Growing up in an unbelieving home, I never heard the word blessed as a child. After I came to Christ, I heard it often. I didn’t know what it meant; I just knew it sounded holy and spiritual. It was “white noise”—one of many undefined church words whose meanings are masked due to frequent use.
Years later, I heard someone say that in passages such as Psalm 1 and the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 and Luke 6, blessed actually means “happy.” If blessed meant “happy,” I reasoned, why had no one told me that in the hundreds of books I’d already read? And if the Hebrew and Greek really meant “happy,” why wasn’t it translated that way in our Bibles? It made no sense.
Then I started digging for the truth. Many years later I dug deeper than ever while researching my book Happiness. My search yielded rich and surprising discoveries.
Happiness Emerges in the Old Testament
To understand the happiness God offers His creatures, there’s no word in Scripture more important than the Hebrew word asher.
Standard Hebrew dictionaries routinely give happy as the closest English equivalent for asher. Nevertheless, it’s most commonly translated “blessed” instead. Proverbs 28:14 is one of many examples: “Blessed is the one who always trembles before God” (NIV).
Commentaries and study notes explain that the person who fears God is happy. But that meaning would not even occur to most people when they see the word blessed. Of course, had asher been translated “happy” here—as it is more than twenty other places in the King James—readers wouldn’t need commentaries or study notes to understand its meaning.
If you played Password or Catch Phrase and the word was happy, you’d win with clues such as “joyful,” “glad,” “cheerful,” and “delighted.” But suppose someone offered you the clue “blessed.” Would happy pop into your mind? More likely you’d respond by saying “fortunate” or “holy.” And when you found out the key word was happy, you’d probably say, “Huh?” and wish for a different partner.
What Does the Word Blessed Mean Today?
There are millions of online references to the “Blessed Virgin Mary.” Do most people suppose this means the “Happy Virgin Mary”? No. They would naturally think of the “Holy Virgin Mary.” Likewise, upon hearing of “the blessed sacrament,” few would think it means “the happy sacrament.”
In the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, the first synonym listed in the definition of blessed is “of, relating to, or being God.” The second definition is “set apart or worthy of veneration by association with God.” The synonyms include “consecrated, hallowed, sacred, sanctified.”
Every definition and synonym cited for blessed relates to holiness. Virtually nothing relates to happiness, though a few dictionaries acknowledge that it once meant “happy.”
I asked people on my Facebook page, “What comes to mind when you hear the word blessed?” More than 1,100 responses followed. Some associated blessed with being covered, favored, or having peace and contentment. Others said that blessed means “lucky.”
About 30 percent of responders mentioned “undeserved favor” from God, similar to the way most people would define grace.
Only 12 percent, roughly one out of nine people, made any mention of happiness, gladness, or joy.
Why Do English Translations Shy Away from the Word Happy?
Since the Hebrew word asher (as well as its complement in Greek, makarios) means “happy,” then why isn’t it consistently translated “happy”?
The simple answer is that when the King James Version translators rendered asher and makarios as “blessed,” readers knew that blessed was a synonym for happy. For several centuries after the KJV was translated, blessedness and happiness remained nearly interchangeable in common speech. This is evidenced by the 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary, which defined blessed this way: “Made happy or prosperous; extolled; pronounced happy. a. Happy; prosperous in worldly affairs; enjoying spiritual happiness and the favor of God; enjoying heavenly felicity.”
My extensive research and dialogue with Hebrew and Greek scholars left me perplexed about why most translators continue to use the word blessed as a translation of asher and makarios.
Though it most often renders makarios as “blessed,” the literally inclined New American Standard Bible translates Romans 14:22 as “Happy [makarios] is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.”
Why? William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), a Reformer who translated the Bible into English in the sixteenth century, rendered makarios as “happy” in Romans 14:22, and the KJV followed Tyndale’s example, as it usually did.
But if “happy” is a good translation of makarios here, then why isn’t it translated the same way in the Beatitudes, where Jesus used it with exactly the same sentence construction: “Makarios are the merciful,”? Why do all the major English translations still say, “Blessed are” instead of “Happy are,” despite the fact that in today’s English blessed no longer means “happy”?
The Beatitudes are a commonly known and memorized passage. Many people familiar with the traditional wording would balk at the change, feeling the Bible had been tampered with.
Other Languages Translate Blessed as “Happy”
Experience has shown me that despite all the evidence, some people still push back on the idea that “happy” is the proper translation of asher and makarios. They resist the notion that God is called the “happy God” in 1 Timothy 1 and 6 and that the Beatitudes could be accurately rendered “Happy is the one who . . .”
If this is where you find yourself, perhaps it will be helpful to understand how non-English translations render these words in their own languages.
The United Bible Societies’ New Testament Handbook Series is a twenty-volume set of linguistic insights used by translators worldwide. It helps them best render the New Testament into target languages, including those of people groups who don’t have the Bible in their native languages.
For example, all the bestselling English Bible versions translate John 13:17 similar to the NIV: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (emphasis added). But here’s what the UBS handbook says about makarios in this verse:
In the present passage, as in most other New Testament passages where this Greek word [makarios] occurs, the focus is upon the subjective state of happiness shared by persons who have received God’s blessing. For this reason, the translation “happy” is preferable to “blessed.”
Dozens of similar comments in the UBS handbooks instruct translators worldwide to translate makarios with the closest equivalent to “happy” in their target language.
These guidelines have been followed for decades by innumerable translators. The result is that thousands of people groups all over the world know what relatively few English readers know—that the passages containing makarios (as well as its Old Testament Hebrew equivalent, asher) normally refer to being happy in God. (Wouldn’t that be a great thing for English Bible readers to know too?)
I find it remarkable that all of the top seven bestselling English translations usually translate makarios as “blessed,” not “happy.” This means that English-speaking believers are uniquely vulnerable to the myth that most other Bible readers in the world are immune to: that the Bible says nothing about happiness and neither expects nor calls on us to be happy.
Is Happy a Dangerous Word?
I have heard people say it would be “dangerous” to translate asher and makarios as “happy,” because doing so might “appeal to the flesh.”
But wasn’t it up to God which Hebrew and Greek words would be included in Scripture? If these terms are most accurately translated “happy,” who are we to not do so? Isn’t any Bible teacher capable of explaining that this happiness spoken of in Scripture cannot be found in sin but only in God?
Isn’t it easy enough to balance the call to gladness in God by pointing out that this doesn’t entail merely bubbly gleefulness but that we are to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) and that we can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10)?
Speaking about Christ-centered happiness is fully compatible with pointing out the many passages demonstrating that prosperity theology is wrong, that often our life circumstances will be difficult, and that sorrow and grief are also part of the Christian life.
What’s dangerous is not recognizing the happiness in God explicitly revealed in Scripture.
Other Words Have Cultural Baggage
Many good words are commonly misused and watered down. The word holy has lots of baggage too. To countless people, it means being self-righteous, intolerant, and out of touch with reality. Since people routinely misunderstand it, should we no longer use the word holy?
Likewise, love is commonly used in shallow ways, as popular music has long demonstrated. People say they love hamburgers, rock and roll, hairstyles, and YouTube. They “make love” to someone they barely know.
Since the word love has been so twisted and trivialized, should we remove it from Bible translations? Should we stop using the word in our families and churches?
Of course not. Instead, we should clarify what Scripture truly means by love and holiness, as well as terms like hope, peace, pleasure, and yes, happiness. When appropriate, we should contrast the meaning in Scripture with our culture’s superficial and sometimes sinful connotations.
Happiness Is Good News
The secularization of culture has shrunk the common vocabulary of believers and unbelievers. However, happiness is a word that should still convey rich meaning to both groups. Ironically, it’s only some modern believers who devalue happiness while virtually no unbelievers do. No unbeliever says, “What I most want in life is to be blessed.”
Wouldn’t people be more attracted to the gospel if they were told about what Scripture reveals: a happy God and his offer of a deep, abiding happiness in Christ that begins now and goes on forever? I’m convinced they would.
Obviously the offer of happiness alone isn’t the whole gospel. But since God Himself calls the gospel “the good news of happiness” (Isaiah 52:7, ESV, NASB), surely we should see happiness as a vital part of it.
If seekers read in the Beatitudes, “Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” they would probably be struck by the paradox. Happiness and mourning at the same time? How is that even possible?
That’s what Jesus wanted His listeners to realize—He was offering them something counterintuitive, even miraculous, something God given that could never come from human invention or positive thinking.
We desperately need holiness, but it’s happiness we long for. The church shouldn’t retreat from such a significant word that was once central to the vocabulary of God’s people. On the contrary, we should give happiness its proper biblical context, celebrate it, and embrace it as a vital part of the gospel message.Browse more resources on the topic of happiness, and see Randy’s related books, including Happiness and Does God Want Us to Be Happy?