What Is Happiness? (Introduction to Happiness by Randy Alcorn)
Be happy and full of joy, because the Lord has done a wonderful thing. Joel 2:21, NCV
In him the day-spring from on high has visited the world; and happy are we, for ever happy, if that day-star arise in our hearts. —Matthew Henry
I first heard about Christ as a teenager, visiting a church youth group. Initially, Bible stories seemed to me like the Greek mythology and comics I loved. Then I read the Gospels, and I came to believe that Jesus was real, and superheroes are his shadows. I felt a profound happiness I’d never known.
My heartfelt gladness was the result of being born again, forgiven, and indwelt by God’s Spirit. This “joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12) stood in stark contrast to the emptiness I’d felt before hearing the gospel’s “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). My parents immediately noticed the change. (Mom liked it; Dad didn’t.)
I never considered the things I gave up to follow Christ as sacrifices—mainly because they hadn’t brought me real happiness. My worst days as a believer seemed better than my best days before knowing Christ. Jesus meant everything to me. I wasn’t attempting to be happy; I simply was happy.
Having known Jesus for more than four decades now, I realize that my story isn’t universal. Not everyone who comes to Christ experiences the dramatic increase in happiness that I did. Many do, but some see that happiness gradually fade.
Nothing is more annoying than reading a book by a naturally gleeful person who’s a cheerleader for happiness. I’ve known a few people with perpetually sunny dispositions, but my own nature is reflective and, at times, melancholic. I’ve experienced seasons of depression, both before and since coming to faith in Christ—some due to my personality type and emotional makeup (and perhaps genetics), some triggered by my long-term physical illness (insulin-dependent diabetes), and some the result of adverse circumstances.
I’m no stranger to unhappiness—in this world under the curse of evil and suffering, something would be wrong if I were. I’ve researched the Holocaust, walked through the Killing Fields of Cambodia, written at length on persecution and the problem of evil and suffering, and have walked alongside people who have experienced profound tragedy and grief. In short, I’d be the last person to write a breezy book on happiness that ignores life’s difficulties and denies the struggles of living in a fallen world. But by God’s grace, as the years have passed, I’ve experienced a more consistent heartfelt gladness and delight in Christ. That—not perpetual and unsustainable ecstasy—is what this book is about.
Rest assured, this book is not about pasting on a false smile in the midst of heartache. It’s about discovering a reasonable, attainable, and delightful happiness in Christ that transcends difficult circumstances. This vision is realistic because it’s built on God’s all-encompassing sovereignty, love, goodness, grace, gladness, and redemptive purposes in our lives.
Until Christ completely cures us and this world, our happiness will be punctuated by times of great sorrow. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be predominantly happy in Christ. Being happy as the norm rather than the exception is not wishful thinking. It’s based on solid facts: God secured our eternal happiness through a cross and an empty tomb. He is with us and in us right this moment. And he tells us to be happy in him.
“Positive thinking” says we can always be happy if we look on the bright side and don’t deal with negative things (such as sin, suffering, judgment, and Hell). I don’t believe that. Nor do I embrace the God-as-genie prosperity gospel preached by name-it-and-claim-it folks, which promises happiness through perpetual health, wealth, and success—if only we muster enough faith.
This health-and-wealth philosophy isn’t unique to Christians. In The Secret, Rhonda Byrne tells about Colin, a ten-year-old boy who was dismayed by long waits for rides at Disney World. He’d seen The Secret movie, so he focused on the thought that tomorrow he wouldn’t have to wait in line. What happened? Colin’s family was chosen to be Epcot’s “First Family” for the day, putting them first in every line.[i]
Of course, we should be grateful when God sends us fun surprises. But it’s one thing to be happy when such things occur and another to expect, demand, or lay claim to them. Our models should be people such as Amy Carmichael (1867–1951), who brought the gospel to countless children she rescued from temple prostitution in India. She experienced a great deal of physical suffering and never had a furlough in her fifty-five years as a missionary. Yet she wrote, “There is nothing dreary and doubtful about [life]. It is meant to be continually joyful. . . . We are called to a settled happiness in the Lord whose joy is our strength.”[ii] This book is about the surprising “settled happiness” that God makes possible despite life’s difficulties. Rich and durable, this happiness is ours today because Christ is here; it’s ours tomorrow because Christ will be there; and it’s ours forever because he will never leave us. What I’m writing of is not a superficial “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy that ignores human suffering. The day hasn’t yet come when God will “wipe away every tear from [his children’s] eyes” (Revelation 21:4). But it will come. And this reality has breathtaking implications for our present happiness.
We all know happiness when we see and experience it.
Webster’s Dictionary defines happiness as—wait for it . . . “the state of being happy.”[iii] Synonyms include pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, merriment, gaiety, joy, joyfulness, joviality, delight, good spirits, lightheartedness, and well-being.[iv]
The Dictionary of Bible Themes gives a more biblical definition of happiness: “A state of pleasure or joy experienced both by people and by God. . . . True happiness derives from a secure and settled knowledge of God and a rejoicing in his works and covenant faithfulness.”[v]
Among Christ-followers, happiness was once a positive, desirable word. Only in recent times have happiness and joy been set in contrast with each other. I believe this is biblically and historically ungrounded and has significant downsides, as we’ll see later.
Are laughter, celebration, and happiness God-created gifts, or are they ambushes from Satan and our sin nature that incur God’s disapproval? Our answer determines whether our faith in God is dragged forward by duty or propelled by delight.
My best times with my wife, Nanci, and our family and friends are filled with Christ-centered interaction and heartfelt laughter. These two experiences aren’t at odds but are intertwined. The God we love is the enemy of sin and the creator and friend of fun and laughter.
Like all God’s gifts, happiness can be twisted.
Many Christians in church history knew that happiness, gladness, feasting, and partying are God’s gifts. Can these good things be warped, selfish, superficial, and sinful? Of course. In a fallen world, what can’t be?
Believers and unbelievers alike recognize that there’s a negative form of happiness, which is all about self-gratification at others’ expense. The philosophy “do whatever makes you happy” gets considerable press, but people who live that way end up pathetic and despised.
Is there selfish and superficial happiness? Sure. There’s also selfish and superficial love, peace, loyalty, and trust. We shouldn’t throw out Christ-centered happiness with the bathwater of self-centered happiness.
Although the quest to be happy isn’t new, people today seem to be particularly thirsty for happiness. Our culture is characterized by increasing depression and anxiety, particularly among the young.[vi] Studies show that more people feel bad than good after using social media; photos and updates of everyone else having a great time leave observers feeling left out—like they don’t measure up.
Numerous Christians live in daily sadness, anger, anxiety, or loneliness, thinking these feelings are inevitable given their circumstances. They lose joy over traffic jams, a stolen credit card, or increased gas prices. They read Scripture with blinders on, missing the reasons for happiness expressed on nearly every page.
Research indicates that there is “little correlation between the circumstances of people’s lives and how happy they are.”[vii] Yet when people respond to the question “Why aren’t you happy?” they tend to focus on their current difficult circumstances. In our fallen world, troubles and challenges are constants. Happy people look beyond their circumstances to someone so big that by his grace, even great difficulties become manageable—and provide opportunities for a deeper kind of happiness.
Happiness is often elusive.
For many people, happiness comes and goes, changing with the winds of circumstance. Such happiness isn’t solid or grounded. We can’t count on it tomorrow, much less forever.
We say to ourselves, I’ll be happy when . . . Yet either we don’t get what we want and are unhappy, or we do get what we want and are still unhappy.
Sometimes happiness eludes us because we demand perfection in an imperfect world. It’s the Goldilocks syndrome: everything must be “just right,” or we’re unhappy. And nothing is ever just right! So we don’t enjoy the ordinary days that are a little, quite a bit, or even mostly right.
Sometimes happiness eludes us because we fail to recognize it when it comes or because we fail to contemplate and treasure it. Some people are only happy when they’re unhappy. If they have nothing to complain about, they don’t know what to do with themselves. But habitual unhappiness is a pitiful way to live.
Our happiness will remain unstable until we realize our status in the light of eternity. The truth is—and the Bible makes it clear—this life is temporary, but we will live endlessly somewhere, in a place that’s either far better or far worse than here.
We can find lasting and settled happiness by saying yes to the God who created and redeems us and by embracing a biblical worldview. When we look at the world and our daily lives through the lens of redemption, reasons for happiness abound. And while these reasons are at times obscured, they remain permanent.
Everyone has a theology of happiness—but is yours any good?
Theologian J. I. Packer writes, “Every Christian is a theologian. Simply by speaking of God, whatever you say, you become a theologian. . . . The question then is whether you are good or bad at what you are doing.”[viii]
In order to be competent theologians when we speak about God and happiness, we need to go back centuries and millennia rather than months or decades. My many quotations from centuries past may appear to make this book less relevant, but they actually make it far more relevant. That’s because they’ve stood the test of time. They aren’t trending on Twitter today, only to disappear into tomorrow’s graveyard of triviality.
C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) spoke of “chronological snobbery,” the flawed belief that newer ideas are inherently better. The people of God who went before us lived the Christian life in difficult times and places. What Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, John Bunyan, John Wesley, and Charles Spurgeon said about happiness cries out for attention. Let the Puritans serve as a wake-up call as well—they often experienced and spoke of profound happiness in seemingly unbearable circumstances. Like skilled blacksmiths, they forged happiness on Scripture’s anvil, under the severe hammer of life . . . all the while smiling at the bountiful beauties of God’s creation and providence.
My hope is that this book will bring balance to your worldview and your walk with Christ by correcting—through Scripture and Christian history—widespread and deep-seated misconceptions about happiness.
Why such a big book? Because what God’s Word says about happiness, and what God’s people have said about it, is not a puddle, a pond, or even a lake. It is an ocean.
I invite you to join a long line of God-worshipers in celebrating the Creator’s happiness, his design for his image bearers to enter into his happiness, and his willingness to take extreme measures to purchase our happiness.
An overview of this book’s direction.
Many people spend their lives waiting to be happy. If only they can enter the perfect relationship, graduate, move, lose weight, find a better job, buy that new car, get married, have children, win the lottery, have grandchildren, or retire—then they’ll be happy.
Anyone who waits for happiness will never be happy. Happiness escapes us until we understand why we should be happy, change our perspective, and develop habits of happiness. In researching this book, I’ve experienced a deeper, more biblical, more Christ-centered happiness than I’ve ever known. I hope reading it will make you as happy as writing it has made me.
Knowing where we’re headed will help you make sense of this journey.
Part 1 examines our longing and search for happiness.
We’ll address God’s desire for our happiness and how he has wired us to seek happiness—a wiring that remained after Adam and Eve’s fall. We’ll explore sin’s land mines and discover happiness at its only true source.
We’ll see that statements such as “God isn’t concerned about our happiness, only our holiness” and “God calls us to joy, not happiness” are misguided and unbiblical.
We’ll look at the modern evangelical Christian skepticism concerning happiness and see how it skews our worldview and undermines our effectiveness in sharing the gospel.
Part 2 explores the happiness of the triune God.
Though I was happy as a young Christian, there’s a paradigm-shifting doctrine I was never taught in church, Bible college, or seminary: the happiness of God himself. I’ve read many Christian books on joy that make no mention of God’s joy. It’s something I now believe should be at the heart of a Christian worldview.
This is why I give considerable attention to the biblical teaching that God is happy. Only when we understand this can we believe that God wants us to be happy. Scripture makes this statement about imitating Jesus: “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). If Jesus walked around mostly miserable, we should be miserable too. If he was happy, we should be happy. (If we’re to be Christlike, we’d better learn what Christ is like!)
If God is happy, then this world’s unhappiness is a deviation from God and his original design. Scripture reveals that even our present struggles, which trigger unhappiness, are part of his larger plan to bring greater and everlasting happiness. Even here and now, God’s children have every reason to be the world’s happiest people.
Part 3 surveys the numerous biblical passages that speak of happiness, joy, and gladness.
We’ll observe the astounding scope and frequency of the Hebrew and Greek words for happiness, which demonstrate how the Bible repeatedly shows that our Creator wants us happy. Here are just a few:
- May all those who seek you be happy and rejoice in you! (Psalm 40:16, NET)
- You are the Lord’s people! So celebrate and praise the only God. (Psalm 97:12, CEV)
- Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth! Be happy! Rejoice out loud! (Psalm 98:4, CEB)
- You also should be happy and full of joy with me. (Philippians 2:18, NCV)
- Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NKJV)
We’ll discover that some of the Hebrew and Greek words used to convey the meaning of happy or happiness aren’t translated as such in most English Bible versions. We’ll see how words translated joy, gladness, and delight are synonyms of happiness.
Part 4 addresses ways to live a Christ-centered life of happiness.
When we seek holiness at the expense of happiness or happiness at the expense of holiness, we lose both the joy of being holy and the happiness birthed by obedience. God commands holiness, knowing that when we follow his plan, we’ll be happy. He also commands happiness, which makes obeying him not only duty, but also pleasure.
Many Christians live as if their faith has drained their happiness! But the same Jesus who calls for sacrifice, promising that we’ll share in his suffering, also tells us to lay our burdens at his feet. We’re to take up our crosses daily, yet he promises that his burden is light. Life isn’t easy, but believers have the benefit of walking the hard roads side by side with a loving Father, a Son who’s our friend, and a comforting Holy Spirit.
Thomas Watson (1620–1686), a Puritan preacher and author, said, “He has no design upon us, but to make us happy. . . . Who should be cheerful, if not the people of God?”[ix] Did you catch that? A Puritan is saying that God’s design is to make us happy. What did Watson know that we don’t?
British preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) said, “Those who are ‘beloved of the Lord’ must be the most happy and joyful people to be found anywhere upon the face of the earth.”[x] Our happiness makes the gospel contagiously appealing; our unhappiness makes it alarmingly unattractive. But is the church today known for its happiness or unhappiness?
We’ll discover how we as individuals and the church as a whole can be known for being genuinely happy. When we search for happiness apart from Christ, we find loneliness, confusion, and misery. When we focus on God and others, we find untold happiness. I hope that as you read you’ll ask God to speak to you and you’ll contemplate the Scripture at the book’s core. May you find greater happiness in God than you’ve ever known.
And may you experience more delight in sharing with others the startlingly “good news of great joy”: eternal happiness in Jesus . . . starting right now.
Learn more about Randy's book Happiness.
[i]. Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books, 2006), 88.
[ii]. Frank Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 1953), chapter 25.
[iii]. Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (Britannica Digital Learning, 2014), s.v. “happiness,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/happiness.
[v]. Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009), no. 5874.
[vi]. Gavin Andrews and Scott Henderson, eds., Unmet Need in Psychiatry: Problems, Resources, Responses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 239.
[vii]. Dennis Prager, Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual (New York: ReganBooks, 1998), 115.
[viii]. J. I. Packer, Hot Tub Religion: Christian Living in a Materialistic World (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1987), 2.
[ix]. Thomas Watson, A Divine Cordial: Romans 8:28.
[x]. Charles H. Spurgeon, “Titles of Honor” (Sermon #3300).