It’s common to hear advice to Christian parents encouraging them to want more for their children than “just happiness.” While I believe such advice is meant well, we need to address the concept of happiness carefully when it comes to our kids.
Yes, children frequently want to stay up late, eat cookies before bed, play video games for hours, and avoid their homework, imagining those things will bring them happiness. But wise parents know better. They, too, want their children to be happy—the difference is, parents know what will keep children happy in the long run. Because they sometimes need to tell their children “no,” it might seem like their children’s happiness isn’t something that conscientious parents should concern themselves with. But there is a right kind of happiness and joy we should want for children and grandchildren: one that is Christ-honoring and God-centered.
God built a desire for happiness into our children, just like it’s built into every person who ever has or ever will live. The important question is, where will they seek that happiness? Will they look for it in Christ and in living a life rooted in Him, or will they seek it in the world and its endless empty mirages?
Any parent who tries to make their child repent of being motivated by happiness is fighting a losing battle. Distancing happiness from the gospel sends a false and damaging message.
Yes, we want our children to experience happiness—the happiness that comes from knowing and following Christ and living a life that is pleasing to Him. Teaching them that they will experience difficulties and suffering, and can also experience a deep, God-given happiness despite (and sometimes because of) those challenges, can strengthen their faith and fill them with purpose.
We’ve all observed parents who say, “I just want my children to be happy,” which means they will give their children whatever they want or allow them to pursue anything they feel will bring them gratification, even if it’s contrary to God’s word. This is not the kind of happiness I’m speaking of. Such parents should actually want more for their children—such as to love God, and therefore be respectful, virtuous, and generous. “The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice; he who fathers a wise son will be glad in him” (Proverbs 23:24).
As a young man, Samson chased what he thought would make him happy. After going where he probably shouldn’t have, he came home to his father and mother saying, “I saw one of the daughters of the Philistines at Timnah. Now get her for me as my wife” (Judges 14:2). They asked why he would go to a godless nation to find a wife. But Samson insisted, “Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes” (verse 3). Wanting their boy to be happy, his parents gave in. The utter ruin and misery that followed, like one domino falling into the next, is a warning against our imagining that we and our children can be trusted to know better than God what will make us happy.
Proverbs 23:15 says, “My son, if your heart is wise, my heart too will be glad.” Notice the word too here. This verse assumes that the child’s wisdom will bring gladness to the child, as well as to the parent.
Sometimes we get confused, thinking we’re being selfish for wanting to be happy. Jonathan Edwards said, “It is not a thing contrary to Christianity that a man should love . . . his own happiness. . . . Saints, and sinners, and all alike, love happiness, and have the same unalterable and instinctive inclination to desire and seek it.”
Jesus says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25).
Many think that Jesus’ primary message here is the virtue of selflessness and self-sacrifice. But take another look: He calls us to lose life for His sake by appealing to our desire to find life! It’s not “selflessness” in the sense of doing what’s bad for ourselves; rather, it’s honoring and following Christ and thereby doing the best possible thing for ourselves!
C. S. Lewis began his great sermon “The Weight of Glory” by saying this:
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.
Lewis went on to make this critical point: “The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.”
It’s possible for someone to act sacrificially and selflessly in the best interests of others while enjoying the fruit: feeling good about having done well and receiving God’s approval and reward.
Some parents believe that looking after their children’s happiness means constantly saying no to their own. But if they don’t take care of themselves, failing to model finding happiness in God, they’ll deprive their children of happiness too. (We’ve all known the overbearing, codependent mother who does everything for her children while reminding them of all her sacrifices. Her unnecessary sacrifices are self-serving in the sinful sense, but in fact, they don’t serve her well. They end up making both her and her children miserable while she exclaims, “All I ever wanted was for you to be happy!”)
Flight crews routinely announce, “If you’re traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, in the case of an emergency, secure your own oxygen mask first before helping the other person.” Those instructions may sound selfish, just as it sounds selfish to say that one of our main duties in life is to find happiness in God. But only when we’re delighting in our Lord do we have far more to offer everyone else—our children included.
Proverbs 20:7 says, “The righteous live a life of integrity; happy are their children after them” (CJB). May we model and pass onto our children a rich heritage of Christ-centered happiness.Browse more resources on the topic of happiness, and see Randy’s related books, including Happiness and Does God Want Us to Be Happy?