. But the work itself was exhausting—backbreaking at times. My colleagues and I would mow and weed-eat the lawns. We would shovel mulch and spread fertilizer. We’d haul endless yards of water hoses to far-flung flower beds at the outskirts of the grounds. All this was done in the scorching heat of a Middle Tennessee summer, where some days it was ninety degrees in the shade.
One week, the park managers decided to drain a large koi pond located in the middle of the grounds in order to reseal the pond bottom, which had apparently started leaking. My teammate Steve and I were commissioned to rescue the koi fish as the pond was being drained, no easy task and a risky one, too, on account of all the snapping turtles who also lived in the pond.
Steve and I discussed our various options for this important mission and searched the supply shed for the tools we’d need. First, we tried dredging the pond with a large net that we each held at either end while teetering on the edges of the banks. But after three passes, we came up with only half a dozen koi. So, we put on waders and rubber boots, and slogged our way into the sludge of the draining pond, each with a landing net in one hand and a bucket in the other.
We spent the afternoon sloshing around and poking our nets into the muddy water. Flecks of shiny gold, white, and yellow emerged from the muck, and the koi wriggled wildly as we hurried to scoop them up. We were treasure hunters, lifting shimmering prizes from the mire. The search became more urgent the lower the water levels got. In the end, we lost some of the koi. But we were able to rescue most of them and deliver them to a temporary home until the pond was resealed and filled with water again. Steve and I left that evening covered in mud, exhausted, and sore, but feeling that priceless joy and pride that come with a job well done and an effort rewarded. That night I fell into my bed, sleep engulfing me immediately. Images of glittering scales flopped in and out of my dreams.
I know it sounds strange, but it was one of the best days of my life.
Despite the success of the koi rescue operation, I’m not particularly well suited for a career in landscaping and horticulture—as is currently evidenced by my less than successful vegetable patch. Besides that, I had a deeply embedded notion that manual labor couldn’t be as honoring to God as a job in ministry or in the service sector. Digging up weeds, deadheading gardenias, and saving fish wasn’t the holy, exciting work I had envisioned on career day growing up. I had my sights set on being a “fisher of men.” The following fall, I was hired for my first dream job, as a program manager for a Christian nonprofit that served underemployed women in downtown Nashville. I turned in my waders and gardening gloves to the Cheekwood office. Not only was I excited to enjoy air-conditioning again, I was also eager to finally put my value of “serving the poor” into action.
My job was to manage a ministry site that provided GED tutoring, professional skills training, job searching, and community resource networking. Each participant was provided with a one-on-one mentor, childcare for their study time, and help with transportation to and from class. I coordinated all the volunteers for the ministry and worked with individual participants as they pursued their educational and employment goals.
I should have known from the koi pond that my savior complex runs deep. After I started my career in community service, I was pretty proud of myself—for the long hours I worked, for the personal sacrifices I made, for the ways I thought I was helping. But I quickly learned that generational poverty and systemic injustice cannot be put to rights by some ambitious do-gooder who thinks she can save the world all on her own. There were days that felt truly fruitless. I watched my students struggle. We rejoiced when anyone landed an entry-level job, but we all carried the heavy knowledge that minimum wage was simply not enough to live on. We threw a party when anyone passed the GED, but we knew few bosses would care enough to give a raise for that extraordinary accomplishment. There were always evictions, broken-down cars, and outrageous medical bills to contend with.
The work was hard. For every beautiful moment of meaningful connection with a student, there were mounds of paperwork and planning to do. Volunteers are wonderful. And hard to lead. Fundraising is demoralizing. Grant management requires an immense amount of data entry. The job I thought I’d always wanted—the work, the service I had always dreamed of doing—began to deplete me. I’d hoped it would feel rewarding, purposeful. Instead, it just felt like a drag.
Three years into the job, when Tim told me he was thinking about pursuing graduate work at a university out of state, I jumped at the chance to quit without having to admit I was crumbling. I could blame my resignation on my husband, not my burnout. I wouldn’t have to admit defeat—to myself, to my friends, or to God. I could slip away and thank everyone for the wonderful three years I’d had at the ministry, feigning sadness while secretly rejoicing that I was finally done.
The town we moved to for Tim’s graduate work was home to an international disaster relief organization. I’m not sure why I thought a career in humanitarian aid would somehow serve as a reprieve after my grueling time in nonprofit work. But having lived in India for a short time after college, the international bug had bitten me. I had visions of traveling the world, of swooping in and providing lifesaving aid in places I had only seen on the news or in National Geographic. I guess that savior complex is pretty hard to shake.
It was indeed an adventure. I traveled to more than a dozen countries, serving as a staff care specialist for our international workers. The daily news headlines determined my workload, and that felt very exciting. I loved the thrill of it all, enjoyed telling my friends and family where I had been and what I had done. My passport was bulging with visas and immunization cards. My Facebook page was filled with pictures from all over the world. Most importantly, I met some of the most wonderful, courageous people you could ever imagine. Like I said, it was my dream job.
Except for when it wasn’t. Being an adrenaline junkie can take quite a toll on your nervous system. I didn’t love being stressed and jet-lagged all the time. And the administrative tasks required to get my work done were relentless. “Aid work ain’t kissing babies,” my colleagues and I would often groan to one another. We never dreamed helping victims of disasters would mean spending so much time working on Excel spreadsheets.
Looking back on my job history, I see how my privilege had created a sinister sense of self-importance. For starters, there was an inconspicuous but deeply problematic exploitation inherent in my work aspirations. My employment was based on the hardships and crises of other people. It is a noble thing to want to help those in need, but unfortunately, I sometimes failed to see the people I was helping as anything more than simply the beneficiaries of my work. Their tragedies had created for me opportunities for personal adventure, purpose, meaning, and adrenaline hits. I’d shown up for the photo op but was quickly confronted with the reality of the pain in the world. That was jarring. And when I got tired, I could clock out or resign. But for victims of injustice, warfare, and famine, the exhaustion, the trauma, and the grief continue.
Moreover, I had assumed that finding the right job, one that allowed me to serve in the name of Jesus and do work I loved, would make me happy, would always be fulfilling. I wasn’t counting on the days when I was overrun with paperwork. I wasn’t expecting the long meetings, the conflicts with fellow employees, the initiatives that failed, the spreadsheets that accidentally got deleted and lost in the ether. I wasn’t expecting the boredom that comes from doing the same job, year after year, even if it is a job that, on paper, you love.
And so, I quit my second dream job. Burnout wasn’t exactly the reason. I’d become a mom and I wanted work that was more flexible and a bit less intense. I decided to dedicate my time solely to my kids and to my writing. I wrote up a proposal for a book, and miraculously, it was accepted by a publisher.
So here I am, hunched over my computer in my home office. I’ve reheated my coffee three times now. At this point, I’ve been at it for an hour, and I suspect there are more Cheetos in my belly than words on the page. Writing, it turns out, is hard work. I’ve thrown out five paragraphs for every one I’ve kept. Stacks of research books loom in the corner, begging to be read, but my eyelids keep drooping. I reheat my coffee again.
I’m living the dream. I get paid to write, paid to be creative. Unlike most of my ancestors, I actually got to choose my career. I’m among the most privileged generation in all of history. Why, then, am I still so frustrated, so tired, so agitated? Why am I not happy? Why do I sometimes daydream about returning to the backbreaking but astonishingly satisfying work of gardening? Why do I sometimes wish I could spend the rest of my life getting paid pennies to scoop shimmering fish out of the mud?
Work hard, and you’ll be happy. Find a job you love, and you’ll be happy. Engage in the labor of philanthropy or ministry, and you’ll be happy.
These are some of the great promises of the emotional prosperity gospel. And yet the curse of Genesis 3 tells a different story. Our primordial parents whisper a somber warning to us: The ground of your labor is cursed.
After the beautiful and awe-inspiring creation narrative and poetry of Genesis 1 and 2, Genesis 3 is a rude awakening. In it we find ourselves at the foot of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, where we are given a front-row seat in the unfolding of the fall. We witness the private lives of our progenitors: the clandestine schemes of a slithering serpent, the human heart’s pursuit of power, the prideful blame-shifting that goes on in the inner chambers of a marriage. We see the nakedness, the scramble to cover.
This is the moment of our rebellion, the provocation of the curse. If you’d asked me when I was growing up to describe the curse, I’d tell you it was the proclamation that we go to hell if we don’t ask Jesus into our hearts. There are certainly eternal implications to the events of the story in Genesis. But what strikes me now about the curse of chapter 3 is what is actually stated. The wording reads a bit differently than our assigned meaning and internalized analysis of it.
Here, in the immediate aftermath of this colossally consequential mistake, in this turning point of history and pronouncement of our fate, nothing of hell or asking Jesus to come into our hearts is mentioned. Instead, God starts talking about snakes, and babies, and thorns and thistles. God starts talking about work. It’s an odd edict for our twenty-first-century ears. Certainly, the consequences of sin, bodily death, and our need for a Savior will follow in the story and texts to come. But what could possibly be going on here, precisely in the proclamation of Genesis 3, and how will it impact the future of the world?
Our origin story is one of both blessing and curse. Scholars tell us the word for “curse” in Hebrew should be understood to mean the opposite of “blessing.” If blessing is the presence of God’s favor, then a curse is the removal of God’s favor. Its closest equivalent is the word “damn.”14 The deceiving snake is the first to receive an imprecation, a future of crawling shamefully on his belly and eating the dust, despised and crushed by humankind. God goes on to describe the curse of the pain of childbearing for the woman, the brokenness that will exist between the woman and the man, and finally the curse of the ground in Genesis 3:17–19:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food.
“Eye-opening…Weaving in biblical passages and intimate personal anecdotes, Opelt delivers both a sharp critique of the emotional prosperity gospel and a soulful, autobiographical search for meaning. This provides much food for thought.”
“Holy Unhappiness is the gospel for our pain and difficulty. I can’t commend the tenderhearted approach that Amanda embodies here enough. A balm for the soul. And hope for our scars. What a glorious read.”
—A.J. Swoboda (PhD, University of Birmingham) is the associate professor of Bible, theology, and World Christianity at Bushnell University and the author of After Doubt.
“For years I have struggled to be honest with myself when navigating my negative feelings. I would rush past them in my attempt to be faithful through trial. Amanda brings up a conversation that more of us need to be having about what the Christian life actually looks like. Holy Unhappiness will give you permission to be yourself.”
—Heather Thompson Day, Author of I'll See You Tomorrow
“Amanda’s lovely blend of reflection and memoir flows from a heart acquainted with grief and unsatisfied with the cheap remedies our churches and culture too often prescribe. This is a work of immense honesty and prophetic clarity.”
—Chuck DeGroat, PhD, LPC, Professor of Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality, Interim D.Min. Director, Western Theological Seminary
- On Sale
- Jul 18, 2023
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Worthy Books