Several years ago, a religious teacher in India named Meher Baba gained a global audience with his odd brand of Eastern mysticism. He claimed to be God in human form and thought of himself as the “avatar of the age,” yet he had nothing to say—at least not verbally. He was renowned for his silence. So far as we know, Baba didn’t speak a single word for forty years. He communicated using an alphabet board and with hand gestures or by sending cables to his followers. He believed the universe was an illusion, that we’re simply figments of the imagination of some higher power. Since nothing is real, he surmised, there is really nothing to trouble us. His most famous saying was short and simple: “Don’t Worry. Be Happy.” Life is essentially a mirage, he taught, so why worry about it? Have fun while it lasts and just be happy.
In America, Baba’s message struck a cord with aging baby boomers and coming-of-age Gen Xers. One of his devotees, Bobby McFerrin, turned Baba’s slogan into a popular 1980s song: “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” McFerrin sang in a breezy style with a playful Caribbean accent and dubbed in the instrumental parts with sounds made with his voice. It became the first a cappella hit to reach Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and it showed up everywhere—in presidential campaigns, in films and television shows, in video games, and in performances ranging from musical superstars to middle school glee clubs. It became an unofficial anthem in Jamaica as survivors recovered from the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert. In the troubled final years of the twentieth century, it conveyed a simple philosophy and a workable strategy for life in four little words—don’t worry, be happy.1
If only it were that easy!
Imagine! What if a four-word slogan could transport us to a Caribbean beach with no shirt, no shoes, and no problems? What if we could live in a world where Bobby McFerrin met Kenny Chesney, and we all joined in the chorus! If only a mantra could produce a life of cool drinks, lapping waters, tropical breezes, and orange sunsets.
But life isn’t an illusion and worry cannot be managed so easily. It takes more than four words of a song. It takes the fourth chapter of Philippians and the solid truths it contains. The slogan “Don’t worry, be happy” may express the reality we want, but it provides no roadmap for getting there. It has no compass. It has no doctrine and no theology. It has no foundation in reality. It has pep all right, but no promise.
The Bible says little about being happy, because happiness is an emotion that comes and goes depending on happenings. The Bible speaks of something deeper—joy and rejoicing, which are dispositions of the heart. That’s why joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive. Jesus was anointed with the oil of joy, yet He wept (Hebrews 1:9; John 11:35). The apostle Paul spoke of being sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10).
Happiness is an emotion; joy is an attitude. Attitudes are deeper; they are richer; and the right attitudes provide the soil for healthier emotions as we mature. Emotions come and go, but attitudes come and grow. According to Philippians 4:4, the first step toward overcoming anxiety is cultivating the attitude of rejoicing.
It’s not Don’t worry; be happy.
It’s Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
It’s possible for you to be joyful today.
Robert J. Morgan, Worry Less, Live More: God’s Prescription for a Better Life (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017).
We have just released a new Bible study on based on Robert Morgan’s book, Worry Less, Live More
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
The Practice of Rejoicing
The Practice of Gentleness
The Practice of Nearness
The Practice of Prayer
The Practice of Thanksgiving
The Practice of Thinking
The Practice of Discipleship
The Practice of Peace