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Amanda Held Opelt – Holy Unhappiness [Feature Review]

Holy UnhappinessSimple, Sturdy Hope

A Feature Review of

Holy Unhappiness: God, Goodness and the Myth of the Blessed Life
Amanda Held Opelt

Hardcover: Worthy Books, 2023
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Reviewed by Julie Lane-Gay

Sometimes I am relieved I did not grow up in a Christian family or a church community.  I missed out on the early clarity of knowing God made starfish and peaches with intentional brilliance and beauty and that sin explained a lot about the world.  But I also dodged assurances that, “God had a wonderful plan for your life,” that if I married a “Godly, Christian man, marriage would be wonderful,” and “everything happens for a reason.”

But even without hearing these promises at an impressionable age, I have heard versions of them in adulthood, in both Christian, and secular, contexts. I’ve assured myself with them in the dark of night and said them to comfort others.

I have also heard Christian writers and speakers proclaim these promises of goodness and hope publicly, offering a Christianized form of self-help—and often it has helped, at least at first hearing. But increasingly Christians have given up attending church because, they say with a shrug, “God never did what He promised.”

In Holy Unhappiness: God, Goodness and the Myth of the Blessed Life, Amanda Held Opelt wrestles with promises that she thought were assured – a meaningful career, a fulfilling marriage, a reliable body to serve God, a sense of wellbeing and happiness.  She writes, “While I did not believe that God was a vending machine for material abundance, I did expect God to make me happy, to bless me spiritually and experientially” (xvii). She assumed, “My seed money was my theological acumen, my good behavior and my good choices. And the return on the investment would be deep abiding joy” (xviii).

Opelt’s expected “return on the investment,” is what she has coined the “emotional prosperity gospel,” or more specifically, the promise of “fulfillment in work, meaning in ministry, intimacy with God and purpose in suffering” (xvii).  Investigating this riff on the more generalized “prosperity gospel,” Opelt explores both the tangible disappointments–frustrating employment, difficulties in marriage, unexplainable depression–and the theological, cultural, scientific and historic reasons undergirding our expectations. She skillfully examines Scripture verses taken out of context and our rampant desire to offer an appealing gospel to attract newcomers to church. She looks to Journal of Positive Psychology and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. She quotes the wisdom of Yeats, Pascal, C.S. Lewis, Wendell Berry, Scott McKnight, Neil Postman, Kate Bowler, and Winnie the Pooh (and many others).  Opelt’s research is far-reaching and substantive.

An author, speaker, and songwriter from northwestern North Carolina, Opelt is married (to “a really nice husband”), the mother of two and has had a career in economic relief and mission work. Her first book, A Hole in the World (2022) is widely regarded, and Opelt is now a sought-after speaker.  At first glance, she might be an unlikely person to be writing a book on unmet promises. But in this part memoir-part spiritual history, she invites us into her discontent. She admits,

“My unhappiness did not descend upon me like some grand revelation. It has been more like a slow steady drip of disappointment.  I’ve lived with it for almost as long as I can remember, but I wouldn’t call is clinical anxiety or depression. The feeling is akin to restlessness, like an ever-present anti-climax. It feels like a lack, almost as if I am expecting something out of life that has not yet been delivered. Sometimes the sadness looms large, feels like a boulder I’m carrying. Sometimes it’s a small pebble in my shoe.

Put succinctly, I feel like life has let me down” (xv).

One of Opelt’s strengths is her ability to pinpoint both the ubiquitous-but-hazy feeling of boulders or pebbles in our shoes, and the presence of the emotional prosperity gospel that permeates our churches.  She excels at naming the nebulous.

IVP - Nourishing Narratives

Opelt examines “nine facets of life,” including work, marriage, parenting, calling, community, bodies, suffering and church, and how we have intertwined “the ‘if this, than that’” conditions and assurances into these.  For marriage she reviews how, up until the 19th century, marriage partners were rarely chosen for love or attraction, that “marriage was not the business of two people. It was the business of an entire web of social affiliations” (25). It is only since World War II that we have expected a lifelong soulmate. For our bodies, Opelt spotlights how often we have heard, inside and outside our churches, “the great lie of the wellness movement is that, despite all its claims of rest and self-acceptance, the goal is still productivity. The aim is still enhancement. Become a better version of yourself. Rest to be your best” (128).

Watching the exodus from the church, particularly of millennials and Gen Z’s, across the continent and at the church she attends each Sunday,  Opelt laments, “…many have left the church because they feel hurt, taken advantage of, and misled” (144 ). She realized that the “institution so determined to indoctrinate me with a sound theology of suffering never once admitted that it might be the very source of my suffering” (148).

Yet Holy Unhappiness is in no way a diatribe against the church. Opelt loves the church, locally and globally.  She wants repair and humility, not revenge, “In the end, who can argue with a God who is willing to “fail” in the name of love? We’re not perfect but we are the chosen. We are chosen in love. When I let that truth wash over me, I can almost hear God whisper: “Don’t give up on the church. I love her. I love her. I love her” (157).

So, what does she suggest we replace the “emotional prosperity gospel” with? To Opelt’s credit, she does not suggest silver linings or better platitudes. Instead she offers three ways that she is “learning to reimagine goodness,” what she has come to find to be the backbone of true happiness. Opelt suggestions are rooted in new hopes and expectations, urging us to look to the life of Jesus.

“[B]efore he became the ultimate example of lowliness by laying down his life, he offered us words of lowliness. He showed us the way of lowliness. In a world where self-discovery is our highest value—where influence and attention are our most prized outcomes—Jesus offered us a radical alternative: the self-emptying freedom of humility” (134).

Opelt’s hope for herself, and all of us, is to trade our “expectations of ‘the good life’ for a deeper form of goodness—blessings that are simpler but sturdier. More durable” (xxi).

Julie Lane-Gay

Julie Lane-Gay is a writer and editor in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is an avid gardener and trained horticulturist who writes for garden magazines in the US and Canada. She is also the Senior Editor of CRUX, Regent College's journal of thought and opinion and a Catechist at her Anglican church. She is the author of the forthcoming, The Riches of Your Grace: Living in the Book of Common Prayer, IVP (2024).

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