This interview with Jonathan Petersen, manager of marketing for Bible Gateway, was originally posted on biblegateway.com,
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:
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)!
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
The gospel of Messiah’s redemptive work is called “good news of happiness” (Isaiah 52:7 ESV), synonymous with what Luke calls “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
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.”
Photo by David Bartus
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.