The following is a recent interview I did on the topic of happiness. I appreciated being able to address how someone who is depressed can still move toward experiencing a deep happiness and joy in Christ, which is a question I’ve been asked about frequently since my book was released.
Question: When you look at happiness, is there a distinction between joy and happiness?
Randy: Interestingly, this has been taught as if it were fact for many years, and there have been many sermons that say joy and happiness are two different things. But we get them both wrong, because people end up saying things like “Joy is not an emotion” and “Joy is not really based on anything; it‘s some transcendental, vague sort of thing. But don‘t seek happiness, because that‘s from the world, and involves sin.”
Well, a lot of people do seek happiness in sin, just like they seek joy in sin. But God is the true source of happiness, delight, and joy. In my study for Happiness, I went back to the Hebrew and Greek words and saw how there are many of them that are translated in various versions as “joy,” “gladness,” “merriment,” “happiness,” “delight,” “pleasure.” These words all have overlapping meanings. Ninety percent of a Hebrew word that‘s translated “joy” overlaps with one that‘s translated “gladness” or “happiness.” (I’m including here a diagram from Happiness, illustrating this.)
There’s been a false and negative distinction that‘s been made between joy and happiness. Unfortunately, the message we send to those both inside and outside the church is, “Seeking happiness is superficial and shallow. Go out and get it in the world, but you won’t find happiness in God.” But all people seek happiness, and because they do, we’re basically telling them, “Stop seeking what God Himself wired you to seek.” What we should be saying is, “Seek your happiness in the right place—in God Himself.”
Question: Why did we begin to think of happiness as a sin, and if you’re a happy person, something’s wrong with you, because the life of a holy Christian should be one of burden? Can’t we see clearly in the Gospels that Jesus was criticized for going places where He supposedly shouldn‘t have gone, and attending parties He shouldn’t have?
Randy: That’s a great question. I think of Scripture such as Joel 2:21: “Be happy and full of joy, because the Lord has done a wonderful thing.” Or Psalm 40:16: “May all those who seek You be happy and rejoice in You,” as well as all the passages in the Psalms about “shout triumphantly; be happy; rejoice out loud.” These passages of Scripture, for some reason, don‘t resonate with us, because we have these preconceived notions.
And as you say, Jesus Himself was criticized. He wasn’t a glutton and drunkard, but He was accused of being those things. Why? Because He went to parties where people ate and drank, and some people probably were at those parties who were drunkards and gluttons. But you don’t have to be sinning just because you’re in in an environment of happiness.
Question: Someone once said to me, “You Christians look saved, except for your faces.” They meant that we look down and dejected. We’re fearful and don’t have confidence. Why is that? If we’re right with God, why wouldn’t our faces express happiness and joy?
Randy: That’s an important question, and something I addressed in the book. I often hear people say happiness is just based on circumstances. I know what they mean when they say that. But consider what our true circumstances in Christ are. How about Romans 8:35-39: “Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ.” That’s an actual condition, so call that a “circumstance.” It’s an invisible circumstance, but it’s a real one. If you know Jesus, He went to the cross and purchased your eternal happiness. So, let’s frontload that to how we think and live today.
Question: I’ve talked to so many people lately who are really weighed down by life’s circumstances. Maybe they have cancer, or a family member who’s been in an auto accident, or a spouse who has lost a job. There are a lot of sad things that happen in this world, so how can I reconcile the truth you’re talking about with difficult present circumstances?
Randy: I think we should study what Paul said about being sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10). That‘s how he describes the Christian life.
It’s not like bad things aren‘t happening to us. We do have sorrow. This world is full of things that make God sad, but He simultaneously has a happiness that is based in and flows out of Himself. So I think we need to not look at sorrow and happiness as opposites that cannot co-exist. They can and do co-exist. I have preached many memorial services where you see the sadness and the tears for those attending, and then you see how quick people are to laugh as they remember funny and happy things about their loved ones. And if the deceased knew Christ, those in attendance are able to rejoice as they anticipate the reunion that will one day come.
Question: You talked about the longing that a human being has to feel joyful and happy. Because we don’t necessarily seek happiness in the right places, it seems that, particularly in Western culture, we medicate that longing by trying to find happiness through extramarital affairs, materialism, toys, or being busy. So what is the definition of true happiness, and where do we find it?
Randy: We need to ask ourselves where this desire for happiness came from. Sometimes we act as if it came from the devil. Well, the devil knows nothing of true happiness. He once knew happiness in God’s presence, but he gave it up when he sinned and rebelled against God. Now he takes rat poison and wraps it up in happy-looking wrappers. That’s how he tempts us, by offering it to us, because he knows we have this innate desire for happiness.
But the reason we have this built-in desire for happiness is because we’re created in God‘s image. He wired us to want to be happy. Unfortunately, we sometimes disassociate happiness from its true source, which is God Himself.
Satan tempts us by offering us happiness, because he knows that’s what we want. But he offers it in the wrong places, at the wrong times, and in the wrong things. On the other hand, God, who is described in Scripture as the happy God (see 1 Timothy 1:11, 1 Timothy 6:15), says to us, “You can find your true happiness in me. I created all kinds of secondary sources of happiness that point back to Me, the primary source of happiness.”
Question: Was there a time when you had to move from not being happy to embracing happiness?
Randy: I was raised in an unbelieving home, and heard the Gospel for the first time when I was 15 years old. My dad was a tavern owner. My parents had both been previously divorced. They were good people, but they fought and had a lot of problems.
I was so unhappy as a child. In middle school, I was reasonably successful in athletics and was student body president, but I was not fulfilled. I had two jukeboxes in my bedroom because of my dad‘s business with taverns. I remember listening and honestly feeling a sense of both despair and urgency as John Lennon sang, “Help, I really need somebody.” In the pre-computer era, our house had foosball and pool tables, pinball and bowling machines, so it was a popular place to hang out with my friends! But despite having all of these happiness-related toys, and a swimming pool and a nice house, we were not a happy family.
I first heard the Gospel from the church I started attending, mostly to spend time with a girl. (That girl is now my wife. At the time she shouldn’t have been dating me, because I wasn’t a Christian, but I’m sure glad God used it all for good!) Eventually I came to faith in Christ through reading Scripture. When I did, I found in Christ a real happiness. It felt like a weight had been taken off of my heart.
After I’d been a Christian for a while, I noticed my pastor would always talk about Oswald Chambers and his book My Utmost for His Highest (truly a great book) . But in that book, Chambers said happiness has nothing to do with the Christian life, and that God doesn’t care about your happiness—He only cares about your holiness. Chamber actually says, “It is an insult to Jesus Christ to use the word happiness in connection with Him.”
As a young Christian, as I read and heard what he was saying, I thought, Well, it must be true, because he’s saying it. But I’m really much happier now that I know Jesus than I was before. Now, as I read those words, I realize what Oswald Chambers was doing. He was concerned as he saw people looking for happiness in sin. But unfortunately, by condemning happiness in general, he was throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Often when we think of Jesus saying, “You are the light of the world,” we think only of morality and ethics. Of course, that’s certainly part of it. But there‘s also the light of happiness, joy, and gladness. When we walk into a room, the darkness that should be pushed away is not only the darkness of sin, but the darkness of hopelessness, utter depression, and suicidal thoughts of “I don‘t want to live anymore, and I‘m so terribly unhappy.” That light draws people. It’s not simply the light of holiness that draws people to the Gospel. Sometimes the light of happiness is more successful in drawing people to the Gospel—the Good News.
Question: I know there have been times when you struggled with depression. When you’re in that dark place that you don‘t feel God‘s happiness, how do you reach up to Him?
Randy: I think we should begin by saying that God totally understands, and you don’t need to pretend. When you’re feeling depressed and profoundly unhappy, cry out to God like David did. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:1–2). In essence he‘s saying, Lord, I just feel You‘re distant.
In other Psalms we see that David does self-talk. He’ll say, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God” (Psalm 42:11; 43:5). Sometimes we have a tendency to listen to ourselves more than talk to ourselves. We need to talk to ourselves based on Scripture and remind ourselves of the truth of what God’s word says.
One example of helpful self-talk may go something like this: “Yes, the reality is that I feel this way. However, God loves me. God is causing all things to work together for good (Romans 8:28). God has a purpose for everything in my life, including my sadness and depression. He can draw me out of it, but as long as I’m in it, He has a purpose in it.”
I wrote a series of blogs several years ago related to Charles Spurgeon’s depression. There was no man who talked more about happiness and joy (I quote him frequently in Happiness). Yet he experienced a vast amount of depression and melancholy. It seems like a contradiction, but it’s not, because he would speak of the joy and happiness of Christ to move his soul from the state of depression. He was honest and open about his struggles, and it gave him credibility with people.
One of the things I say to people in depression is this: acknowledge it, but realize that even if it lasted the rest of your life in this world (God forbid), that’s a tiny amount of time compared to the true rest of your life. Eternity with Jesus Christ awaits, in which we’ll experience utter and complete happiness, and where He promises, “I will wipe away the tears from every eye.”
Question: What are some things you would suggest someone who is depressed start doing?
Randy: In addition to meditating on Scripture, I would strongly encourage them to gather with people who love Jesus—especially happy people who love Jesus. Misery loves company, but happiness loves company too, and the company that you keep will affect you.
I would tell that person to stop listening to talk radio and step away from the television and smart phone, and instead, get out of the house and enjoy creation. Go outside to read good books and sit in the sunshine. Now I’m from Portland, Oregon, so there’s not always sunshine! But some days the sun breaks out, and those are great days to take a walk. My wife walks our dog, Maggie, and thoroughly enjoys it.
Enjoy God’s creation. Go to a waterfall. Go to the zoo. Take time to pet a dog. You know, there is a delight in animals. If you don’t have a pet, and you’ve never had one, consider getting one. God has used dogs to console me. There have been times where I’ve really been struggling, and it’s been difficult, but then I put my arms around our Golden Retriever, Maggie or our Dalmatian, Moses, who preceded her, or our Springer Spaniel, Champ, who preceded him. I’ve found God can use all of His secondary delights to draw us toward Him as the primary delight.
Go out to admire the night sky and look up at the stars. Take a walk on the beach. Go for a hike. Plant and grow flowers. Smell them! The small things of God’s creation can truly manifest His presence and remind you of His goodness and grace. Practice the habit of gratitude, and list the things you’re thankful for.
Finally, remind yourself that these afflictions may seem heavy and like they’re going to last forever, but the Apostle Paul, who knew a lot about afflictions, called them light and momentary (2 Corinthians 4:17). Remind yourself that God is achieving something through them. They‘re not pointless. For the child of God, there is no pointless suffering.
God is conforming you to the image of Christ and expanding your ministry. So look for the ways that your ministry can expand through prayer and reaching out to someone else who may be struggling with depression. Second Corinthians 1:4 says that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.”
Question: Talk about your research into the happiness of God. You believe that the Lord is not just a God of judgment, but that He is also happy.
Randy: In Happiness, I write about the happiness of Jesus, and in fact, in Hebrews 1, the writer quotes Psalm 45 in reference to Jesus, which says, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” I believe His companions may refer to the entire human race.
Based on that passage, you could ask the question, “Who is the happiest person who has ever lived?” I think the proper answer to that, biblically, is Jesus Christ. When you say that, many people immediately say, “But wait, no. He‘s the Man of Sorrows.” Yes, Scripture calls Jesus the “Man of Sorrows” in Isaiah 52 and 53, describing His redemptive work. Gethsemane through suffering on the Cross? Man of Sorrows. Weeping over Jerusalem? Man of Sorrows.
But when Jesus walked the earth, He drew people to Himself, not because He only had sorrow in His life, but because I think His default state was one of happiness—happiness in His Father and His Father‘s plan. He had participated in the ancient happiness that far preceded the creation of the world itself: the happiness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit delighting in each other. The incredible thing is that by His grace, He invites us into it: “Come and share your master's happiness!” (Matthew 25:23, NIV).
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.