Does Obeying God Mean Sacrificing Our Happiness?
Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full (John 16:24).
It is a Christian duty . . . for everyone to be as happy as he can. —C. S. Lewis
You may be unaccustomed to thinking that God commands us to be happy or to do things that make us happy. But He does. And I’d wager that since the outcome of our obedience would be our happiness, these are commands we would all want to obey—provided we were thinking clearly.
Some people have an intuitive resistance to the notion that happiness is unbiblical, and rightfully so. A blogger says, “Happiness isn’t in the Bible? But what about all the commands to rejoice? What about laughter? Please tell me I’m not supposed to always be heavy-hearted, trudging along and begrudging obedience. I want to be a happy Christian!”[i]
Happiness is a privilege. However, since God repeatedly calls upon us to rejoice, delight, and be glad in Him, we have an obligation to actually do so.
This makes sense only if the God we love is happy, if the gospel message we embrace and proclaim is happy, if Heaven is a happy place, and if it makes God happy for us to be happy. It makes sense if we understand that people long to be happy and won’t turn to Jesus if they believe there’s no happiness in Him. Others will judge whether there’s happiness in Jesus by whether they see happiness in His followers. Hence, our happiness is, in multiple respects, a Christian duty.
But what an incredibly wonderful duty it is . . . like being required to eat Mom’s apple pie! We’re accustomed to thinking of duty as drudgery. Yet we know that the duties of loving a spouse or caring for a child or serving one’s country can bring satisfaction, contentment, and happiness.
People have told me it’s easy to speak of happiness in a prosperous country, but how dare we say God expects those impoverished and suffering to be joyful? In fact, poor Christians often have joy that radiates far beyond what we typically see in Western churches, and they have much to teach us. I’ve studied more than 2,700 Scripture passages where words such as joy, happiness, gladness, merriment, pleasure, celebration, cheer, laughter, delight, jubilation, feasting, exultation, and celebration are used. Throw in the words blessed and blessing, which often connote happiness, and the number increases.
Even Jeremiah, who’s called “the weeping prophet” since he was brokenhearted over the tragic suffering of God’s people, spoke prophecies of happiness. He saw the future—some of it in this world’s Jerusalem and much of it in the New Jerusalem to come—and in it he was given glimpses of God’s promised happiness.
God is clear that seeking happiness—or joy, gladness, delight, or pleasure—through sin is wrong and fruitless. But seeking happiness in Him is good and right.
So should we feel guilty for being unhappy, struggling with depression, and being sad at the suffering in our lives and others’ lives? No, but we should feel a liberating hope that Jesus, who knows infinitely more about suffering than we do, offers us and calls us to greater happiness than we’ve known. As Jeremiah and Jesus wept, we, too, will sometimes weep—and so we should. But if we’re not experiencing some degree of happiness in God, then we’re not obeying God’s commands and we’re missing out on the abundant life Jesus came to give us (see John 10:10).
Let’s say yes to His offered gift of happiness in Him. Your temperament may be like mine—not naturally joyful, but more melancholic and prone to depression. You may not become the happiest person you know, but just as I have, you, too, can become far happier in Christ than you ever could have on your own.
Over the years, as I have contemplated Scripture, walked with God, and sought to cultivate an eternal perspective, my happiness has increased. None of us are prisoners of our natural temperaments. We too quickly underestimate the Holy Spirit’s power to transform us gradually into the image of Christ (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).
The fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians 5:22-23, including joy, is the Holy Spirit doing a supernatural work in our lives. What we cannot do in ourselves He can do in us when we yield ourselves to him.
I talked with a young woman who viewed the Christian life as one of utter dullness. She knew that following Christ was the right thing to do, but she was certain it would mean sacrificing her happiness.
Unless her view changes dramatically, her spiritual future is bleak. It isn’t in our nature to continually say no to what we believe would make us happy—or to say yes to something we think would make us unhappy. (Don’t mistake perseverance for choosing unhappiness—the man who faithfully loves his wife suffering from dementia is not choosing unhappiness but rather choosing the happiness of honoring his wife, keeping his vows, maintaining his self-respect, and hearing God’s “well done.”)
So where did this young woman, who was raised in a fine Christian family and church, acquire such an unbiblical notion? Somehow she, like many of us, missed the point of what God calls the good news of great joy.
Around 150 years ago, Pastor Charles Spurgeon told his church what pastors today should tell theirs: “God made human beings, as He made His other creatures, to be happy. . . . They are in their right element when they are happy.”[ii]
Celebration and gladness of heart have characterized the church, including the suffering church, throughout history. Scripturally, the culture of God’s people is not one of misery, anger, and whining but of joy, happiness, gratitude, eating and drinking, singing and dancing, and making music. It’s not the people who know God who have reason to be miserable—it’s those who don’t.
What a wonderful God you are to not only provide a means of happiness but also to command us to be happy even as you command us to be holy. How happy we should be to love and be loved by someone as delightful as you! Thank you for creating us so that our happiness increases as our gratitude multiplies. This is joy unspeakable. We praise you for calling us to ever-greater happiness in you, your presence, your Word, your creation, and your work in our lives and in the world around us.
Excerpted from 60 Days of Happiness: Discover God's Promise of Relentless Joy.
[i] A Lois Lane, “Experiment 3.3: Why I Cannot Be a Happy Single, Part 1,” The Singleness Experiments (blog), https://singlenessexperiments.wordpress.com/category/uncategorized/.