Randy Alcorn, author of Happiness, talks to students at Trinity Christian Academy about finding their happiness in Jesus Christ. Below the video is an edited transcript of the message.
I’m from the Portland, Oregon area. Portland is the world capital of weirdness, so that’s my background. I grew up in a non-Christian family, with no Bible, no church, no connections like that. When I was around 16 years old, the age of some of you, I came to faith in Christ. Having never heard the gospel, I picked up a Bible and started reading. Some people say they get confused when they’re in Leviticus. I was confused from the very beginning! I opened up the Bible and I saw, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” God was a brand-new concept to me.
I know that many of you have been raised in Christian homes, and perhaps all of you have had some Christian influence at the family level. Sometimes I find that people who grow up in the church and around Christians don’t always appreciate the freshness and newness of the Christian faith, because you’ve been surrounded by it.
I grew up in a home where my dad, the owner of several taverns, came home drunk many nights, and he and my mom would yell and scream at each other. Both of them had been divorced before. I thought they were probably going to get divorced any time, and I experienced the insecurities of that.
Before I heard the gospel, nobody would have known what was going on inside of me. I was into sports and I was the student body president. But on the inside, I was in despair. I remember going out at night to enjoy my hobby of astronomy and look up at the stars. One night I looked up at the great galaxy of Andromeda, 2.5 million light years away with something like a trillion stars in that huge galaxy, much bigger than our own. I would look and be amazed.
But that particular night, as I was looking at the stars, suddenly I started weeping. As a junior high kid, you’re a little self-conscious about that. If you’re a boy, you’re thinking, “Wow!” and you question your masculinity. But tears started flowing and I wondered, “What is this about?”
I’ll tell you what it was about. It was about a sense that we live in this awesome, amazing, immense universe. And I had no clue what it meant. It was like there’s a circle somewhere where someone is on the inside, but I was on the outside.
It didn’t occur to me there was a God. I had never heard of God, really. To me it was all new when I was reading the Bible. Even though I was confused by a lot of things in the Old Testament, when I got to the gospels, and I heard Jesus, and I saw Jesus in my mind’s eye, at first I thought it was all fiction. I loved comic books. And I loved science fiction. I just thought it was fiction.
All of a sudden, Jesus was talking, and somehow, some way (I know now it was the work of the Holy Spirit of God), I saw that Jesus had the ring of truth. I realized, This isn’t a myth. This isn’t a character in a book. This is a living person. I loved that person. And I was startled by the things He had to say.
After reading the gospels for a while, I heard the gospel at a church youth group I was going to. I got down on my knees at home, alone in my bedroom, confessed my sins, and gave my life to Jesus. One of the huge transformations that took place in my life was that for the first time, I felt like I was on the inside of that circle. I didn’t know everything, of course, but I now knew there was a God and I knew Jesus Christ. I knew He had forgiven my sins. I discovered that a lot of my unhappiness had been due to my sin and separation from God. And this relationship began a transformation in my life toward happiness.
Now the irony is that many people raised in Christian homes (and I’m sure that includes some of you right here) have been thinking that in their pursuit of happiness, what they really want is something out there that the world has to offer. Now not everything out there in the world is sin, of course. But what I’m talking about is sin.
Satan, your sin nature, and the world are going to try to convince you that you can’t find happiness in Christ. And I’ll tell you this much: you can’t find happiness in just religion—in checking off the box, in doing holy, dutiful things, trying to earn the favor of God. You know what? You can’t earn his favor. It’s called grace. Second Corinthians 8:9 says, “We know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we, through his poverty, might become rich.”
Have you ever asked yourself, “Does God really love me? Because look at all the bad things that have happened in my life”? One of my best friends (the best man at my wedding), died two days ago. He had been battling cancer for twelve years. My closest friend from childhood died in his thirties. I was with him when he died. This is a world where lots of things go bad.
In Oregon, just as I was flying here yesterday morning, there was a big shooting at a community college, with a number of people dead. So you might ask yourself, “God, are you there? I mean, do you really care?” One day, we’re going to stand before Christ. When we do, I don’t think we’re going to ask Him that question. But if we did, I think He would just stretch out His nail-scarred hands and say to us, “Do these look like the hands of a God who does not care?” He took upon Himself our sin and the worst suffering in all human history that there has ever been or ever be. He’s not a distant God who doesn’t care; He came down to live among us in the person of Christ.
What I found when I came into a relationship with that Jesus—the real, true Jesus, not a product of somebody’s imagination—was that my life was infused with a happiness I had never felt. Now, have I been happy every moment since then? Of course not. In Scripture, Paul talks about the fact that we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. What we always have to rejoice in—what does not change—is the love of God for us. Romans 8 says that Jesus gave His life for us, and is going to transform the world itself and not only us, but all who have faith in Him. It says that we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. It says nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ. It says this God who loves us causes all things to work together for good for those who know and love Christ and are called according His purpose.
If that is you, you have every reason to be happy, even though you live in a fallen world under the curse where terrible things happen. But God loves you, and is with you, and promises to work for your good in the midst of the worst things that can happen in life.
After I came to faith in Christ, I took that telescope out again. When I looked through it at the great galaxy of Andromeda, I found myself weeping again. This was several years later, when I was in high school and had come to Christ (or actually, He came to me in a very real way). But this time I was crying for a completely different reason: because I knew the God who created the universe. I knew that He had a purpose in the universe, on Earth and in my life.
But growing up without Christ and then finding happiness in Christ is different than many of my friends who grew up in Christian homes. A year and a half ago, a sixteen-year-old young man came to me with questions about his faith. He’d attended church all his life, and now he had some doubts.
I told him how even the writers of the Bible, had times of struggles and doubts. When you read the Psalms, you see David crying out. In Habakkuk, the prophet cried out, “Lord, why do you let all this bad stuff happen? Lord, are you even listening to me?” These are honest struggles.
You know what? God can handle your honesty. Be honest with Him. Ask Him to come near you. Ask Him to help you sense His presence. But He also says, “Draw near to me and I’ll draw near to you.” You have to do something. You don’t just wait until one day the miracle happens. You go to Him. You open His Word. You pray and seek the face of God.
But the young man came to me with his questions. He didn’t need evidence for the resurrection. He wasn’t questioning the basics of the faith. But he was very unhappy. I asked him this question: “What does it mean to you that God is holy?”
He had the perfect, right answer: “He’s without sin.”
I said, “Absolutely true. Now does thinking about God’s holiness draw you to him?”
He thought about it and said, “No. It doesn’t.”
I asked him, “Do you want to be holy all the time?”
He said, “No.”
I said, “Me neither. I should, but I don’t.” That’s a real confession.
But then I surprised him. I said, “There’s something you do want all the time, day and night, anytime you’re conscious, probably even in your dreams. Do you know what that is?”
He didn’t have a clue.
So I asked him, “Have you ever found yourself wanting to be unhappy?”
“Is there any time in your life where you haven’t wanted to be happy?”
“That’s because we want to be happy all the time.”
He looked at me like guilty as charged. He felt guilty for wanting to be happy. And here’s what I want to say to you. Every single person here, whether you realize it or not—and most of you do realize it—want to be happy all the time. You know why you want to be happy? Is it because you’re a sinner or because Satan gives you the desire to be happy?
Satan knows nothing about happiness. He had it once, and he gave it up. He, and the demons that were righteous angels and turned their backs on God, walked away from happiness. The last thing he wants for you is true happiness.
What he does want for you is misery. Know how he can bring about your misery? By making false promises and offering you sin in happy-looking wrappers. He says, “You want to be happy? Pornography—boy, that’s going to make you happy! Drunkenness and drugs are going to make you happy. So will gossiping about people and judging and condemning them. Premarital sex, that will make you happy!”
Fill in the blank with whatever is tempting for you. But then you talk to the people who have gone down that road. They did these things because they wanted to be happy. And how did that work out for them? Not very good. I know so many miserable people.
Many people believe the lie, “Money’s going to make you happy!” Yet there are extremely wealthy people who commit suicide every week—some of them you know about, some of them you don’t.
People admire celebrities and sport stars, and want to be like them. I’ve gotten to know a number of professional athletes over the years, speaking at NFL chapels and other things. You think that what they have would bring you happiness. And it doesn’t. People are empty without Christ.
So I told this young man, “Think about the things in your life that bring you pleasure.” For him it was backpacking, sports, things that he reads, drama and music. These different things that he was looking for to make him happy, weren’t really making him happy.
So I said to him something he said he’d never heard before. I said, “Do you know that God himself is happy and wants you to be happy?”
How many of you, when you think about God, picture Him as unhappy? I think most Christians tend to think, “Well, God’s unhappy because Scripture says He hates sin and He’s displeased with unrighteousness.” We think God’s ticked off all the time and can’t be very happy.
But what we fail to realize, is that sin—which pervades the world right now—is the exception, not the rule. Scripture teaches that before the world existed, God—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity—had an eternal delight in each other and a loving relationship. How can there be one being who somehow is three in one? No one has ever figured it out, but somehow it’s true. And they love each other. The Father said, “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.”
I was just reading this morning where Jesus finds joy in the Holy Spirit after telling His disciples, “Don’t rejoice that you can cast out demons in my name,” because they were getting really excited about that. Now, that’s pretty cool! But it’s like Jesus was saying, “That’s nothing. Rejoice that your names are written down in Heaven, in the book of life.”
You know what? As we go through life, our eternal destiny is in Heaven, and we can front load that reality into our lives today. Yes, that reality isn’t going to be fully experienced until sometime in the future. But we are God’s children. Nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ.
Scripture is actually full of happiness passages, including 1Timothy 1:11, which talks about the Good News of the glory of the happy God. There’s just one problem—when the King James Version was translated, the word “blessed” meant to be happy in God, or the happiness of God. It was the common word in the English language for happy. If you look at Noah Webster’s Dictionary from around 1820, and look up the word “blessed,” it immediately says “happy, full of happiness, joyful, glad.” That’s what it meant. (Unfortunately most of the English translators today keep translating it “blessed,” even though some say “happy” is how it should be translated.) This verse is actually talking about the Good News of the glory of the happy God.
In 1 Timothy 6:15, Paul talks under the inspiration of the Spirit about the “appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time. God, the blessed” [that’s the Greek word, makarios, commonly meaning happy] “and only Ruler, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
God is pleased and God is delighted. We see that many other times in Scripture, even if we don’t have those direct references to God’s happiness.
Scripture says, “Happy are the people who know the joyful shout. Yahweh [the personal name of God], they walk in the light of your presence.” “Satisfy us in the morning with your loyal love. Then we will shout for joy and be happy all our day” (Psalm 90:14). “You, oh Lord, made me happy by your work” (Psalm 92:4). “I will sing for joy because of what you have done.” “The Lord, your God, is with you. The mighty warrior who saves.” “He will take great delight in you. He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). Wow. God rejoices over you with singing. You are His child.
The fact is, while you have grown up in a church or a Christian home or you attend a Christian school, and you’ve heard this before, that does not mean you really know God. I’m telling you that you need to come to Jesus Christ not simply to be holy and acceptable to God, but also to find the happiness God wired you to have, the happiness for which you were made. God Himself is the primary source of all happiness in the universe. When you try to find it outside of God, the closest you can get is just a little taste of happiness.
Jesus said in Matthew 5, using this word makarios which literally means happy, “Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor, the kingdom of Heaven belongs to them. Happy are those who mourn.” Doesn’t that sound like a total contradiction? No. It says, “God will comfort them.” In the midst of the hardest things in life, in the midst of good friends who are dying or have died, I have experienced a profound, other-worldly happiness that comes from Christ, and the assurance that I know Him as the source of all happiness.
Jesus said in Matthew 13, “The kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure buried in a field.” It tells us about a man who “went and sold everything he had to purchase that field.” I left out one little phrase, because you could look at that and say, “Gosh, it cost him everything he had to get that field!” Well, Scripture says, “and in his joy he sold all that he had to purchase that field.” Why? Because yes, it cost him everything he had. But it got him something that he valued far more. That’s what you get in Christ. Does it cost anything? “Well, he who comes to me, if you save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.” You’ll find your life. So how do you find your life? How do you find the happiness for which you were made? By losing your life—by giving of yourself to other people.
In researching my book Happiness, I probably read 100 books on happiness, including a number of secular ones. It’s really funny because these books say, “This is amazing! Contemporary psychological research, investigative interviews, and psychological studies have found that what makes people happy is things like giving of themselves and their money!” What did Jesus say in Acts 20:35? “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Yes, it’s that word makarios, which should be translated, “It is more happy-making to give than to receive.”
What about the poor saints in Macedonia in 2 Corinthians 8, where it says, “Out of their extreme poverty, their overflowing joy resulted in abundant generosity”? How can you have joy in poverty? By giving of yourself to other people. The Psalms say that God brings happiness to those who care for the poor.
Of course, authors of these secular books aren’t citing Scripture. They’re thinking (what to them) are these new, radical thoughts, and meanwhile I’m jotting in the margins Bible verses which correspond perfectly to what they’re saying.
So what are some other examples of joy in the Bible? Jesus said, “Your father Abraham was overjoyed that he would see my day. He saw it and was happy.” Abraham is still alive in Heaven and He saw Jesus when He came down to Earth.
In Acts 16, after the Philippian jailor and his family came to faith in Christ, it says that they took Paul and Silas home and gave them food. And the jailor’s family was very happy, because now they believed in God.
Philippians 4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” Hebrews 12 says, “For the joy set before him, Christ endured the cross.” He despised the pain, yes. The pain is there, but he did it for the joy set before him. Hebrews 1 actually says of the Messiah, “God gave him joy beyond that of his brethren, or any of his friends.”
One of the big problems we have today is that people have heard in sermons and read in articles that God wants to make us joyful, not happy. What’s the difference between joyful and happy? Sometimes people say that joy is not an emotional thing, but happiness is this superficial, worldly, emotional thing. You know what? The words are synonyms in the Hebrew and Greek. Their meanings overlap, just like they do in English.
What’s the difference between being joyful that you won a football game and being happy that you won? None! They mean the same thing. But we get blinded by using spiritual terminology despite the many examples in Scripture. For instance, in Isaiah 52:7, the gospel is called “the Good News of happiness.” It goes right on to the greatest messianic message in the Old Testament, Isaiah 52 and 53. The gospel is the Good News of happiness—Jesus is the Messiah who goes to the cross and dies for you, and offers you eternal life. That is the happiness that God promises.
So let me encourage you to do what 1 Corinthians 10:31 says: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.” Great memory verse and life verse. But understand this: as John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Another way to say it is, “God is most glorified in us, when we find our greatest happiness in him.”
If you feel the desire to be holy, that’s a good thing! But don’t make it a process of checking off the boxes. Realize that holiness is also the path to happiness. In the book of Proverbs the father figure says to young people, “Don’t go out and do the foolish thing. Do the smart thing.” It’s very interesting: the wise thing is the smart thing. The foolish thing is the stupid thing. What he’s saying is, “Don’t be stupid and believe what the world says about where to find happiness, because you’ll never find it there. You won’t! But follow God. Know Jesus and find happiness in Him, and it will overflow your life.”
It doesn’t mean there won’t be times of weeping and sorrow. We weep with those who weep. We rejoice with those who rejoice. But God, in Christ, grants us a supernatural happiness.
Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see how good the Lord is. The one who takes refuge in him is truly happy.” Psalm 35:9-10 says, “I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be glad because he rescues me. With every bone in my body, I will praise him.” The Psalmist is physically expressing praise to God. Psalm 35:27 says, “Let those who are happy, joyfully sing and rejoice. Let them continuously say, ‘The Lord is great. He is happy when his servant has peace.’” It’s incredible that God, who is infinitely happy, sometimes finds yet even more happiness when you, His child, His servant, are at peace and resting in Him. Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden. I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon me and learn of me. I’m meek and lowly of heart. You’ll find rest unto your soul. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Does it take sacrifice to follow Christ? Sure. But think of the words of missionary martyr Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” A lot of people think, “Wow, what a holy, spiritual, godly man to say that.” Well, true. But listen carefully to his words. They were all about gain: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” You gain in Christ treasures in Heaven that will outlast this life. If you lived to just lay up treasures for yourself on Earth, then every day of your life you will be moving away from those treasures. But if you do what Jesus said in Matthew 6, laying up treasures in Heaven, then every day of your life, instead of moving away from your treasures, you’re moving toward your treasures.
He who spends his life moving away from his treasures—everybody whose treasures are on Earth—has reason for despair. But turn it around. Live a Christ-centered life by finding your happiness and joy in him, and loving and reaching out and giving to and helping others and being thankful. When you live that kind of a life, you’re laying up treasures in Heaven. Then every day of your life, instead of moving away from your treasures, you’ll be headed toward them. He who spends his life moving away from his treasures, moving away from all the things he thinks will bring happiness, has reason to despair. He who spends his life moving toward his treasures and his happiness that is in Christ, has reason to rejoice.
Father, thank you that you’ve told us that you came to give us eternal life, which is eternal happiness in you. But thank you, too, Lord, that we don’t need to die nor should we wait until death to experience happiness in you. Each day of our lives you give us a thousand reasons to be happy—more than that if we could think of them. Yes, there’s sadness. Yes, there’s sorrow and loss, discouragement and sometimes even depression. Yet, in the midst of that, you promise a source of happiness that is supernatural, that is in Christ.
Our eternal happiness has been secured in you. May we experience it today. Teach us to be the kind of people who can obey that command, “Rejoice in the Lord always. And again, I say rejoice.” We can’t do it on our own, Lord. Help us not to view it as a duty, but instead, give us a real sense of the pleasure and the privilege of finding our happiness and joy in you.
I pray that each person watching and reading this would find real happiness in you, and that your Holy Spirit would communicate to them that you’ve wired them to be happy, and that ultimate happiness is not found in disobeying you, but in following you with hearts full of joy. May that be true of all of us, to your glory and for our good. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.