A Different Kind of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016)

Larry Crabb’s book is subtitled “Discovering the Joy that Comes from Sacrificial Love” and suggests an understanding of “true happiness” that comes from “true relationship.”

This description from the title and dust cover hits all those significant terms we might expect to generate book sales: joy, love, happiness, relationship.

First Thing versus Second Thing Happiness

Crabb begins with a good contrast of the kinds of happiness that vie for our attention, capture our imagination, and drive our actions: “first thing happiness” and “second thing happiness.” Crabb describes second thing happiness as when

We prefer to enjoy the good feelings that rise up within us when we are noticed, wanted, and respected by others, when things go well in our lives, according to our plans; and when we do fun things. We then often demand whatever produces the good feelings we want and feel bad when our demands go unmet.

By contrast, Crabb says, the Christian should strive for first thing happiness, which is “is entirely different”, and

develops when we struggle to love others with a costly love that is possible only if we have a life-giving relationship with Jesus that is grounded entirely in His love for us. … If we think we’re loving others and don’t experience something identifiable as joy, it would be good to wonder if we’re really loving anybody.

As with much of secular wisdom, particularly in the area of mental health, this demonstrates the truism that it might be adept at describing effects — behaviors, neuroses, attitudes, etc — but is dreadful at evaluating causes and prescribing remedies.

I was not hopeful, therefore, that Larry Crabb, who has identified as a Christian who is a psychologist, would provide any biblical solution to the problem he accurately described as “second thing happiness.”

Deficiency of Secular Mental Health

Crabb himself addressed this issue:

Secular psychology provides no help in answering such questions. It cannot adequately define or explain the origin of evil. It cannot fully account for the moral filth that I cannot deny remains within me as I relate to others. And it fails to direct me to a road that will lead me into the delight of being able to truly love well, by divine standards.

This is a significant admission of the deficiency of secular mental health. Crabb describes the change of direction that he made as a result of this deficiency:

Therefore, in recent years I have chosen to no longer identify myself centrally as a psychologist. The wisdom I need to recognize what is most wrong with me and the power I need to right my off-course ship must be looked for elsewhere.

This sounds good, and gives the discerning reader hope that Crabb will address the issue of a believer’s godly hope with biblical truth. He does address some real problems that Christians have related to the nature of prayer, the nature of sacrificial love modeled after the example of Jesus, and of our heart’s desires. In many cases, Crabb accurately assesses the problems and points the reader in the right direction for a solution.

But the underlying theme of the book, the grid through which he calls the reader to view true joy and happiness, is a gross distortion of the “narrow road.”

The Self-Serving Narrow Road

Crabb quotes Jesus’ stern warning in the Sermon on the Mount to “enter by the narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13-14), and then uses the comparison as his framework for “second thing happiness” (the wide way) and “first thing happiness” (the narrow way).

Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV):

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Here are some of the ways Crabb uses the narrow road/broad road terminology:

  • The battle for a better love can only be fought on what the Lord referred to as the narrow road. We need to find that road and get on it (16).
  • If you know Jesus and therefore possess a nature made of the same stuff as God’s nature, you can discover a kind of happiness that can be yours even if nothing outside of you changes. But you must learn what it means to walk the narrow road that Jesus said leads to life (23).
  • Exercise that will, and slowly but reliably you will know the happiness that Jesus knew, in small but sustaining measure. You will then gratefully and with delight realize that you are on the narrow road to life (26).
  • And I invite you to join me in the discussion of what it means to find that road and walk on it as we battle to love (26).
  • …when I speak of the happiness available to Jesus followers who walk the narrow road to relational life, unless I specify that I’m referring to second thing happiness that sometimes accompanies travelers on the narrow road, know that I am speaking of the first thing happiness released in us when we battle for a better love (32).
  • If the life to which the narrow road leads refers to spiritual maturity, then the process of learning to love like Jesus includes difficulty (43).
  • I begin this book with two core convictions. One: in this life, there is not real and sustaining joy other than learning to love like Jesus. That is the life to which the narrow road leads. Two: only a few even find the road that leads to life, and fewer remain on it while the forming process unfolds (48).
  • When Christians live their lives on the narrow road, what is it that they most passionately pray for — what do they most long to receive from God? (63).
  • If anyone’s lead prayer, the prayer that reflects their deepest desire, is for positive change in a difficult circumstance or relationship, that person would do well to fear that he or she may be one of the many Jesus followers who are walking the broad road to a wasted life (65; emphasis in original).
  • It is entirely possible, and I fear quite common, for followers of Jesus to stroll happily along on the broad road never doubting that they are trekking faithfully behind their Master on the narrow one (66).
  • Life on the broad road is popular among group 1 Christians, those who take for granted that prayers for the good things of life are dependably answered (70).

I’ve included so much from Crabb’s own words so that you might see the difficulty with his approach. When Jesus told us about the two roads, narrow and broad, he warned that following the broad way leads to destruction, not mere “second thing happiness,” as Crabb says.

The danger of Crabb’s teaching is that he tells those who fancy themselves Christian that they can walk the broad way and still be Christian, that they can forsake the narrow way and still be saved.

There are many things to commend in Crabb’s book, not the least of which is the accurate assessment that believers tend to view happiness and joy in worldly, rather than biblical terms. But the broad/narrow error is too fundamental to his approach, too connected with his other instruction, showing up on virtually every page of the book, that it is not worth the read.

A Different Kind of Happiness should not make the attentive Christian happy, at all.

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