Since writing my book Happiness, one of the questions I’ve been asked is, “Am I sinning if I’m not happy as a Christian?” In answering this question, I’m assuming two things of readers:
The question is “Am I sinning if I’m not happy in Christ?” We need to understand that God doesn’t simply suggest that we find joy in Him; He commands it:
Does God mean it when He says “always”? Yes. The reasons for gladness in Christ are constant, like an ocean tide. The water doesn’t remain in the same place, always lapping over our feet. But even at low tide, it’s still there, poised to move in again.
Paul followed verse 4 with this encouragement: “The Lord is at hand,” which itself is a reason to rejoice. God is with us, never abandons us, and will deliver us soon, whether by death or by His return.
In light of such passages, I believe that a Christ-follower’s resignation to unhappiness is unbelief and disobedience. That may sound harsh, but I’m convinced it’s true, and actually hope-giving. (Since I’m not naturally chipper or bouncy, but more melancholic, this isn’t my personality speaking!) God wouldn’t command all His children to rejoice in Him always if only the naturally gleeful could obey.
Since God repeatedly commands His people to be happy, our happiness is a measure of our obedience. Don’t rush past that statement: our happiness is a measure of our obedience. Reread it. Ponder it. And consider that God in His grace would never command us to be happy without providing us the necessary resources to do so, including His indwelling presence.
I’m well aware that some readers of this blog may be experiencing deep suffering and sorrow, whether through the loss of a loved one, a debilitating disease, a difficult season of depression, or other painful life circumstances. My wife Nanci was diagnosed with colon cancer early last year, and went through several months of treatment and painful side effects. There were some very difficult days for her. So no, we won’t constantly be “bubbling over” with gleeful happiness every moment of every day. In a world under the curse of evil and suffering, something would be very wrong if we were!
But if we’re always focusing on life’s difficulties and trials, we won’t be happy people. Instead, if we focus on the Lord and His abundant grace, we will be happy. Paul said, “His glorious power will make you patient and strong enough to endure anything, and you will be truly happy” (Colossians 1:11, CEV).
Rejoicing always in the Lord seems unrealistic at times. But we must remember that this rejoicing is centered not in a passing circumstance but in a constant reality—Christ. Scripture doesn’t command us to rejoice in:
We’re to rejoice in the midst of these things, but of course they won’t be the source of our gladness. We’re told to rejoice in the Lord. Rejoicing in Christ is superior to all other delights, but it’s not always separate from them. Rejoicing in a friend, a parent, a child, a spouse, a job well done, or a glorious walk in the forest can in fact be choosing to find happiness in Christ.
The Bible never pretends that happiness is easy or constant. It’s unrealistic to expect perpetual happiness while the Curse is in effect. But the day is coming when “there will no longer be any curse” (Revelation 22:3, HCSB). Believing this can bring us great happiness even today.
When I am grieving over what God grieves over, I am not sinning. But if I am always grieving and always unhappy, if that is the normal state of my life over the long haul, then something is wrong. God wants something better for me. He really wants me to experience gladness in Him, instead of consenting to perpetual unhappiness.
I’m not always happy, any more than I’m always holy. I’ve experienced seasons of depression, both before and since coming to faith in Christ. This is partly due to my personality type and emotional makeup (and perhaps genetics), while some is triggered by my long-term physical illness (insulin-dependent diabetes), and some is the result of adverse circumstances. So I’m not a stranger to unhappiness—I really do get it!
But by God’s grace, I’m more supernaturally happy in Christ now than I’ve ever been. And as many other believers throughout history have, I’ve also learned to make choices that increase my joy. Great pain certainly dulls—and at times even overshadows—happiness, but it can’t destroy happiness that’s grounded in our ever-faithful God.
Sometimes sorrow and joy do battle; sometimes they coexist, but when our hearts and minds are on Christ, joy is never far away: “You changed my sorrow into dancing. You took away my clothes of sadness, and clothed me in happiness” (Psalm 30:11, NCV).
So just how serious does God take His commands for us to rejoice in Him? Consider this statement: “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.” I’ll bet that got your attention. I never would have put it that way myself. Standing on its own, it sounds shocking, even outrageous! But Scripture supports it.
God’s Word Translation renders Deuteronomy 28:47, “You didn’t serve the Lord your God with a joyful and happy heart when you had so much.” Whether we find joy and happiness in God and His abundant gifts dramatically affects how He views our service for Him. He is not a master who cares only that His servants do what they’re told, but a Father who cares deeply about His children’s love for Him and the heartfelt emotional gladness we find in Him as we obey.
The obedience of dutiful drudgery is better, but only marginally so, than outright disobedience. Indeed, God sometimes disciplines His people who fail to find happiness in Him by sending unfavorable circumstances. Here’s the whole verse I quoted with the jaw-dropping one that follows: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48).
This passage prompted British clergyman Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) to write the striking words I used above: “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.”  Read this passage, and you’ll see that Taylor’s statement is true. If we refuse to serve the Creator and Redeemer of our souls in happiness, we will surely end up serving the enemy of our souls in unhappiness.
God’s severe mercy in bringing adversity when we don’t serve Him with joyfulness and gladness of heart may turn us to God, where we’ll find in Him the only heartfelt and lasting happiness available to us.
I am well aware that after reading such strong language some people will feel guilty. Some will say, “Okay, I’m already unhappy, so now you’re trying to make me feel guilty for being unhappy?” That is not my goal. My goal is to believe Scripture when it says that God who truly loves you, and Jesus who gave His life for you, has vested interests in you being happy in Him. He offers you the strength in the Holy Spirit to experience this happiness. Yes, there will be times of sorrow, but God can truly transform our default condition to one of happiness rather than sorrow.
Now, if your normal temperament lands you on a happiness scale of 2-3 out of 10, maybe the work of God’s Spirit won’t take you to a 10 but to a 6-7. But wouldn’t that be a greater miracle, then a naturally happy person (which again, I am not) becoming another 10% happier? So you don’t have to be the happiest person at the party to still enjoy God and find greater happiness in Him than you’ve ever known.
Remember, God’s commands are not to burden us, but to free us—the truth, including the truth about Him wanting us to be happy in Him—should set us free (John 8:32). Be encouraged, because everything God commands us to do He empowers to do, and He does it not only for His glory but for our good.
The moment after death, all who know Jesus will experience a flood of happiness greater than we’ve ever known. We might ask ourselves in Heaven, if we are called upon to evaluate our lives here, Given Christ’s finished work on my behalf, with the indwelling Son and Holy Spirit, why didn’t I experience more of this happiness in God before I died?
The permanence of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in our lives allows us to continually access a supernatural happiness even now. So we can “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help” (Hebrews 4:16, NET). Our God of happiness has made the way for us to come before Him freely and draw deeply from His mercy, grace, and help at any and all times, including when we’re feeling drained of joy.
If the happiness in our walk with Christ is consistently gone, we’re wise to ask God and ourselves what needs to change. We should join David in praying, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). This is a prayer God is always eager to answer.