I asked this question to my Facebook friends, and following this question, an onslaught of answers came:
- Some straight-up said, “no.”
- Even amongst those that said “yes,” 80%+ tried to qualify it.
- Quite a few didn’t answer and asked for a definition, which I didn’t provide yet.
- Some claimed that joy or contentment is better.
- Others said holiness is a worthy pursuit, not happiness.
- A few commented that it shouldn’t be the end goal or the most important thing.
- Several mentioned that happiness is fleeting and can only truly be experienced in eternity.
People have a complicated relationship with the word happy. We all want to be happy, but many may feel guilty about this desire. We love the words in the Declaration of Independence, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, but some may think it’s selfish to pursue happiness. But is it? Or is it okay to have this desire? In all of the brokenness in this world, is happiness a worthy pursuit or a quest that we should flesh out further? Or is this just a superficial and unspiritual longing that needs to be cut from our lives?
Only one of the 100+ comments I received back answered it the exact way I would have. And it had one word, three letters, and nothing behind it. So the answer they provided, which I would give, is “Yes.”
So, today, my goal in this blog is that you would be able to answer the question, “Does God want you to be happy?” I want you to be able to say “Yes” without immediately feeling the need to qualify that answer with anything else. Now, I will give you 4000 more words to help you qualify that claim. But that’s my goal.
It could be that you and I are walking around with different definitions of happiness. And we’ll get to that later. Or, perhaps it could also be that in light of all of the brokenness and suffering in this world, maybe you feel guilty saying “yes” to this question. One thing I do not want to do in this blog is to trivialize any of the difficult, painful, sorrowful moments in this world. We’ll get to that later too.
But, first, if we are unable to say “yes” to this question, the following two things could be at stake:
- You could be living with a flawed or incomplete view of who our God is.
- I also believe that our witness is at stake.
If we genuinely walk around believing and claiming that God doesn’t want us to be happy, what are we telling those who don’t know Christ? That He wants them sad? Are we sure that’s being an effective witness?
So, there is a lot at stake with this question today. But, before I begin, I want to give major credit to Randy Alcorn and his little book Does God Want Us to Be Happy? It’s a great resource if you desire to go deeper.
The first myth I want to bust is this:
1. God doesn’t care if you are happy.
So, forget everything you’ve heard about happiness before. Don’t even worry about me defining this word yet. Instead, let’s approach the question like it’s the first time we’ve heard it, “Does God want you to be happy?”
If God doesn’t care about our happiness, then why, in every description of how He describes the finale, His kingdom fully restored, why does He include things like parties, streets of gold, mansions, and wedding feasts. What about any of that isn’t happy? In Revelation, why does it describe Jesus as creating this world for His good pleasure? Why, in the Sermon on the Mount, did Jesus choose the Greek word “Makarios,” which some translators turn into blessed, but the closest definition is actually the word “happy.”
Jesus, in His ground-breaking first sermon to introduce His kingdom into this world, starts it by saying, “Happy are the poor in spirit…happy are those who mourn…happy are those who hunger and thirst.” And that same word “Makarios” is used in 1 Timothy 1:11 to describe this God of ours. He’s the Makarios God. The happy God. Some translations say, “The Supremely Happy God.” If God is happy and we were created in His image, shouldn’t we be happy?
We were created in God’s image, and one of the words used even to describe our God is Father.
In preparation for this blog, I was asked, “So, Zach, do you want your kids to be happy?” So, I thought about it. “Do I want my kids to be happy? Do I want Nathan and Brady, my two sons, to be happy?” Yes, of course, I want my kids to be happy. What parent would not? It’d be cruel to not want that for my kids. Now, do I think I have a better understanding of happiness than my kids? Am I put here in this world to guide them, teach them, and steer them to what true happiness is? Of course. Absolutely.
It’s my job as their dad to teach them where true happiness is found. And to teach them what ultimately blocks our happiness. It’s our sin. It’s rejecting Him and everything He desperately wants to give us. If God didn’t care about our happiness, He wouldn’t have created us in the first place. But He did. And if you need any more proof of this, Jesus had an out when we failed Him. He gave us a chance to be happy, and we failed Him, which could have been the end. But God is so committed to our happiness that when we failed Him, He came on a quest to rescue us and give us forgiveness so that one day we will end up in a place where there is eternal happiness.
Isaiah 52:7 says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The message of Jesus is happy…the good news of happiness. Martin Luther said, “Sin is pure unhappiness, forgiveness pure happiness.” Any message that God doesn’t want us to be happy discounts the “good news of happiness” that Jesus came on a rescue quest to give us.
Would you want to serve, follow, and give your life to a God who wouldn’t want you to be happy? I wouldn’t.
God wants you to be happy.
And just so you know, I’m not taking this out of thin air…listen to these stalwarts of the faith that have gone before me:
A.W. Tozer wrote, “The people of God ought to be the happiest people in all the wide world. People should be coming to us constantly and asking the source of our joy and delight.”
Charles Spurgeon says, “Those who are ‘beloved of the Lord’ must be the most happy and most joyful people to be found anywhere upon the face of the earth.”
2. Joy is better than happiness.
Randy Alcorn mentions in his book the example from the movie “The Princess Bride?” In this movie, the Sicilian mastermind Vizzini repeatedly uses the word “inconceivable” to describe event after event after event that actually happens. To which someone replied to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I think the same could be true with the words “joy” and “happiness.”
So many Christians believe that God wants us to be joyful, not happy. So many believe that joy and happiness are different from one another. They might claim that happiness is based on circumstances, and joy is based on God. Joy is a richer fruit of God. For whatever reason, we are conditioned to think that one is good and the other is not. And I don’t understand it. Joy and happiness don’t compete. They work together. They are in the same family.
So I guess it may be helpful to define happiness at this point.
Here’s the definition of happiness from Merriam-Webster…our go-to dictionary: a state of well-being and contentment: joy.
Here’s the definition of joy from Merriam-Webster: the emotion evoked by well-being, success or good fortune, or a state of happiness.
But what about the Bible? What does the Bible say? We have these things called lexicons which are like dictionaries. Lexicons help translate Greek and Hebrew words for us. They give us the proper and cultural definitions. Amazingly, the more you look at the two words, you’ll see joyful, glad, merry, delighted, pleasure, and happiness all lumped together even back into the Hebrew and Greek lexicons.
John Piper says, “If you have nice little categories for ‘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.”
Randy Alcorn says, “The notion that we can have joy without happiness has perverted the meaning of both words and helped spawn a culture of Christian curmudgeons. Feeling superior, they may affirm that they have the joy of Jesus deep in their hearts, but apparently, it’s so deep it never makes its way to their faces.” Ouch, Randy!
Teaching Seminary students about preaching, the great Charles Spurgeon once said, “When you speak of heaven, let your face light up with a heavenly gleam. Let your eyes shine with reflected glory. And when you speak of hell–well, then your usual face will do.” That’s a little mean, Charlie!
Both joy and happiness have been hijacked, I think. Happiness has turned into this fleeting emotion that you should never have for some reason. And joy is the opposite–almost this somber, down in my heart, barely hanging on, but still got the joy inside of me kind of vibe. I don’t think that’s the full intent of either word.
Here’s the truth: no one word is big enough to describe how great this God is. That’s why we need them all. Joy, happiness, pleasure, delight, merriment, cheer, gladness. Use them all.
3. It’s wrong to desire to be happy.
Perhaps the most influential theologian in all of church history, Augustine says, “Every man, whatsoever his condition, desires to be happy.”
Happiness is the universal goal of mankind. French philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal says, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man…”
So, either all of these mega-theologians are wrong, and we’ve passed down false doctrine, or the other option is they are right. What if God wired us for happiness? What if the same God who created all of this for His good pleasure, who made us in His image, has also put a desire in us to be happy?
John Piper says, “You can’t stop wanting to be happy. God has wired you to be happy. That’s not a sinful thing–that’s a good thing.” And then he would go on to quote C.S. Lewis, in his book The Weight of Glory, and you just have to hear this: On page 1, it says this,
“The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial in an end to itself. We are told to deny ourselves and take up our crosses, that we may follow Christ, and nearly every description that we find he gives us appeals to our desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly hope for it is a bad thing…“
Let’s stop there. Some of us feel that. Some of us fear that that’s a bad thing, and we are unsure. But then Lewis says, “if there lurks that thought in your mind, I submit this notion has crept in from the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.”
Lewis claims that the desire to be happy is not evil, and those who say it’s a bad desire are being influenced by the Stoics, not the Bible. Then, he continues:
“Indeed, if we considered the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”
What?! Have you ever heard anyone say that? “Zach Zehnder, your problem in the Christian life is not that your desires are too strong, but your desires are too weak?” Are you kidding me? This is C.S. Lewis. For years, many of us have felt I want to be happy so bad it must be problematic. It must be an evil desire. But C.S. is saying that’s not your problem. Your problem is that you are settling for way too little.
And he finishes it with this remarkable sentence that I’ve used before in some of my books: “We are half-hearted creatures fooling around 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 the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
C.S. Lewis’s diagnosis of the problem in America is this, “We are all far too easily pleased.” Like children fooling around with mud pies in the slum, sitting in the gutter playing with dirty water, while a man is offering us a two-week holiday by the sea. And we say, “No thanks.”
Wanting to be happy isn’t the problem, but the problem is where we look for happiness.
John Calvin said, “While all men seek after happiness, scarcely one in a hundred looks for it from God.”
We look around, and we get far too easily pleased with stuff that looks good but is actually incomparable to this God that we worship.
It is not wrong to desire to be happy. However, it can be wrong where we find our happiness. Problems come when we look to any created thing as our ultimate source of happiness instead of the Creator of the created things.
Ultra-theologian Thomas Aquinas was once asked, what would satisfy our desire to be happy in this world? What would it take to feel satisfied? The answer he came up with was this: “Everything. We would have to experience everything and everybody and be experienced by everything and everybody to feel satisfied. Eat at every restaurant; travel to every country, every city, every exotic locale, experience every natural wonder; make love to every partner we could possibly desire; win every award, climb to the top of every field; own every item in the world; etc. We would have to experience it all to ever feel satisfied.”
It is just the same as it is not wrong to love, but what we choose to love can be wrong or how we choose to love. So don’t suppress your desire to be happy or feel guilty that you desire to be happy. We were all created this way.
I do not long for you or desire you to have selfish or superficial happiness. There is a “happiness” that this world seeks after that can feel right that will eventually leave us in a place of despair. Any ultimate happiness not found in God is a superficial kind of happiness. And too many of us have fallen for it.
French sociologist Jean Baudrillard has made the point that materialism has become the new, dominant system of meaning in the Western world. He argues that atheism hasn’t replaced cultural Christianity, shopping has. Our priorities have gotten out of whack, for sure.
But, here’s my point. Just because there is a wrong kind of happiness doesn’t mean it’s something we shouldn’t attain for. I like Randy Alcorn’s quote, “Is there selfish and superficial happiness? Sure. There’s also selfish and superficial love, peace, loyalty, and trust. But we don’t villainize these virtues just because they are sometimes misguided. Likewise, we shouldn’t throw out Christ-centered and God-honoring happiness with the bathwater of self-centered happiness.”
Let’s bust another myth…
4. I can’t be happy with all of the brokenness in this world.
If you are going through great suffering right now, the message of “be happy” or “God wants you happy” might feel disturbing right now. It might feel insensitive. This message, and far more critical, your picture of God, should never be construed as indifferent or uncaring to your suffering. While we can attain to happiness, the fact remains that we are still living in a broken world. And, we are moved to sorrow, often.
Isaiah 63:9 says this about our God: “In all their affliction, He was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”
This passage tells us that God moves toward the broken-hearted. If anyone knows suffering, it is our God. And in this world, you will experience suffering. The Bible mentions this over and over and over again. Our happiness will not exempt us from facing troubles in this world. Jesus says, “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
In John 10:10b, Jesus tells us, “I have come that you may have life and life to the fullest.” But if there is a John 10:10b, that means there is a John 10:10a. Jesus claims that an adversary attempts to keep us from this abundant life. His name is Satan, and he tries to rob, kill, and destroy us, ultimately keeping us from this full, abundant, and happy life. Satan is a powerful opponent. He brings real suffering into this world. And he’s been having his way with our nation and world for too long.
The devil most often comes sneakily and attempts to take our eyes off of God. He will try to have us place our eyes on other things that God has created, even good things. And when we start treating those good things as God things and putting our ultimate happiness in anything other than our God, good or bad, that’s called idolatry. And it gives him a foothold. When we individually or collectively turn to work, sports, leisure, shipping, entertainment, or sex as our ultimate source of happiness, then happiness will elude us. These things are mud pies in God’s economy. And when we get dazzled by mud pies more than Jesus, we turn into this really confusing representation of who Jesus is. That’s why words non-believers use to describe us like judgmental, hypocritical, anti-homosexual, too political, out-of-touch, and boring are used for us. That makes me sad.
I stumbled across the latest data on happiness from the General Social Survey, a gold-standard poll tracking Americans’ attitudes since 1972. It’s shocking. Since the pandemic began, Americans’ happiness has cratered. For the first time since the survey started, more people say they’re not too happy than saying they’re very happy.
Happiness is at all-time lows. Younger generations are even more unhappy.
Burnout is at an all-time high. A McKinsey study found that 42% of women feel burnt out and 35% of men. That’s a strong term. Burnout. That’s not like I’m a little tired… that’s a form of exhaustion caused by feeling completely swamped.
CIGNA reports that 61% of Americans are lonely. Despite a world with more ways to “connect” than ever, disconnection reigns.
- People are exhausted.
- People are unhappy.
- People are lonely.
- People are empty.
- People are anxious.
- People are at the end of their rope.
All of this while our nation continues to thrive and prosper financially like never before. This is such clear proof that if we try to find our happiness in anything other than God, even good things, we will ultimately end up in a mess.
Emptiness, loneliness, worry, exhaustion, burnout, fear, anxiety, and worry are real, but they are never what God intended. They are weapons of the enemy. God hates these things. I’m not saying, and God is not saying, that you will never face them or that you are evil if you are experiencing these realities. They are real weapons the enemy throws.
Sometimes, these things naturally come in because of sin, idolatry, indifference, and apathy.
Other times, you could be seeking God with all of your heart, He could be the true source of your happiness, and you’ll still find those words around you, or maybe even inside of you. Why? Because the devil doesn’t stop working the closer you get to God. In fact, He’ll work even harder. Once you turn from a spectator into a participant when it comes to bringing God’s Kingdom, you’ll likely experience more trouble, suffering, and persecution. That’s why some of the first words Jesus reminds us of in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 include, “Happy are you who are poor in spirit, happy are you who mourn, happy are you who are persecuted.” In each of these, God then points to a reality that we can experience today but won’t fully realize until His kingdom comes. He points to how things ought to be.
Romans 8:18 says, “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” 2 Corinthians 4:17 says, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving or us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
So, again, let me be clear. I’m not denying these things. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying you always have to force a smile on your face if you are going through hell on earth, but what I am saying is that happiness is a choice. We can still choose to be happy, we can choose to be thankful, and we can give a sacrifice of praise even in the worst of times.
As I was writing this blog, I was inspired by a woman from the United Kingdom named Helen Lemmel. She’s most known for a hymn called “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” It was written in 1918 and originally called “The Heavenly Vision.”
The more I looked into the context of how this song was written, I was just blown away. In 1918, two major worldwide disruptions were happening. First, World War I was still underway. Secondly, a major global pandemic, the Spanish Flu, struck the world. The same year this song was written, the Spanish Flu struck and killed between 50 and 100 million people, and the United Kingdom was one of the worst places.
Even more incredibly, while the world had its own issues, she also had deep personal losses. Her husband divorced her, and his main reason for doing so was because she was losing her sight and going blind. So during worldwide disruption and loss and feeling the weight of being alone and not physically being able to see anything, she writes this:
And turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
Wow! This woman is an incredible example of faith, showing us that the worst of this world can come after us, and yet still, we can keep our eyes on Jesus.
I find it amazing that the book in the Bible known for joy is the book of Philippians. It was written by the Apostle Paul, who at the time was being persecuted and was locked away in prison. Nevertheless, his example shows us that we can all have joy. We can have happiness, even in the worst circumstances. It’s not easy, but it is possible. And Paul learned this from Jesus, who some theologians describe as the happiest man to ever live.
Jesus is described in Isaiah 53:3 as a man of sorrows, but Psalm 45:7 describes him with an anointing of an oil of gladness over him. Crazy! The one that saw and experienced the worst that the world could throw at Him could be described as the “happiest man ever.” This shows us that it’s possible to have deep happiness amidst the brokenness and suffering.
5. I can’t be happy in the things of this world.
With all of the talk then of not choosing to be most happy by created things, only in the Creator, what do we make of the created things? What’s our relationship with them?
God places things, people, and places in our world for our enjoyment. So again, the slippery slope is nothing, and no one else should ever take the place of God in our life, but if we are serving God and keeping Him number one, He gives us these things in this world for our good pleasure.
Some might say, “Well, shouldn’t I seek the giver, not the gifts?” There’s truth behind it, but it’s also misleading. For instance, if I said to my wife, “Allison, I love you. Therefore, I will not love the meals you cook, the presents you give to me, or the vacation you blessed me with planning.” Would that make any sense? No! If I loved the meals, gifts, or vacation more, then clearly that’s disordered love, but by loving the things she gives or does for me, I am honoring her.
Seek the giver through the gift. Seek the giver in the gift.
John Calvin says, “In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.”
The greatest gift He’s given to us is this: it’s the Good News of Happiness. That I, who once was lost, have now been found. That I, once who was blind, can now see. That I, who once was unholy, have now through Christ been made holy. And while the Gospel of Happiness in its purest sense can be focused on Christ and the cross, it is the continued Gospel that I now get the chance to follow Jesus. I get to serve this God for the rest of my life. So, when I receive His grace, I can be confident that eternal happiness in all of its glory will be mine one day. But that now, even now, I can have a full and abundant life. As I continue to pursue, follow, and serve God, I can experience a deep level of happiness in this world. I can get glimpses and even play my part to give glimpses in this world of what one day all those who call upon the name of Jesus will fully realize!
About a month ago, we launched the first episode of The Red Letter Disciple podcast. It’s a significant accomplishment for my team and me. It was one of our top three annual goals. We worked really hard to do it. And so, to see the podcast go out and the marketing behind it, which we spent a lot of time on, I was supremely happy. So, I celebrated. I took my wife to a nice dinner. I had a nice pour of good bourbon, and I was happy. And that’s okay. I didn’t feel guilty one bit. And I shouldn’t.
We can get so caught up in the hustle and bustle of this world that we can forget in the grand scheme of things we are here to serve Jesus. His Kingdom is coming, and we play a role in it. And, after faithfully serving Him, even if it wasn’t perfect, it never is…not my podcast, I can still be happy knowing that I played my part. And it’s okay to celebrate. Jesus is coming back, and when He does, we’ll experience supreme happiness. And until He does come back, let’s remember this promise, and let’s be happy. So, this week, I’m giving you permission to be happy.
Do something that makes you happy.
- Serve someone else.
- Accomplish something God put inside of you, or take a step toward it. Enjoy a great meal with friends.
- Date your spouse.
- Drink a glass of wine.
- Dance your heart away.
- Watch the sunrise or the sunset.
- Plan a vacation.
- Play golf.
- Buy a gift for someone you love.
I’ll close with a quote that I remember ever since I was in college. I’ve thought about it for years, and I still do. It’s a quote big enough to think about my whole life. I first heard John Piper declare it to 50,000 college students in Atlanta: “God is most glorified when I am most satisfied in Him.”
God, may we be supremely happy and satisfied in you. All for your glory. Amen.
If you’ve read through this far, you made me pretty happy! Let me know how you’ll be happy this week. Blessings!