In “Should Christians Desire to Be Happy?”, I shared that the belief that Christ is the answer to our deep longing for happiness can be credited to scholars, preachers, and teachers from every generation and from all denominational backgrounds. Despite being from different theological persuasions, they have generally agreed with these ideas:
I’m used to pushback since writing my books on happiness, as this topic is rife with misunderstandings and half-truths. Not surprisingly, several commenters on Facebook mentioned some common objections, including that God calls us to joy, not to happiness; that happiness is fickle and fleeting; and that wanting to be happy leads us into sin, etc. One of our EPM staff responded to the comments and questions by sharing links to past articles we’ve done. I appreciate all the effort made in responding, and I feel these answers deserve a wider audience.
As always, we welcome comments and feedback from readers, including those who disagree with my blogs! But I wanted to share these comments anonymously because they represent many who are struggling with this way of thinking, which is common.
One commenter said, “Happiness is a feeling that is fickle. Joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit and stays.” Another said, “There is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness depends on outside circumstances. The joy of the Lord is my strength. Joy comes from that deep relationship with Jesus Christ. There should be no issue with being joyful.”
The EPM staff wrote, “That’s definitely one of the misconceptions in modern Christianity that Randy addressed in his book on this topic. See Is There a Difference Between Happiness and Joy?”
This is probably the number one response I hear related to happiness. The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines joy as “happiness over an unanticipated or present good.” The Dictionary of Bible Themes defines happiness as “a state of pleasure or joy experienced both by people and by God.” Happiness is joy. Joy is happiness. Virtually all dictionaries, whether secular or Christian, recognize this.
John Piper writes, “If you have nice little categories—joy is what Christians have and happiness is what the world has—you can scrap those when you go to the Bible because the Bible is indiscriminate in its uses of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction.” And Joni Eareckson Tada says something similar. She writes, “Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words like ‘delight,’ ‘gladness,’ ‘blessed.’ There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these.”
Along the same lines, another commenter wrote, “…happiness is fleeting. We should appreciate the times when we are happy, but life is full of different emotions, and we can be at peace knowing that God is with us in the midst of each of them.”
Our staff wrote, “That idea of a God-given peace and contentment reflects the deeper kind of happiness Randy is talking about here, as opposed to happiness as the world defines and experiences it. He shares some thoughts here about the contrast in Four Reasons Christians Distinguish Between Happiness and Joy.”
This one isn’t so much an objection, but a legitimate point worth addressing: “One thing to watch for, and I’ve seen people actually advocate it, is, ‘God wants me to be happy, therefore I can justify any sin.’ Of course, the piece isn’t saying this, but it’s related.”
Our staff responded:
Yes, for sure. A parallel example is how our culture defines love in ways that are contrary to God's design. But the problem isn't love, which is a gift from God; it's how our culture has redefined it in sinful ways.
Randy writes, “As a young pastor, I preached, as others still do, ‘God calls us to holiness, not happiness.’ There’s a half-truth in this. I saw Christians pursue what they thought would make them happy, falling headlong into sexual immorality, alcoholism, materialism, and obsession with success. 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. There were several flaws in my thinking, including inconsistency with my own experience. I’d found profound happiness in Christ; wasn’t that from God? Furthermore, calling people to reject happiness in favor of holiness was ineffective. It might work for a while but not in the long run. Tony Reinke gets it right: ‘Sin is joy poisoned. Holiness is joy postponed and pursued.’”
And as Randy put it in his blog: “Being happy in God and living righteously tastes far better for far longer than sin does. When my hunger and thirst for joy is satisfied by Christ, sin becomes unattractive. I say no to immorality not because I hate pleasure but because I want the enduring pleasure found in Christ.”
And I would add that when we choose to walk in holiness, at times we postpone immediate happiness for a greater and more lasting happiness—for instance, by abstaining from sex before marriage. But if chose sin and reject holiness, any joy or happiness or satisfaction will quickly fade and will ultimately not bring us joy but rob us of it. This is the “fleeting pleasures of sin” Scripture speaks of (Hebrews 11:25).
Similarly, another commenter said, “I’ve been taught that we’re here to live to work towards being holy, not happy, although happiness can be a side effect of knowing and following Christ.”
Our EPM staff said, “Randy writes here about true holiness and true happiness in Christ are intertwined: Why We Don't Need to Choose Between Happiness and Holiness.”
Too often our message to the world becomes a false gospel that lays upon people an impossible burden: to be a Christian, you must give up wanting to be happy and instead choose to be holy. If given a choice, people will predictably choose what appears to be the delightful happiness of the world over the dutiful holiness of church. Satan tries to rig the game by leading us to believe we can’t have both happiness and holiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, happiness and holiness are inseparable. “Give up happiness; choose holiness instead” is not good news, and therefore it is not the “good news of happiness” spoken of in Scripture (Isaiah 52:7)!
This subject didn’t come up in the discussion on Facebook, but one objection I’ve also heard is that sharing about happiness is insensitive, not taking into consideration the pain of living in a fallen world. The assumption seems to be that the kind of happiness I’m talking about is some bubbly, Pollyanna-ish state that ignores or minimizes suffering.
On the contrary, 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. Until Christ cures this world, our happiness in Christ will be punctuated by sorrow. Yet somehow an abiding joy is possible even in suffering. Christians are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
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. Nothing about the biblical call to rejoice in the Lord always, and rejoice in all circumstances, denies the reality of pain and grief. God understands it, and in fact, God endured it more than any other person in human history in the person of Christ on the cross.
It was great to read this person’s insights:
I was raised to believe happiness was worldly. Stripping away “the world” was obedience and holiness. Those were the respected believers in the church. Wow! God wasn’t much fun. Years later, God peels away my actions and hardness of heart to reveal His awesome love towards me. Nothing I do has anything to do with this mind-bending love. It’s unearned, and Jesus’s blood sealed it and covered me. Now all happiness and joy [are] from His hand and I worship Him for [that] daily. I serve a GOOD God!
And this one: “Mind boggling that our Great Savior is concerned that much with our welfare that He would go to such great lengths to ensure His children are happy. It is still just hard for me to believe about Him. Mind blowing.”
Mind-blowing indeed. And such good news. I believe many of our misconceptions about happiness come from a misunderstanding God’s character. If God is not happy, then He cannot be our source of happiness. He cannot give us what He does not have. An unhappy God would never value the happiness of His creatures. And we would have no reason to believe we would enjoy everlasting happiness in His presence.
This is why I give considerable attention to the biblical teaching that God is happy in my books Happiness and Does God Want Us to Be Happy? Only when we understand this can we believe that God wants us to be happy. For more, see: Exploring the Happiness of Jesus and Christ, the Wisdom of God.
May we today, in our own lives and families and churches, add our names to the list of Christ-followers throughout the ages who believed that God is happy, that Jesus His Son is happy, and that the gospel we believe and embrace and share with others is a happy one.