One of the most pernicious lies in the Christian community comes in the oft repeated aphorism, “God cares more about your character than your happiness”. Added onto this particular gem is the assertion that as Christians, we are commanded to feel joy even when we are not happy. Next comes a tortured attempt at defining joy apart from happiness. Joy is apparently an emotion located in our spirit while happiness is shallow and only for those weak enough to seek the gratification of the flesh. Joy is lasting, while happiness is fleeting. To all these things, I say, “Bosh.”
I blame Immanuel Kant in part for the angst-filled separation of character and happiness. For Kant, the highest moral good was to perform good deeds completely apart from any incentive on our part. In other words, when we do something good, it doesn’t count as really good if we get something out of it, even something so small as a feeling of warmth in our hearts. What a chilly way to love others! Besides, this separation of good deeds and incentives means that Jesus Himself who gave Himself as a sacrifice for us can’t claim it as a really good deed. If Jesus gave Himself “for the joy set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2), then God Himself had incentive to do good, so this ultimate good deed doesn’t count.
Beyond that, let us truly parse the words ‘joy’ and ‘happy’. Firstly, let us recognize that they are different parts of speech. Joy is a noun, while happiness is an adjective. This is true in both the Hebrew and Greek. Joy is something you have. It is an emotion of exuberant delight. You cannot have happy. You can be happy, which is to say you have joy. Happy in the Old and New Testaments is a synonym for blessed. Of course, you can change happy to happiness. Or joy to joyful. Create a sentence now in which joyful and happy don’t work as synonyms.
Joyful is the man whose sins are not imputed to him. Happy is the man whose sins are not imputed to him. Either way, that man is pretty jazzed.
The Sermon on the Mount is often used to make the case that the more miserable you are, the more blessed you will be.But the problem with this is that the peacemakers, the humble, and those who suffer for righteousness sake are blessed. Those who make war, are proud, and who pursue wickedness are not the most joyful people to be around to my way of thinking. Jesus is merely stating the obvious in the Sermon on the Mount; to have a meek, loving, righteous character is to be happy (or blessed).To be blessed is to have joy.
Why separate character and happiness when the Bible makes no such separation? In fact, they are inseparable.
Why am I convinced that God wants us to be happy and enjoy our lives? Because everything He does is to show us a way towards peace, love, and joy. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. If you have the fruit of the Holy Spirit, would you not confess to being blessed? I am not at all denying the existence of suffering.
I am challenging the notion that suffering in and of itself is noble or purifying.
Some people improve because of suffering and others do not. Our response to suffering brings suffering meaning. There is a good deal of utterly meaningless suffering in the world. To feel pain is to share in the human condition, but not all pain is redemptive. To glorify pain for whatever purpose is a rejection of the Gospel. To have empathy, compassion, and sorrow is natural and good. But to believe that pain saves us or transforms us rather than God’s grace is idolatrous.
Here are some of the indicators that God wishes us good and not evil:
- He made the earth and all therein. This includes us. Earth is an amazing, beautiful place and He made it for us to live in and get to have companionship with Him and each other. Eden was meant to be a paradise. Suffering was not Plan A. Eternal happiness was.
- He created Heaven. He will bring us to a place where no arguments as to the difference between joy and happiness will exist. Why is there a Heaven if God does not have an interest in our well-being? So heaven is Plan B. Again with the eternal happiness.
- The Bible is filled with advice on how to be happy. Psalms, Proverbs, Romans, the Gospels… All of them and more have dedicated instructions on how to live joyfully, happily, freely.
- Jesus goes around and heals, delivers, resurrects, and feeds people. Sounds like a lot of happy going on to me. Did Jesus suffer? You bet. And the purpose of His suffering? Joy. Joy for everyone who wants it.
- We want to be happy so badly. We know that something is terribly wrong with this world. Worse, we know that we are the culprits of so much evil. But the fact that we cannot thrive for long without pleasure and without a sense of well-being should suggest to us that we were not intended to live without those things. Sure, we fill the gap with things that only satisfy temporarily, but it is in our best interests that God promises if we follow Him, He will give us the desire of our hearts.
So why the Christian suspicion of happiness? After all, Christians included the pursuit of happiness in our very Constitution. Religion is one reason. Pride is another. For the same reason that Michal despised her husband, David, dancing in the streets of Jerusalem, we prefer the masks that adulthood too often brings. But Jesus says we must come to Him as a child.
That suggests to me that the simple happiness of a child with a loving father is deeper than all the theological treatises on the definition of joy.
My challenge is to surrender all the sources of temporary happiness; those things I think will make me happy, but really don’t. My challenge is to let go of pride and admit to myself, God, and the world what I really want. Am I always happy? Am I always joyful? No. Not at all. But I know how to get there. I know I am on my way, if not this moment, then maybe the next, but definitely for all eternity.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Romans 8:32
Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding. Proverbs 3:13
Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God. Psalms 146:5
Happy they whose lawless acts were forgiven, and whose sins were covered. Romans 4:7
..looking to the author and perfecter of faith — Jesus, who, over-against the joy set before him — did endure a cross, shame having despised, on the right hand also of the throne of God did sit down. Hebrews 12:2
To do justice is joy to the righteous. Proverbs 21:15
Light is sown for the righteous, And for the upright of heart — joy. Psalm 97:11