Seeking to Be Happy in Christ: My Interview with Bible Gateway
This interview with Jonathan Petersen, manager of marketing for Bible Gateway, was originally posted on biblegateway.com,
Your book Happiness challenges the idea that God wants his followers to be holy but not happy. What do you mean?
Holiness doesn’t mean abstaining from pleasure; holiness means recognizing Jesus as the source of life’s greatest pleasure. Spurgeon put it this way: “Holiness is the royal road to happiness. The death of sin is the life of joy.” For those of us who are Christ-centered believers, our lives should overflow with both holiness and happiness.
In Revelation 20:6, makarios, a Greek word meaning “happy,” is joined with hagios, meaning “holy.” The following versions capture this beautiful combination:
- Happy and holy [is] he who is having part in the first rising again. (Rev. 20:6 Young’s Literal Translation)
- Those who are raised from the dead during this first time are happy and holy. The second death has no power over them. (Rev. 20:6 New Life Version)
- Happy and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! (Rev. 20:6 PHILLIPS)
Sadly, too often our message to the world becomes a false gospel that lays upon people an impossible burden, as in “to be a Christian, you must give up wanting to be happy and instead choose to be holy.” In fact, happiness and holiness are inseparable. “Give up happiness; choose holiness instead” is not good news, and therefore it is not the “good news of happiness” spoken of in Scripture (Isaiah 52:7)!
Does it matter whether we believe that God is happy?
It matters immensely. If God isn’t happy, he can’t be our source of happiness. An unhappy God would never value nor assure the everlasting happiness of his creatures. We would never ask for grace from an ungracious God, kindness from an unkind God, or happiness from an unhappy God. It would be like asking a poor man for a million dollars. He can’t give what he doesn’t have.
If God were not happy, the fact that all people seek to be happy—as Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, the Puritans, Wesley, Spurgeon, and many others have observed—would be a cruel tragedy, since it would mean that God cannot give us what we most deeply desire. At best he might deliver us from the miseries of Hell. But Heaven can overflow with happiness only if God himself overflows with happiness. Our Creator’s happiness guarantees a happy ending to the story that will never end.
The Bible frequently depicts God as being delighted and pleased, and twice God is described as makarios (1 Tim. 1:11; 6:15).
Does the Bible distinguish between happiness, blessedness, joy, and gladness?
We imagine sharp distinctions between Hebrew and Greek synonyms and also the chosen English words, such as joyful, glad, or happy. Only when we recognize how meanings overlap in words from the same semantic domain, or word family, will we be saved from making artificial distinctions between the corresponding English words. In fact, these words are far more alike than different.
Is happiness much different from joy?
Judging from countless hundreds of articles, books, and sermons, you’d think the distinction between joy and happiness is biblical. It’s not. Here’s a sampling of the more than one hundred Bible verses in various translations that use joy and happiness together:
- For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor. (Esther 8:16, NIV)
- I will turn their mourning into joy…and bring happiness out of grief. (Jeremiah 31:13, HCSB)
- Give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy. (Proverbs 23:25, NLT)
The relationship between joy and happiness in these passages refutes two common claims: (1) that the Bible doesn’t talk about happiness, and (2) that joy and happiness have contrasting meanings. In fact, the Bible overflows with accounts of God’s people being happy in him.
How should the Beatitudes be viewed in light of happiness?
In the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:2-12 and Luke 6:20-23), the word makarios occurs repeatedly. It’s significant that Jesus didn’t say, “Happy in God are the following…” and then give a grocery list including “the poor in spirit,” “mourners,” and “the meek.” Instead, he repeated makarios with each statement, revealing this word as his central emphasis.
The word “happy” isn’t just the literal meaning of asher and makarios—it’s also a commonly used word that most people understand. First-century readers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke also knew the meaning of makarios. So in the Beatitudes, the down-trodden, weary, and sorrow-laden listeners heard Jesus say, nine times in a row, “Happy are you…” These statements must have stunned them.
In what way are churches failing to offer the happiness the world longs for?
Unfortunately, I believe the modern church is often driven more by duty than delight in God. The misguided distinction between joy and happiness has played a part in driving people away from the happiness the Gospel offers. To declare joy sacred, and happiness secular, closes the door to dialogue with unbelievers. If someone is told that joy is the opposite of happiness, any thoughtful person would say, “In that case, I don’t want joy!”
The word “happiness” has historically had a common meaning for both believers and unbelievers—and for many it still does. Until recent decades, it’s been a bridge between the church and world—one we can’t afford to burn. If we say the gospel won’t bring happiness, any perceptive listener should respond, “Then how is it good news?” We need to reverse the trend. Let’s redeem the word “happiness” in light of both Scripture and church history. Our message shouldn’t be “Don’t seek happiness,” but “You’ll find in Jesus the happiness you’ve always longed for.”
What do you want readers of Happiness to do once they finish it?
First, my hope is that readers will meditate on and embrace the Scriptural teaching about God’s happiness. “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Much of the battle for joy hinges on whether we believe God is happy and wants us to be too.
Second, I hope readers will seek to cultivate a Christ-centered happiness that will affect every area of their lives and will spill over into the lives of their family, friends, and acquaintances. People are drawn to Christ when they see true happiness in his followers and are pushed away when they see us chronically unhappy. (Sure, we sometimes sorrow or battle depression, but rejoicing in God is still possible.)
What are your thoughts about how using Bible Gateway and/or the Bible Gateway App can contribute to a person’s happiness?
I use Bible Gateway or its app virtually every day; usually multiple times a day. I went to it frequently to compare translations of nearly every verse I cite in Happiness, the book, and God’s Promise of Happiness, the booklet.
Next, use your keyboard function (for example, for PC users depress the “Ctrl” and “F” keys simultaneously) to search for the word “happy” on that same page and you’ll immediately see it highlighted in 14 translations that use “happy” instead of “blessed.” In 1611, when the King James Version used it in the Psalms and beatitudes, “blessed” meant to be happy in God. Today, though, it sounds more like a holiness word than a happiness word.
People are unhappy because they listen to the thousands of unhappy voices clamoring for attention. Joy comes from listening to and believing words of joy from the source of joy. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). When we follow him, we’re happy. When we don’t, we’re not.
There’s no place we can go to hear God speak authoritatively, to hear his voice with complete confidence, other than the Bible itself.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul…. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:7-8 NASB).
As we listen to, meditate on, and respond to God’s Word, our souls are restored from sin and unhappiness to righteousness and happiness.