Based on books I’ve read, sermons I’ve heard, and conversations I’ve had, it’s clear many Christians believe that humanity’s desire for happiness was birthed in the Fall and is part of the Curse. Hence, the desire to be happy is equated with the desire to sin.
But what if our desire for happiness was a gift designed by God before sin entered the world? If we believed this, how would it affect our lives, parenting, church, ministry, business, sports, entertainment, and our relationships with God? How would it affect our approach to sharing the Gospel?
Augustine asked rhetorically, “Is not a happy life the thing that all desire, and is there anyone who altogether desires it not? He added: “But where did they acquire the knowledge of it, that they so desire it? Where have they seen it, that they so love it?” (The Confessions of St. Augustine).
God has written his law on our hearts (see Romans 2:15). There’s compelling evidence he’s also written on our hearts a powerful desire for happiness. In fact, this has been the consensus of theologians throughout church history. Since we inherited our sin nature from Adam, it’s likely we inherited from our Eden-dwelling ancestors a sense of their pre-Fall happiness. Why else do we long for something better than the only world we’ve ever lived in?
Before the Fall, Adam and Eve undoubtedly anticipated good food, which likely tasted even better than imagined. But after the Fall, the opposite became true. We anticipate more of food, work, relationships, and everything else than what we experience. We live in a darkened world, but our disappointments demonstrate we retain expectations and hopes of a brighter one.
Were we merely the product of natural selection and survival of the fittest, we’d have no grounds for believing any ancient happiness existed. But even those who’ve never been taught about the Fall and the Curse instinctively know something is seriously wrong with this world. We’re nostalgic for an Eden we’ve only seen hints of. These hints are trickles of water in our parched mouths, causing us to crave and search for rivers of pure, cold water.
Anglican bishop J. C. Ryle (1816–1900) wrote, “Happiness is what all mankind want to obtain—the desire for it is deeply planted in the human heart” (Happiness: The Secret of Happiness as Found in the Bible).
If this desire is “deeply planted” in our hearts, who planted it? If not God, who else? Satan? The devil isn’t happy and has no happiness to give. He’s a liar and murderer, dispensing rat poison in colorful, happy-looking wrappers. He hates God and us, and his strategy is convincing us to look for happiness everywhere but in its only ultimate Source.
Did Adam and Eve desire happiness before they sinned? Did they enjoy the food God provided because it tasted sweet? Did they sit in the sun because it felt warm and jump into the water because it felt refreshing? Was God pleased or displeased when they did? Our answers will dramatically affect the way we see both God and the world. If we believe God is happy, then it makes sense that part of being made in his image is having both the desire and capacity for happiness.
Sadly, Christ-followers routinely say things like, “God doesn’t want you to be happy, God wants you to be holy.” But holiness and happiness are two sides of the same coin—we dare not pit them against each other. Not all attempts at holiness honor God any more than all attempts at happiness honor him. The Pharisees had a passionate desire to be holy on their own terms and for their own glory. Christ’s response? “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). God wants us to seek true, Christ-centered happiness in him, while Satan wants us to seek false holiness with self-congratulatory pride.
Other Christians say, “God wants you blessed, not happy,” and “God is interested in your growth not your happiness.” Such statements may sound spiritual, but they’re not.
Does the message that God doesn’t want us to be happy really promote what Scripture calls the “good news of happiness” (Isaiah 52:7)? Or does it actually obscure the Gospel?
What good father doesn’t want his children to be happy, i.e. to delight in good things? If we tell our churches and children that God doesn’t want them happy, what are we teaching them? That God isn’t a good Father? Should we be surprised when children raised with this message turn away from God, the Bible, and the church to seek from the world the happiness our Creator wired them to want? As Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Man is unable not to wish to be happy” (Summa Theologica).
By creating distance between the gospel and happiness, we send the unbiblical message that the Christian faith is dull and miserable. We should speak against sin but hold up Christ as the happiness everyone longs for. If we don’t, then we become partly responsible for the world’s tragic and widespread misperception that Christianity takes away happiness instead of bringing it.
Separating God from happiness and our longing for happiness undermines the attractiveness of God and the appeal of the Christian worldview. When we send the message “God doesn’t want you to be happy,” we might as well say, “God doesn’t want you to breathe.” When we say “Stop wanting to be happy,” it’s like saying, “Stop thirsting.”
People must breathe and drink and seek happiness because that’s how God made us. The only question is whether we will breathe clean air, drink pure water, and seek our happiness in Jesus.