G. K. Chesterton has been widely credited with saying, “Jesus promised His disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” It might be argued that most Western Christians aren’t any of these three . . . but least of all “absurdly happy.”
We tend to perceive Christianity as being about tradition and morality, not happiness. I make no apology for believing in morality. But some Christians, in the name of moral obligation, wear frowns, dutifully living a paint-by-the-numbers religious existence, and proudly refraining from what “lesser” people do to be happy. They seem to wear their displeasure as a badge of honor.
Hannah Whitall Smith, author of long-time bestseller The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, was raised in a religious home. She recorded these thoughts about churchgoers in her journal, years before coming to Christ:
Some look almost as if they think it is a sin to smile or speak a pleasant word. It appears to me that religion is supposed to make one happy, not miserable and disagreeable. . . . Instead of a cheerful voice there is a long, drawing, melancholy whisper . . . instead of love and concern for those who have not yet found the path of life . . . there is a cool standoffishness, a feeling of “I’m better than you”— that effectually closes off the slightest opening… And so, instead of the noble, beautiful, humble, liberal-minded, and happy religion I have so often pictured to myself, I see it as cross, gloomy, proud, bigoted, and narrow minded.
Sadly, some people still misrepresent Christianity this way, and equally sadly, some attempt to solve the problem not by drawing near to Christ but by watering down biblical truth to make it more appealing. The gospel is attacked on both fronts—on the one hand, stripped of its intrinsic happiness and on the other, stripped of its holy uniqueness and ability to deliver happiness.
After her conversion, Smith wrote to her son, “The Gospel is good news, something to make people happy; not a law to bind them.”
They’ve known—as many of us churchgoers have also known—professing Christians who go out of their way to promote misery, not gladness.
I’ve seen Bible-believing, Christ-centered people post thoughts on a blog or on social media only to receive a string of hypercritical responses from people who wield Scripture verses like pickaxes, swiftly condemning the slightest hint of a viewpoint they consider suspicious. How is it that perpetual disdain, suspicion, unkindness, and hostility are seen as taking the spiritual high ground? If I were an unbeliever reading such responses, I certainly wouldn’t be drawn to the Christian faith.
In refreshing contrast, J. C. Ryle said, “I assert without hesitation, that the conversion described in Scripture is a happy thing and not a miserable one, and that if converted persons are not happy, the fault must be in themselves. . . . I am confident the converted man is the happiest man.”
Charles Spurgeon loved to connect the gospel and happiness: “There is nothing that more tends to strengthen the faith of the young believer than to hear the veteran Christian, covered with scars from the battle, testifying that the service of his Master is a happy service...”
Some professing Christians feel morally superior to those who engage with culture, and as a result, they major on making world-condemning judgments. They refrain from laughing not just at immoral jokes but any jokes. They assume that barbecues and ball games are the spawn of sin. Grim-faced pharisaical “Christians” make Satan’s propaganda campaign far easier by undermining the Good News and promoting a negative view of happiness.
“Affirming that by transgression of God’s commandments [Adam and Eve] might attain to felicity and joy . . . [the devil] caused them to seek life where God had pronounced death to be,” wrote John Knox. God created the physical world and happiness. But the devil doesn’t have a single shred of happiness to give. He specializes in rearranging price tags, making the cheap look valuable and the miserable appear happy.
Consider satirist and journalist H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (On the contrary, Puritans, judging by their writings, were some of the happiest people who have ever lived! Considerably happier, judging by his writings, than H. L. Mencken.)
Paul, an apostle, wrote, “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly” (Acts 21:17). A Bible translation lexicon (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament) states, “The word asmenos here means ‘pertaining to experiencing happiness, implying ready and willing acceptance—happily, gladly.’”
Following this welcome are stories of the gospel’s impact on Gentiles and a celebration of how the Holy Spirit was strengthening Christ’s church. Such a happy gathering is a timeless model for believers in any era who face difficult issues.
The pervasive happiness of the New Testament church stands in stark contrast to what the English poet Algernon Swinburne said about Jesus: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean: The world has grown grey from thy breath.”Swinburne believed Jesus sucked the life out of the supposed vibrancy paganism had infused into the world.
G. K. Chesterton commented on Swinburne’s words:
I rolled on my tongue with a terrible joy, as did all young men of that time, the taunts which Swinburne hurled at the dreariness of the creed. . . . But when I read the same poet’s accounts of paganism . . . I gathered that the world was, if possible, more gray before the Galilean breathed on it than afterwards. The poet maintained . . . that life itself was pitch dark. . . . The very man who denounced Christianity for pessimism was himself a pessimist . . . and it did for one wild moment cross my mind that, perhaps, those might not be the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who, by their own account, had neither one nor the other.
Throughout history, the Christian worldview has accounted for such happiness-generating developments as hospitals and schools, science and industry, music, drama, and the arts. And on a more personal level, nearly every community includes people with quiet confidence in Christ who are extraordinarily loving, kind, helpful, and cheerful. They gladly give of their time and money to those in need. Such people are rarely in the public eye, but they certainly exist. Sadly, however, to many people, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule.
Christopher Parkening, considered by many to be the world’s greatest classical guitarist, achieved his musical dreams by the age of thirty. By then he was also a world-class fly-fishing champion.
However, his successes failed to bring him happiness. Weary of performances and recording sessions, Parkening bought a ranch and gave up on the guitar. He wrote, “If you arrive at a point in your life where you have everything that you’ve ever wanted and thought would make you happy and it still doesn’t, then you start questioning things… I thought, ‘Well, what’s left?’”
While visiting friends, he attended church and put his faith in Christ. Parkening developed a hunger for Scripture and was struck by 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (NIV).
He explains, “I realized there were only two things I knew how to do: fly fish for trout and play the guitar. Well, I am playing the guitar today absolutely by the grace of God. . . . I have a joy, a peace, and a deep-down fulfillment in my life I never had before. My life has purpose. . . . I’ve learned first-hand the true secret of genuine happiness.”
John Piper says, “If you ask me, ‘Doesn’t the world need to see Christians as happy in order to know the truth of our faith and be drawn to the great Savior?’ my answer is ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ And they need to see that our happiness is the indomitable work of Christ in the midst of our sorrow.”Excerpted from Randy's book Happiness. Browse more resources on the topic of happiness, and see his other related books, including Does God Want Us to Be Happy?
Photo by Sam Lion