For the next few days, we’ll all be wishing each other a happy New Year. It leads me to ask something that may sound like a trick question: Does God want us to be happy?
I’m not asking if God wants to give us lots of money. Or if he wants to heal every disease. Or if he wants us to be popular, powerful, or persuasive.
But does he want us to be happy — content, satisfied, joyful? Many of us would hesitate, say yes, then quickly add some clarifiers.
We might talk about how God made us to glorify him — which requires that we grow in holiness. In the long run, holiness truly does make us happy. But often the process of getting there involves painful training and discipline.
We might also feel compelled to point out that following Christ means dying to self and choosing God’s will over our own. No arguments there.
But does that mean that our happiness is incompatible with faithfulness? Isn’t that the original lie of the Serpent in the Garden?
If I’m tempted to believe that lie, I need to ponder the implications of these verses:
“For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful.” — Deuteronomy 16:15
“Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.” –Jeremiah 15:16
“For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.” –Psalm 92:4
Moreover, there are the beatitudes, the joy-laden book of Philippians, and a huge chunk of the Psalms. How is it that despite all the above, doubt lingers? Why do we think God views our happiness as collateral damage? Perhaps because we think we know better — like Adam and Eve when they ate what was forbidden — what will make us happy. Reality check: our notions on what will make us happy are infinitely punier than God’s ideas.
Here’s how C.S. Lewis described the difference:
“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.”
Let those phrases sink in. An ignorant child happy making mud pies. It’s like God is offering us a holiday at the sea. My desires are too weak. Those are the words I want resounding in my ears when I’m denying my flesh — and stupidly, stubbornly, feeling quite unhappy about it.
But even before those moments, I want to think hard about that “holiday at the sea.” I want to envision the joy, the frolicking in the waves, the squeals of delight with the dolphins, the birds, and the seashells. Just a few moments of thinking on those things woos me out of that pit of self-pity. And who wouldn’t want to be wooed that way — especially when we consider who is doing the wooing!
Then ponder this: The joy of a holiday at the sea cannot compare with the joy our Lord knows we can have when we trust in him for delight. Dolphins and sunshine and seashells times a zillion.
These are the kinds of thoughts that make me feel like Jesus has just handed me a sharp sword, a powerful means for me to decapitate the lie that says that pursuing faithfulness is a dour endeavor, forever at odds with my happiness. Actually, the reverse is true. Jesus is working for my happiness, wanting me to find my delight in him, not in things that enslave me.
These thoughts show me the truth and the value of 1 Corinthians 10:13–14:
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”
In love, in pursuit of my happiness, Jesus provides a way of escape. Truly, he is good and he does good (Psalm 119:68a). He ushers me to the escape hatch, flings it open, and says, “Flee!”