Have you ever woken up from a dream and realized your subconscious was trying to tell you something? A few years ago, I had a dream that was so incredibly vivid that I still think about it from time to time: I was walking down the hallway in the dimly lit basement of the church I grew up in, past the mint green painted concrete walls to the water fountain. I looked to my left down the center aisle between classrooms and saw a werewolf lumbering towards me on its two hind legs. I paid little attention to the werewolf, but when I turned back around, there stood a figure shrouded in black wearing a bright yellow smiley face mask. Terrified, I ran into the bathroom. Another girl was there, and we pushed against the door with all our might to keep the sinister figure out. That’s all I remember, but I knew what it meant: I was struggling with a fear of anything that might bring happiness.
It’s an unpleasant dream to revisit, but it helped me to understand where my heart was at. That figure shrouded in black with the happy face mask represented something sinister—the illusion of happiness on the surface with some dark purpose underneath. I was afraid of anything good happening to me because I was convinced God would take it away. I hate thinking I ever characterized God like that, but I grew up believing He was unkind; He was there to punish, not to love.
When I decided to turn my life over to Jesus as a 12-year-old, it was mainly to avoid hellfire and brimstone. I had no real concept yet of what a relationship with Him really looked like. Once I started to follow Him, it seemed like all hell broke loose anyway—I was being bullied, made fun of, and losing friends. A lot of happiness at that stage of life rests on having friends around. When they decide to abandon you, it throws your teenage world into a tailspin. My life had taken a turn for the worst, and that wasn’t what I signed up for.
I think most of us construct some version of God at one time or another. We take what we’ve been taught in church, at home, from experience, and build an image of God in our minds. To me, He was an authoritarian bent on discipline. He didn’t allow happiness unless He could turn it into a lesson somehow—usually a painful one.
I grew up in a fundamentalist church environment and don’t remember hearing much about a God of love other than singing “Jesus loves me.” It was all about punishment and trying to escape the doom to come. When you’re not yet old enough to read and understand the Bible for yourself, the pictures painted for you in childhood tend to be the ones that stick around. This one stuck with me for a long time, until one day about six or so years ago when I was fed up. I was tired of hearing about how God was so loving and not having experienced it myself. I prayed and asked Him to show me who He really was through the words of the Bible.
It’s important to note that the act of simply reading the Bible didn’t change my mind in and of itself. It was the combination of reading and then putting what I was learning about God into practice that did it. I was in a position where I was ready to be taught.
I began to go through tough situations with Him instead of in opposition to Him, and that had a tremendous effect on my attitude. When I looked back on a situation, I was able to see that God really was working all things out for my good, and it changed my perspective on the future. Eventually, I realized that not all the happiness He gave me would be stripped away, and the things that were taken from my life were for my benefit. As humans we can’t see the end from the beginning, so it’s a comfort to know and trust the One who does.
I was afraid of anything good happening to me because I was convinced God would take it away.
The healthier I became in my knowledge of God, the less concerned I was about outcomes. I had to see God for who He really was before I could learn to appreciate what He was doing. I know now that life is simply difficult—for all of us. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t want us to be happy. At the end of the day my happiness rests less on what I’ve been given, and far more on the One who has no darkness in Him and intends no evil at all. I no longer fear the sinister figure with the happy face. Knowing the true character of God has banished it from view.