Since I have been a melancholy sort of fellow for most of my life, the question “Does God want me to be happy?” has been an item of investigation for me. I suppose I am not naturally given to being a laid-back surfer fellow who goes with the flow and relishes the moment. Add to this an evangelical Christian culture that can glorify dour moods, heavy hearts, and lousy automobiles, and you sadly could have used the following slogan in times past to describe my philosophy of life: “Life stinks! Let me hang on to the cross until I get out of this miserable existence.” Sound uncomfortably familiar?
The trouble with this attitude, besides that it is oppressive to the wearer, is that it hamstrings our disciple-making efforts. As we have discussed previously, happy people are more effective disciple makers. We wouldn’t want to seek happiness if it were a bad thing just so we could be more persuasive to those around us. However, the good news is that the good news is really good news, and that is good news to those we seek to lead closer to Jesus.
Does God want you to be happy? Absolutely! In fact, if we were to collect all of the Biblical exhortations to rejoice in the Lord (for example, Philippians 4:4) or generally to experience positive emotions toward God and the work to which He calls us (for example, Romans 12:8; Hebrews 10:34), we could fairly state that God commands us to be happy in Him.
Why is this happy conclusion so unpopular? Perhaps it is because of some commonly held misconceptions about happiness and holiness.
First, we have come to believe that in order for a deed to be good, it must be done in a vacuum of self-interest. In other words, we get uncomfortable if we take joy in doing a good deed because we enjoy the joy. This, I believe, is an unbiblical attitude. John Piper helpfully addresses this and related issues in Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (indeed, Piper’s thought on this issue, and Desiring God in particular, have profoundly influenced my understanding of happiness, and I am heavily indebted to him for the thought in this post). Piper argues that self-denial, which Jesus commands (see Luke 9:23, for example), is in the interest of the one denying himself, for this is the path to supreme happiness, which one can find only in God (see Hebrews 12:2 for the ultimate example).
Second, we evangelicals have created a distinction between happiness and joy that Piper and I find unsustainable from the biblical witness. The biblical words for joy are “happy” words, and Jesus speaks of “blessed” state of the godly (“blessed” and “happy” are both possible translations of the Greek word here), who are to “rejoice” when they are persecuted (Matthew 5:12). When Paul says to “rejoice in the Lord always,” he might as well be saying, “be happy in the Lord always.” Here some would object that God does not wish us to seek a positive emotional experience, but to have a “deep joy” that transcends circumstances. Not only does this argument ransack the meaning of the word “joy,” but it also creates a false dichotomy. God wants us both to trust in the truth of His faithfulness and to experience the real positive emotion that the truth of His faithfulness should elicit in us.
Third, some feel that exhorting people to seek happiness can be dangerous, because in the name of the search for happiness, many have done selfish, short-sighted, and sinfully destructive things. I am most sympathetic to this concern and feel it can be addressed with one important clarification: it is God who is the source of ultimate and lasting happiness, so it is not just sinful but utterly foolish to seek happiness apart from Him and to pursue some idol.
Does all of this mean that we should laugh at funerals? Hardly. We will experience many sorrows in this life, and we should not seek to minimize how painful they really are. The Bible, however, has the audacity to suggest that in the midst of suffering we can find not simply a pseudo-emotional “deep joy,” but true emotional pleasure in God (Psalm 16:11).
Does God want us to be happy or does He want us to be holy? Actually, He wants both, and in His wisdom He has created us in such a way that we only find our highest happiness in Him. When we do this, it is good for us, and very good for those with whom we are in relationship. Happiness fuels Gospel witness and effectiveness, and we pray that you will experience it today.
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Each Thursday we send out our Training Resources Newsletter, which shares a new ministry tool and an encouraging story about God’s Spirit preparing someone for service.