Is It Possible to Be Happy in Christ Despite Suffering?
God never guarantees that the Christian life will be smooth or easy. In fact, he promises the opposite: “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12, NKJV). We’re not to be surprised when we face great difficulties (see 1 Peter 4:12).
All the psalms of lament, the book of Lamentations, and many other Scripture passages reveal the importance of realism and sorrow in the Christian life. No treatment of joy and happiness should deny or minimize such texts.
Indeed, a truly biblical worldview and an authentic doctrine of joy and happiness fully recognize and embrace the realities of suffering in this present age.
The happiness described in Scripture is all the richer because it doesn’t involve denial or pretense and can be experienced amid severe difficulty. Christ-followers don’t preach the flimsy kind of happiness that’s built on wishful thinking. Instead, our basis for happiness remains true—and sometimes becomes clearer—in suffering.
Rejoicing Is Rooted in Our God, Not Our Circumstances
Rejoicing always in the Lord (see Philippians 4:4) may seem unrealistic at times. But we must remember that this rejoicing is centered not in a passing circumstance but in a constant reality—God Himself, and His Son, Jesus, who died for us and rose again.
On the one hand, we might suppose that Scripture doesn’t command us to rejoice in our nation’s condition, our culture’s trajectory, our spouse’s attitude, our child’s struggle, our church’s conflicts, our job loss, or our poor health. On the other hand, we’re told to “always [give] thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20, NIV). Likewise, Scripture tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NIV).
I don’t think this means that we are to rejoice in evil, per se, since God hates evil (Zechariah 8:17; Proverbs 6:16-19) and commands us to hate it (Psalm 97:10; Proverbs 8:13; Romans 12:9). I do think it means that we should believe Romans 8:28, which tells us God will work all things together for our good, including evil things that happen to us.
Believing this frees us to thank God in the middle of difficult and even evil circumstances, knowing that in His sovereign grace, He is accomplishing great, eternal purposes in us through these things.
We’re told to rejoice in the Lord and to “consider it all joy” when we face hardship (James 1:2, NASB). Choosing to rejoice, by rehearsing reasons to be happy and grateful while suffering, affirms trust in God. We walk by faith, believing in what God has done, is doing, and will do to bring a good end to all that troubles us.
This response requires faith that God lovingly superintends our challenges. Viewing our sufferings as random or obsessing over someone else’s bad choices that caused our sufferings robs us of happiness. A weak, small, or faulty view of God always poisons the well of our contentment.
The more we grow in our understanding of God’s attributes, the happier we become.
We Have a Sovereign and Loving God
The deeper our knowledge of God’s character, the deeper our reservoir of strength, perspective, and happiness in hard times. Who is this God we are to trust? What is He really like?
As we have dealt with her cancer over the past two years, Nanci and I have spent time meditating on the attributes of God, rereading and listening to audiobooks such as The Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer and Knowing God by J. I. Packer and Trusting God by Jerry Bridges. Our hearts are lifted in praise as we contemplate His holiness, grace, justice, mercy, and every facet of His being revealed to us in Scripture.
Scripture teaches that we have a God who loves us and is sovereign over the universe, including all evil. We can’t be happy, and remain happy, without believing in the sovereignty of a loving God. The beauty of the Christian worldview is that while we’re encouraged to take initiative and control what’s within our power, we also know that the enormous part of life we can’t control is under God’s governance.
Scripture tells us, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). It assures us, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). And since God is eternally wise and good and happy, and we’re not, we’re far better off with Him, not us, in control.
Gratitude Is Central
One surefire way to raise our level of happiness in times of suffering is choosing to be thankful.
In every circumstance, no matter how difficult, we can give thanks to God and experience his joy. Ephesians 5:18-20 says, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Being Spirit controlled is inseparable from giving thanks in everything.
When Nanci and I had to cancel a trip we were really looking forward to, we began to contemplate all the good things that we could do with the time we now had. Then we started doing those good things and got excited about them. Instead of clinging to unhappiness for something we lost, we found happiness in something we gained.
Whether we find ourselves having reason to celebrate or to mourn, there’s never a time not to express our gratitude to God. Psalm 140:13 declares, “Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name.”
While it may seem hard to “make ourselves happy,” it’s not hard to choose to give thanks, which in turn always kindles happiness. No matter how difficult our circumstances, the happiness thanksgiving generates is always within our reach.
Our Suffering Will End
Even if the worst suffering of our lives still lies ahead of us, our loving God assures us it will be for only a short time. But He promises far more—a future payoff for our present sufferings:
Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18, NIV)
Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV)
In light of that eternal glory being achieved for us by our momentary troubles, Paul offers the following words of eternal perspective: “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18, NIV). This verse has always cleared my head, and that’s why I named our organization Eternal Perspective Ministries.
How wonderful to be promised not only that our present sufferings will end but also that even now they have a hidden purpose that will forever outlast this life! The more we fix our eyes on what’s presently unseen, the more we can experience reassurance and comfort and the increase in happiness they inevitably bring. That’s why Scottish evangelist Duncan Matheson (1824–1869) prayed, “Lord, stamp eternity upon my eyeballs.”
A normal day as resurrected people on the New Earth will be far better than the best day we’ve ever experienced here. And we will one day see our worst day on Earth under the Curse as not having been wasted but as making a positive and eternal difference.
This article is excerpted from Randy’s book Does God Want Us to Be Happy? It offers a collection of short, easy readings on one of life’s biggest questions: in a world full of brokenness, is happiness a worthy pursuit for Christians? This book answers the question with a different approach and contains some new material. It's perfect for those who would like to consider the central question in Happiness in a shorter form.