Holiness and Happiness: Randy Alcorn’s Journey of Transformation and Joy
This article by Jessi Strong originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Bible Study Magazine.
Growing up in a non-Christian home, Randy Alcorn’s first thoughts of God and spirituality were of emptiness and absence. With only limited exposure to the Bible, Alcorn—now a speaker, author, and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries—recalls a sort of spiritual awakening as a young teenager, when his passionate hobby was astronomy. “I would go out at night and look out at the stars; and one particular night, I located the great galaxy of Andromeda, containing over a trillion stars. I was looking at it through my telescope, and I had read that it was 2.5 million light years away; so that if it exploded tonight, it could still be seen on Earth for another 2.5 million years,” Alcorn recalls.
“I felt a sense of awe, and I just wept because the universe was so great and I was so small; I had no clue what it was all about.” When he came to faith in Christ a few years later, Alcorn says everything snapped into place. “When I heard the gospel, it totally resonated. When I read about Jesus, it just filled in those empty gaps. I think probably the single greatest thing that I sensed in my conversion was a deep-seated happiness that God was real and joy-giving, and now I was experiencing what I had always longed for.”
Learning Faithful Work
After his conversion, Alcorn began reading the Bible voraciously. He wanted to learn everything there was to know about Jesus. About a year later, he went with a couple from his church to a Bible class at Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, OR (now Multnomah University).
“It was about 15 miles from where I lived and it was a Monday night class with Dr. John G. Mitchell, who was a cofounder of Multnomah. The first year he taught the Gospel of John. And then the next year we went back and there was another class on the book of Hebrews. Eventually, someone explained to me that this place is a Bible college, and what they do at the Bible college is actually study the Bible. I said, ‘Classes like Dr. Mitchell's? That's what you actually do? That's your college that you go to?’ And I knew in a heartbeat that was where I wanted to go.”
Alcorn recalls, “My first thought wasn't to go into ministry or to build a career; my first thought was like Paul said in Philippians 3: ‘I want to know Christ.’ Paul said this after knowing Christ for 30 years. I’d known Christ for just a couple of years, and I just wanted to know God and His Word.”
Alcorn’s new relationship with Christ also transformed his relationship with his alcoholic father. Before, Alcorn says he felt relief on nights when he came home from football practice to an empty driveway. “I didn't want him to be there because sadly, I actually hated my dad. But when I was converted, it was like a light switched on inside me, and I went from hating him to loving him and wanting to see him come in faith to Christ.”
Alcorn shared the gospel with his dad several times over the next 30 years, and was rebuffed each time. His father was adamantly opposed to the Gospel. But before his father died in his 80s, when he was in great pain in a hospital, he allowed Randy to walk him through verses in Romans 3, 6 and 10, and to pray with him. His dad repented and turned to Christ—an event Alcorn didn’t foresee happening.
“Scripture puts a great emphasis on the importance of our faith but sometimes we make it all about our faith in what God’s going to do, so that if we don’t have faith God will never act. But by that time I had zero faith that my dad was going to come to Christ. But God did it. And in doing so, He demonstrated that it was His work of grace, and it was not dependent on my confidence. If it had been, it wouldn't have happened.”
“It was probably the most powerful event in my life. I literally knew no one who was more opposed to the gospel than my dad. Nobody. I was so stunned it was like, crossing the Red Sea? No big deal compared to my dad coming to faith in Christ.”
Journey to Ministry
Alcorn’s persistence with his father also illustrates the faithfulness with which he’s learned to approach ministry over the years, first as a young Christian, then as a pastor, and later as director for Eternal Perspective Ministries.
During his time at Multnomah, Alcorn felt a strong pull to be involved in missions work overseas. After graduation, while in seminary, he decided to help plant a church in the Portland area.
“The next thing I knew, at 22 years old, I was a pastor. I loved ministering to people, even if it wasn’t overseas. Eventually, that thirst for missions came back to me, though, and as the church grew and more people came on staff, I was able to serve as our first missions pastor.”
Thirteen years after the church started, Alcorn became active with a pro-life group staging peaceful, non-violent interventions outside abortion clinics in Portland. He was arrested several times and was eventually sued by a clinic. When he learned that his wages at the church would be garnished by the clinic, he immediately resigned.
“I didn’t want to put the church in that position. It was one thing for me to follow my conscience and perform civil disobedience, but another thing to involve the church,” he explains. “So one day I was a pastor at a large, thriving church with no plans to go anywhere else, and the next day I was unemployed and starting my own nonprofit ministry.”
Eternal Perspective Ministries is a teaching ministry, based mostly around Alcorn’s writing and speaking. Alcorn chose the name from 2 Corinthians 4:16–18, because at first he didn’t have a clear picture of what his mission field would be.
“I had just written Money, Possessions, and Eternity and in it I used the illustration of the dot and the line: This life is a dot—it begins and it ends; it’s brief. But from that dot, a line extends that goes out for eternity. Second Corinthians 4:18 says, ‘So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ So if we’re smart, we’re going to live for the line, not just for the time we have in the dot—that’s eternal perspective.”
Starting a nonprofit ministry was not an easy transition for Alcorn. He went from the camaraderie of a large pastoral team—with daily conversations and ministry opportunities—to the isolation of writing from a home office and long days spent in front of a computer. “I still met with people and reached out to them, but I no longer had staff and elders meetings and conversations in office hallways. I wasn’t counseling people all day.”
As a result, Alcorn says his productivity kicked into overdrive. “When I was a pastor, I did some writing, but I didn’t feel right taking too much time away from my duties as a pastor. All of a sudden, one of my job descriptions was writing.”
Since Alcorn began writing full-time in 1990, he has written more than 50 books, booklets and study guides. He has published fiction, devotionals, children’s books, apologetics handbooks, and comprehensive works on theological topics.
Alcorn doesn’t see each book as an individual project. “When I'm going to get really serious about a subject, I write a comprehensive book where I'm thoroughly covering the ground on a given subject. Then out of those longer books—after I’ve done all the research and I feel like I’ve got a grasp on the subject—I write smaller books on the same subject. Often they’re somewhat derivative, but I feel that they are often better books than they would have been, because I’ve had a chance to absorb and distill all the information.”
Alcorn’s latest large-scale project was published in 2015 and titled Happiness—a topic he decided to tackle after noticing the word “happiness” buried under words such as “blessed” and set in artificial contrast to joy.
“Two of the Hebrew and Greek words translated ‘blessed’ mean ‘happy,’” he explains. “A hundred years ago the English word blessed still meant being happy in God. Today Christians often say, ‘If you want to find happiness, you've got to go out in the world. If you want holiness, you find it in Christ and in the church, but we're not about happiness.’ That does a horrible injustice to both happiness and holiness, because in reality they are two sides of the same coin.”
The separation is usually illustrated by contrasting happiness—described as superficial and worldly—with joy, rooted in a relationship with Jesus. Alcorn’s extensive research covers Greek and Hebrew words used in Scripture, and their interpretation, and is peppered with quotations from church fathers, pastors, and theologians from every era of Christianity. He concludes that any division between happiness and joy is a recent, misguided phenomenon: “This whole separation of joy and happiness is false, and it leads us to justify being critical and discontent by saying, ‘Well, I'm not really happy, because that's just superficial and worldly.’”
“The world is not going to be attracted to a gospel or to a church that is pretty much misery-inducing. And that’s how the world so often views us. Now, there really are a lot of Christians that are happy in Jesus and pleasant and delightful, and they make the best neighbors. But, boy, we've managed to send a message that is usually about judgment and criticism.”
“Do you want to spend eternity with miserable people or happy people? You wouldn't want to spend eternity with a God who just couldn't laugh, or who would frown upon us for laughing,” Alcorn says. “We need to expand our minds when it comes to God. This attribute—His happiness—has been terribly neglected. There are a lot of systematic theologies that deal with it as one of God’s attributes, but it’s almost always called God’s blessedness. Often the first line is ‘God’s blessedness means His happiness.’ Well, if that’s what it means, why not just call it ‘God’s happiness’?”
The More You Know
For Alcorn, research for his books usually isn’t separate from his devotional reading of the Bible. “Whenever I'm looking at Scripture, I want to be in a spirit and attitude of prayer. I can be looking at the Hebrew and Greek, I can be looking at different theological things about the deity of Christ in Colossians 1 or whatever, but I'm still looking at the inspired text of Scripture and asking and expecting God to speak to my heart and transform my life. This is God's love letter to us, and it should be personal. So I do academic work with careful, thoughtful, studious research. I use the Logos Bible software all the time. You could call my Bible study academic, but it's also feeding my soul, which makes it personal and devotional.”
Alcorn is currently reading through the Bible with a plan that points him to a different genre each day of the week. He likes to make sure he has one takeaway at the end of his reading to meditate on through the rest of his day. “Psalm 1:2 and many other passages in the Bible talk about meditating on God’s law day and night,” he says. “You shouldn’t just check off the box and be done for the day. Take in God’s Word and give it an ongoing presence. Put verses on a 3x5 card—keep it on your desk at work. Carry it with you through the day.”
While Alcorn acknowledges that it can be difficult for many people to study the Bible consistently, he encourages his audience, saying, “The things we enjoy most about life are the things we know about. My wife and I love dogs. She has an app on her iPad that has quizzes on dog breeds, and out of hundreds of breeds in the world, she can name even the most obscure. And the interesting thing is, the more she learns about dogs, the more she loves dogs. And the more she loves dogs, the more she learns about dogs. It's a cycle that feeds into itself. So if you're not getting a lot out of your Bible study, that’s the best argument there is for studying your Bible more, not less. Eventually, a breakthrough happens. We find ourselves thinking and talking about whatever we’re choosing to study and read about.”
Alcorn also suggests using outside resources to further your study. “To use Psalm 1 as an example, as you learn more, you can branch out to see what some of the Puritans had to say about Psalm 1, and what Spurgeon had to say in his Treasury of David. Look at great commentaries on the Psalms. Read what Calvin had to say about the Psalms,” he adds. “Listen to Piper or Keller preach on the Psalms. Follow some of the delightful rabbit trails you go off on using the Logos software. The more you learn, the more excited and engaged you get, and the more you can't wait to get back to it.”
Eventually, consistent Bible study has a snowball effect. “If you stay away from the Bible and you minimize it, or you just view it as a duty to get out of the way so you can get on with the things in life that really interest you, you're really going to be missing out on the joy of exploration and discovery, and drawing closer to Jesus.”