Pivotal People

Ep. 58: Author Amanda Opelt, "Holy Unhappiness: God, Goodness, and the Myth of the Blessed Life"

August 09, 2023 Stephanie Nelson Season 2 Episode 58
Pivotal People
Ep. 58: Author Amanda Opelt, "Holy Unhappiness: God, Goodness, and the Myth of the Blessed Life"
Show Notes Transcript

Amanda Opelt, author of "Holy Unhappiness: God, Goodness and the Myth of the Blessed Life"  invites readers to challenge the false beliefs many in the church hold about “the good life” and what it means to walk in communion with God. Amanda examines some of the historic, religious, and cultural influences that led to the idolization of positive feelings and the marginalization of negative feelings.  

Amanda acknowledges the value of pursuing happiness but advocates for embracing a broader range of emotions within the Christian experience. She urges for the normalization of feelings like sadness, anger, grief and disappointment, highlighting their potential for growth in your faith journey. 

Amanda is available for interviews and can speak on how to find holiness in the midst of unhappiness and uncomfortable emotions, how being blessed is often misunderstood or misinterpreted or the importance of normalizing feelings such as sadness, anger, grief, and disappointment is a part of the Christian experience.

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Stephanie Nelson, Host (00:00):
I'd like to welcome Amanda held Oppelt to the Pivotal People Podcast. And she was so gracious to agree to come on because she has just come out with this amazing book. I have read it, of course. And it's her second book. So I am ordering her first book as soon as we are off this podcast. Her new book is called Holy Unhappiness God Goodness, and The Myth of the Blessed Life. And her first book was called A Whole in the World, finding Hope and Rituals of Grief and Healing. And she believes in the power of faith, community, ritual, worship, and shared stories to heal even our deepest wounds. She's a singer, a songwriter, and an author, and she's spent the past 15 years in the nonprofit and humanitarian aid sectors. So she has a lot of experience in the areas of happiness and grief and difficulties. And she and her husband live with their two daughters, I believe. Yes. In Boone, North Carolina. Fellow Southerner. I live in Georgia. Oh,
Amanda Opelt, Author (01:07):
Stephanie Nelson, Host (01:09):
<Laugh>. So welcome. There's so much to talk about here. I have taken pages and pages of notes, but the goal is that Amanda's gonna be doing the talking. So I wanna ask you big question, but what inspired you to write this particular book? Your last book came out just a year ago.
Amanda Opelt, Author (01:27):
Oh my goodness. You know, Stephanie, to be honest with you, I've been working on this book, my second book, longer than I was working on my first book. This book has been really a work in progress, a labor of love, whatever you might call it, for five or six years. And that's because I, gosh, I don't know. I'll give you the short version of the story, <laugh>, the short version is that one day in my mid thirties, I woke up one morning and realized that I had basically everything I'd ever wanted. You know, like my life was kind of following this script that I'd been given of what a happy, blessed, you know, good life should look like, particularly one, you know, that a script I'd been given by my community of faith growing up. And so I kind of ticked all these boxes, right?
Like I'd married a nice Christian boy, I had gone to Christian college, I'd found my calling, quote unquote, like I was working for a Christian aid organization and felt really like my, my work, my vocation had purpose. I was involved in church. I, so, so I kind of had done all the things I was supposed to do. And not only that, I, to be honest with you, I felt like I was a pretty good person. You know what I mean? <Laugh>, yes. I was like doing my, I was like doing my daily quiet time. I was, you know, nice to people. I was a good neighbor. I had good friends. I, you know, I was, it was volunteering. I was a good citizen, all these things. And then I woke up one morning and realized I'm struggling. I'm in spite of all these blessings. I'm not happy all the time.
I feel restless, I feel frustrated at work, at this perfect job that I found, like my dream job. I feel frustrated, I feel bored, I feel aggravated. I feel, you know, these underlying conflicts with this very nice man that I'm married. I feel just tired from serving the Lord. And I, and I was just really curious about this discontent and whether or not I was allowed to feel that way, you know? And whether or not that was a sign that I was spiritually unfit. And so I kind of went down this rabbit hole, particularly in the area of work and vocation. What are these perceptions that we have of what work is supposed to be to us, the meaning that's supposed to be derived from our work? And started doing study about the history of the way people have thought about work and vocation and calling over the years.
(03:49):And then that eventually led to me kind of exploring different areas of life. Like what, what are the expectations we're given about what a, a certain choice, how a choice should play out, how it should be experienced emotionally. What are the emotions that we are promised if we are obedient and make all these good choices and do all the right things? And that's ultimately what led to the writing of the book. It, it got interrupted. I was, this is a book I was hoping to maybe get published three or four years ago, but it was interrupted by just a season of really profound difficulty, the loss of my only sister, a season of pregnancy losses, and then the global pandemic. And that's what led me to write my first book, A Hole in the World, which is about grief rituals, because I just, I had to process what I was immediately going through then. But I always felt like this book was kind of like a stone in my shoe nagging at me wanting to be finished, story, wanting to be told. And so I picked it back up and, and finished it about a year and a half ago. So
Stephanie Nelson, Host (04:50):
First of all, your bibliography. I mean, so fabulous. I always look when I read a good book with really, like Amanda's book just makes you think mm-hmm. <Affirmative>, and she has clearly done this research. So you have so many great references. And whenever I read a book that really makes me think I go to the bibliography, because you're gonna find more books that you wanna read. Yes. You know? So
Amanda Opelt, Author (05:13):
I hope so. If you read my book, I beg you, go read Alan Noble. Go read Kaitlyn Beatty, go read Skagit. There's, go read Wendell Berry. I mean, there's so many books, great books that I read as I was researching that, you know, the book really evolved as I was writing. And I went into it with a certain idea of what the outcome would be like, how would I conclude? And that changed over time as I started gleaning from the wisdom of some of these other writers and, and, and thinkers.
Stephanie Nelson, Host (05:41):
And it's clear. So it's clear it's such a well-written book because it's so well-researched. And in your humility you're saying, you know, you learned along the way. This is why I think everyone should write a book. Everyone should write a book on their favorite subject and just the learning experience of it. But I
Amanda Opelt, Author (05:57):
Digress. Oh, I, I agree. I agree. Stephanie, I'm with you on that. <Laugh>
Stephanie Nelson, Host (06:01):
You introduced so many new concepts. One was a new one to me entirely. And that is the emotional prosperity gospel. I would so love for you to talk about that. You talked about the nine elements, kind of nine elements, nine issues that we all face that are tainted by, I did an acronym by the E P G, the emotional prosperity gospel. Nice. That's a big one. You don't have, you really need to buy our book and read it to get all of this. We're just gonna let our top line it. 'cause There's so many great topics. But could you explain that for us?
Amanda Opelt, Author (06:33):
I was thinking a lot about the prosperity gospel, the traditional prosperity gospel, which is this, you know, kind of 20th century expression of Protestant Christianity, which is the belief that if you, you know, if you were faithful to God, if you were good Christian, and you believed in, believed strongly enough in God's power to heal, that he would make you healthy. And if you believed in God's power to make you prosperous, then he would give you a life of material abundance. This idea that God doesn't want you to suffer. God wants you to be happy, he wants you to be healthy, he wants you to be wealthy. And that's a, that's an ideology that I've never subscribed to. In fact, most of the people I'm surrounded by in my communities of faith reject the prosperity gospel and say, that's not in the Bible. Like, we know that suffering is part of life.

Jesus suffered, God's gonna be with us and are suffering, we all die. Right? Like <laugh>, there's no amount of, of faith will sometimes heal you from an illness. There are people that suffer from you know, systemic injustices and are subjected to poverty and, and material lack. And so, so I've rejected that, right? I've rejected the traditional prosperity gospel. But what I realized along the way was that I had ascribed to a slightly more sinister or, or maybe just more kind of concealed iteration of the Prosperity Gospel a spinoff, if you will, which was this idea that God might not make you healthy and wealthy, but he doesn't wanna make you, he wants to make you happy. He wants you to experience fulfillment and work. He wants to you to experience joy in your relationships. He wants you to experience adventure in your life and purpose and meaning, and have all these different emotional experiences. Once I kind of got my fingers around that term, I started to look at the different ways that that had manifest in my life, in these different areas of my life and these different choices that I had made.
Stephanie Nelson, Host (08:31):
You know, all of what you just said makes perfect sense. I mean, when people say, well, God wants you to be happy, does He or does he just want us to be in relationship with him? He wants us to worship him. He wants us to trust him. So you kind of open up this, what I experienced when I read your book was this kind of deep breath. You can take a deep breath and experience freedom. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> from all those expectations.
Amanda Opelt, Author (08:58):
Right. Well, because that's the thing, is that what the emotional prosperity Gospel does is give us a very specific definition of what happiness is. You know, it's, it's, I actually do believe, and I I, you know, spoiler alert for your listeners, I do conclude at the end of the book that I believe God does want us to be happy. I think he wants us to have a life of contentment in him. I just think happiness in Christ feels a lot different than what the world and what our Christian subculture often tells us it's gonna feel like. The moment this really became solidified for me was when I walked through that season of grief that I mentioned before, I had this kind of assumption in, in my mind that when I went through a catastrophic personal loss, that my sound theology of suffering would buoy me up out of the sorrow and out of the pain, out of the grief.
And so then when I did lose my sister, and it was awful. I mean, it was like torture. I, I didn't feel that sense of purpose in my pain that I thought I would. I didn't, I didn't see the silver linings. And, you know, I didn't, I didn't understand the redemptive story arc that God was telling in this narrative. I, I just, I didn't see any of that. I didn't feel any of that. I felt pain. I thought maybe I must have done something wrong, or now I've failed. Maybe there's something wrong with my theology. Maybe God has abandoned me. Maybe there is no God. This is what happened. When finally I realized, wait a minute, nothing in the Bible tells me that I'm not allowed to feel pain. That this is not allowed to be truly, truly hard. And so I was able to kind of fall into it, rest in, you know, kind of be at rest in that pain knowing that I'd been given permission to do that.
Stephanie Nelson, Host (10:45):
That's right. That's what struck me in your book, and you talk a lot about this. I loved it. The normalization of uncomfortable feelings. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> as a part of the Christian experience. This is not a failed Christian experience. This is a part. And you know, you pointed to characters in the Bible, certainly job, you know, plenty of people experienced uncomfortable feelings. And yet Jesus himself Yeah. Wept. Right. So the whole idea of, you talked about the idea of other people being uncomfortable with our sadness mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And so that's why we might get platitudes, right? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, it makes other people uncomfortable. And so they would like us to just be better.
Amanda Opelt, Author (11:30):
Yeah. Yeah.
Oh, and I'm so empathetic to that, you know what I mean? Like, I know, I know what it's like to feel like you're the elephant in the room for like an entire year after my sister's death and just people, I don't know what to say to her. I just want her to feel better. And, and that's 'cause they love me. You know, that's part of, of their expression of their love for me. But I think the people who did it the best are the people that felt like they were the most present with me in my pain, were the people that didn't try to make me feel better. But the ones that just said, this is awful. This is terrible. I'm here. What do you need? As opposed to the people that said, well, you know, you know, everything happens for a reason, or don't you see God at work in this or isn't an amazing how, how God gives us the peace that passes understanding. I was like, no, I haven't experienced that yet. I'm in the thick And you were
Stephanie Nelson, Host (12:17):
Honest about
Amanda Opelt, Author (12:18):
It, the thick of it. Yeah. I'm in the thick of it. You were honest
Stephanie Nelson, Host (12:20):
About it.
Amanda Opelt, Author (12:21):
And I think it's true that eventually God does show us how he redeems all things. And I think we learn a new relationship with the Lord, one in which pain and his presence can be, you know, held together in union. But it just took a while to get there. And we're such a rushed culture, you know, we're a microwave culture. We are an instant gratification culture, and we have to be patient with that process.
Stephanie Nelson, Host (12:47):
You talked in the book exactly what you just said, that contentment is essentially pain and joy being able to coexist. Yeah. Wow. It's not the elimination of pain. These are all human emotions. I, so I'm doing too much talking. I just love hearing you elaborate, the whole idea. We talked before we started, Amanda wrote this beautiful section about lament and lament really being a form of worship. And it didn't hit me until like, the book Lamentations until you wrote that. I hadn't seen it in that way. Could you share your perspective about lament?
Amanda Opelt, Author (13:24):
Yeah. Well, I mean, biblical scholars tell us that one third of the Psalms, which is kind of our worship book in the Bible, one third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament crying out to God pretty audacious, you know, wailing and weeping before God, challenging God even on his decisions sometimes. And one thing I I've noticed throughout scripture is you often see the prophets or the people of God calling for the wailing women to come. I write about this a lot in my first book about just the, the value of having whalers, like people literally crying aloud in this chaotic fashion before the Lord. That's kind of a prophetic act to say this is not how things should be. I think worship is anytime we agree with God about something that's true. When I say that my sister's death is a tragedy, when we say that injustice in in the country is, is wrong when we say that, you know, illness is not part of God's design, when we say these things, I think we're agreeing with God. We're saying what should be and what should not be. So I think that's why lament is worship. It is, it is standing in agreement with God. And I think if we were to, to really understand that and believe that, then we would find a comfort in those psalms that maybe sometimes feel to our modern 21st century optimistic American ears, <laugh>.

Stephanie Nelson, Host (14:57):
That's right. Well, and you talk a lot about, you know, our kind of self-help culture and our affirmation culture and you know, I'm reading something else that talks about affirmations. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you know, affirmations, you can do it, you're gifted, you have all these, and those actually have a tendency to increase our self focus mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And when we increase our self focus, we tend to become more insecure.
Amanda Opelt, Author (15:23):
Yeah. Oh man, I'm so glad you said that, Stephanie, because I think part of the, the conundrum of happiness in our culture is that we've come to believe that we, because we're such an, you know, we're an individualized, autonomous culture. Like we have way more control over our decisions, over our lives, over our outcomes than most generations before us. You know what I mean? Like, we pick our own, we choose our own jobs. Most people in the history of the world have never done that. We choose where we wanna live, we choose who our spouse is gonna be. That's pretty unprecedented in the history of the world, but that gives us the illusion that we can control our happiness. So then all of a sudden when we're not happy and things go wrong or things go flying off the rails, we think it's my fault I've made bad choices. Like I've done this to myself. It's this myth of the American dream, this myth of the brighter horizons ahead that's kind of in the d n a of most Americans to believe that, gosh, I can accomplish a happy life for myself. And then when, when we don't, when we're not happy, we sadness feels like failure.
Stephanie Nelson, Host (16:27):
Sadness feels like failure. I think that's, that is it in a nutshell. And even within our Christian communities, these are hard things to admit to each other.
Amanda Opelt, Author (16:37):
Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Right,
Stephanie Nelson, Host (16:38):
Right. The vulnerability of saying, you know, even, even as you said in your grief, you naturally had doubt.
Amanda Opelt, Author (16:44):
Yeah, exactly.
Stephanie Nelson, Host (16:46):
And you talk in your book about Thomas mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and Thomas's doubts, how we tend to think of Thomas in that brief, you know, moment of his story about doubting. But actually, and could you elaborate on that story? Because again, you're, she's such a great theologian. I mean, really, it's, it's so theological. I'm like, thank you for educating me on this. Well, I,
Amanda Opelt, Author (17:09):
I stand on the shoulders of, of giants, but poor Thomas, I, I feel for him, and maybe I feel a connection to him because as I write in the book, I actually have seen, I have allegedly seen his bones because I've, I've spent quite a bit of time in southern India, which is where, you know, history tells us he went to be a missionary in southern India after the resurrection of Christ. And he was martyred there, and they claimed to have a scrap of his bones there in southern India. And I went up to, you know, the, the little church at the chapel that was dedicated to him and saw those bones there in that chapel. And so I, I've, I dunno, I feel a connection to him, but also because I, I just feel bad for him because he's, he's, he's memorialized by this of doubting Thomas when we see him again and again in, in the rest of the gospel narrative, showing great faith and showing great courage and pressing in with his questions.