Should Christians Desire to Be Happy?

C. S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory,

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion . . . is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

When I first read these words, having known Christ for only a few years, it was paradigm shifting. In my brief church experience, I’d come to believe that God was opposed to our pursuit of happiness. When I delighted in something “secular,” such as music or science fiction, I felt vaguely guilty, as if my pleasure displeased God.

But Lewis had a different perspective. He wasn’t saying that alcohol, sex, and ambition were wrong, only that God—who created these things—deserves the highest place in our hearts. While we can enjoy the gifts God has given us in the appropriate time and place, they will never provide the deep happiness and satisfaction we find in Him.

Finding our greatest pleasure in God elevates our enjoyment—transforming mud pies into mouthwatering desserts to be fully enjoyed at the proper time and place—God’s celebratory table of goodness.

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.

Thomas Aquinas, arguably the most influential theologian of the Middle Ages, said, “No one can live without delight, and that is why a man deprived of spiritual joy goes over to carnal pleasures.”

We crave joy, delight, pleasure—in a word: happiness.

The great theologians have always been happiness advocates.

I don’t agree with all the beliefs of various historical figures I cite. But given their stature as serious thinkers of great influence on church and culture, they serve as proof that preoccupation with happiness is not just a modern development.

Ignatius of Antioch, believed to be a student of the apostle John, wrote a letter beginning with these words: “To the Church which is at Ephesus . . . deservedly most happy. . . . Abundant happiness through Jesus Christ, and His undefiled joy.”

Ignatius wishes the same “abundance of happiness” when he writes to the early church bishop and eventual martyr Polycarp.He closes that letter saying, “I pray for your happiness for ever in our God, Jesus Christ.”

What would we think of a modern Christian who begins and ends his letters fixated on happiness?

The pre-Christian Augustine was an intellectual who chose an immoral life for the same reason others did and still do—happiness. Yet happiness eluded him. Augustine said, “Certainly by sinning we lost both piety and happiness; but when we lost happiness, we did not lose the love of it.” Augustine insisted that this longing is as true for Christ-followers as it is for anyone else: “If I should ask you why you believe in Christ, and why you have become Christians, every man will answer truthfully by saying: for the sake of a happy life. The pursuit of a happy life is common to philosophers and to Christians.”

If Augustine was right, then whether people go to church, a coffee shop, a ball game, a crack house, or a strip club, they go in search of happiness. Augustine didn’t mean that their search is always successful. He said, “Indeed, man wishes to be happy even when he so lives as to make happiness impossible.”

This description is true for every culture after the Fall. We wish to be happy above all, even while making choices that rob us of exactly what we seek.

The historical consensus? Our quest for happiness can only be fulfilled in Christ.

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.

German Reformer Martin Luther said, “It is pleasing to the dear God whenever thou rejoicest or laughest from the bottom of thy heart.”

French Reformer John Calvin wrote, “Human happiness . . . is to be united with God. . . . The chief activity of the soul is to aspire thither.”

Jonathan Edwards expounded on this point: “What could the most merciful being have done more for our encouragement? All that he desires of us is…that we would not follow those courses which of themselves would end in misery, and that we would be happy.”

These are not the words of a suntanned, jewelry-laden inspirational speaker. This is a Puritan pastor, steeped in Scripture, speaking nearly three hundred years ago!

I can relate to John Wesley when he spoke of his state as an unbeliever:

Having plenty of all things, in the midst of sensible and amiable friends . . . still I was not happy…and could not imagine what the reason was. The reason certainly was, I did not know God, the Source of present as well as eternal happiness.

Notice Wesley’s emphasis. Happiness doesn’t merely await God’s children in the future. Christ-followers don’t preach the flimsy kind of happiness that’s built on wishful thinking. Instead, we have rock-solid reasons to be happy—reasons that remain true, and sometimes become clearer, in suffering.

Charles Spurgeon wrote,

They who love God with all their hearts, find that his ways are ways of pleasantness, and all his paths are peace. . . . We are not dragged to holiness, nor driven to duty. No, our piety is our pleasure, our hope is our happiness, our duty is our delight.

Though Wesley and Spurgeon represented different theological persuasions, they agreed with these ideas:

All people desire happiness.

The gospel of Jesus Christ offers people both eternal happiness and present happiness.

God’s glory and our happiness are inextricably linked—both are parts of His design and plan. God is glorified when we are happy in Him, so our happiness shouldn’t be compared to or weighed against His glory but seen as part of it.

God desires our happiness—He’s the source of it and went to inconceivable lengths to bring His happiness to us.

This is what makes our happiness in God immensely important. Not first and foremost because we want to be happy (though of course we do), but because God made us to want to be happy and because He truly wants us to be happy in Him.

Excerpted from Randy's book HappinessBrowse more resources on the topic of happiness, and see his other related books, including Does God Want Us to Be Happy?

Photo by Matheus Bertelli

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries