Puritan preacher Thomas Brooks said, “God is the author of all true happiness; he is the donor of all true happiness. . . . He that hath him for his God, for his portion, is the only happy man in the world.” English evangelist John Wesley said, “When we first know Christ . . . then it is that happiness begins; happiness real, solid, substantial.”
Happiness is what we all want, and believers throughout the centuries, like Brooks and Wesley, have affirmed that it is a good desire when we seek it in Christ. Unfortunately, countless modern Christians have been taught various myths about happiness.
As a young pastor, I preached, as others still do, “God calls us to holiness, not happiness.” I saw Christians pursue what they thought would make them happy, falling headlong into sexual immorality, alcoholism, and materialism. The lure of happiness appeared at odds with holiness. I was attempting to oppose our human tendency to put preferences and convenience before obedience to Christ. It all sounded so spiritual, and I could quote countless authors and preachers who agreed with me.
I’m now convinced we were all dead wrong.
To be holy is to see God as he is and to become like him, covered in Christ’s righteousness. And since God’s nature is to be happy (Psalm 115:3; 1 Timothy 1:11), the more like him we become in our sanctification, the happier we will be. Forcing a choice between happiness and holiness is utterly foreign to Scripture. If it were true that God wants us to be only holy, wouldn’t we expect Philippians 4:4 to say, “Be holy in the Lord always” instead of “Rejoice in the Lord always”?
Any understanding of God is utterly false if it is incompatible with the lofty and infinitely holy view of God in Ezekiel 1:26–28 and Isaiah 6:1–4, and of Jesus in Revelation 1:9–18. God is decidedly and unapologetically anti-sin, but he is in no sense anti-happiness. Indeed, holiness is exactly what secures our happiness. Charles Spurgeon said, “Holiness is the royal road to happiness. The death of sin is the life of joy.”
It’s common to hear objections to the word happy based on its etymology, or history. One commentator says that “Happy comes from the word ‘hap,’ meaning ‘chance.’ It is therefore incorrect to translate [the Greek word makarios] as ‘happy’” (The Pursuit of Happiness: An Exegetical Commentary on the Beatitudes). This argument may sound valid, but our language is full of words long detached from their original meanings. Enthusiasm originally meant “in the gods,” but if I say you’re enthusiastic, I’m not suggesting you are a polytheist.
When people say they want to be happy, they are typically making no statement whatsoever about chance. D.A. Carson argues in Exegetical Fallacies, “The meaning of a word cannot be reliably determined by etymology” (32). King James Version translators wouldn’t have used happy and other forms of the root word happiness thirty-six times or translated makarios as some form of happy seventeen times if they thought its word history disqualified happy as a credible biblical word.
The fact is, the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and many others used the words happy and happiness frequently in biblical, theological, and Christ-centered contexts. When they called on believers to be happy, they weren’t speaking of happenstance or chance, but of enduring delight and pleasure and good cheer in Jesus.
Oswald Chambers, author of the excellent My Utmost for His Highest, was one of the earliest Bible teachers to speak against happiness. He wrote, “Happiness is no standard for men and women because happiness depends on my being determinedly ignorant of God and his demands” (Biblical Ethics, 14).
After extensive research, I’m convinced that no biblical or historical basis whatsoever exists to define happiness as inherently sinful. Unfortunately, because Bible teachers such as Chambers saw people trying to find happiness in sin, they came to think that pursuing happiness is sinful. Chambers said, “Joy is not happiness,” and continued, “There is no mention in the Bible of happiness for a Christian, but there is plenty said about joy” (God’s Workmanship, and He Shall Glorify Me, 346).
That simply is not true. In the King James Version, which Chambers used, Jesus tells his disciples, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17 KJV). Speaking of faithful Christians, James said, “We count them happy which endure” (James 5:11 KJV). Peter said to fellow believers, “If ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye” (1 Peter 3:14 KJV) and “If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye” (1 Peter 4:14 KJV).
Chambers also wrote in My Utmost for His Highest, “Joy should not be confused with happiness. In fact, it is an insult to Jesus Christ to use the word happiness in connection with him.” I certainly respect Oswald Chambers, but statements like this are misleading. It’s hard for me to conceive of a greater insult to Jesus than to effectively deny what Hebrews reveals about his happy nature: “God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions” (Hebrews 1:9 NASB).
It also seems insulting to say that the best Father in the universe doesn’t want his children to be happy. In reality, the Bible is a vast reservoir containing, not dozens, but hundreds of passages conveying happiness. I’ve found 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.
The English Standard Version doesn’t use the word happy nearly as often as many other translations, but it’s still there:
Scripture is clear that seeking happiness — or joy, gladness, delight, or pleasure — in sin is wrong and fruitless. But seeking happiness in him is good and God-honoring.
The modern Christian avoidance of happiness is completely counterintuitive. This is no minor semantic issue. Historically, philosophically, and practically, happiness is a vital word. But for too long we’ve distanced the gospel from what Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, the Puritans, Wesley, Spurgeon, and many other spiritual giants said God created us to desire and what he desires for us: happiness.
We need to reverse this trend! Let’s redeem the word happiness in light of both Scripture and church history. Our message to the world should not be “Don’t seek happiness,” but “You’ll find in Jesus the happiness you have always been seeking.”
Browse more resourceson the topic of happiness, and see Randy’s related books, including Happiness and Does God Want Us to Be Happy?
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.