The following is an excerpt from Happiness: God’s Invitation to Delight, Celebration, and Joy, a six-session Bible study by Randy Alcorn. Find more information at lifeway.com/happiness.
Happiness vs. Joy
Among Christ followers happiness was once a positive, desirable word. But over the past century teachers began to set happiness and joy at odds with each other. They’ve promoted the idea that happiness is an inferior, unspiritual, and worldly state. They say believers should aspire to joy, which is less emotional or not emotional at all. I believe this teaching is biblically and historically ungrounded and has significant downsides.
Are laughter, celebration, and happiness God-created gifts, or are they ambushes from Satan and our sin nature that incur God’s disapproval? Our answer determines whether our faith in God is dragged forward by duty or propelled by delight.
I recall a conversation with a young woman who viewed the Christian life as one of utter dullness. She knew following Christ was the right thing to do, but she was certain it would mean sacrificing her happiness. So where did this young woman, who was raised in a fine Christian family and church, acquire such an unbiblical notion? What are we doing—what are we missing—that leaves many of our children and our churches laboring under such false impressions?
British preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834–92) said, “Those who are ‘beloved of [the] Lord’ must be the most happy and joyful people to be found anywhere upon the face of the earth.”1
Our happiness makes the gospel contagiously appealing; our unhappiness makes it alarmingly unattractive. Many of us have been told by well-meaning teachers that Christians shouldn’t seek happiness. We’ve been taught an imaginary form of joy, devoid of emotion—joy without happiness (as if unhappy joy were even possible).
I think at least part of what drives the distinction between joy and happiness comes from fear. We observe that people pursue happiness in sin and thereby destroy their lives. We confuse the desire to be happy with sinful attempts to fulfill that drive. Then instead of opposing sin, we find ourselves opposing happiness. Maybe we need to step back and realize that we’ve made a well-intended mistake.
We need to make clear that we find true happiness in a relationship with God. He warns us about pursuing false gods because they don’t lead to happiness. God prohibits sinful pursuits of happiness specifically because they destroy genuine happiness. God never says no to happiness. He says no to what makes lasting happiness impossible.
The modern evangelical antipathy to happiness backfires when it portrays Christianity as being against what people long for most. True, we chronically seek happiness in sin, but the core problem isn’t seeking happiness but choosing sin instead of God.
Because we were made for greatness, the world’s superficiality is unsatisfying. We sense that unhappiness is abnormal, and we ache for someone, somehow, to bring us lasting happiness. That someone is Jesus, and that somehow is His redemptive work.
This compelling desire for genuine happiness, while at times painful, is God’s grace to us. Longing for the happiness humankind once knew, we can be drawn toward true happiness in Christ, which is offered in the gospel.
God used my persistent desire for happiness to prepare me for the gospel message. The “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10, ESV) in Christ was exactly the cool water my thirsty young soul craved. The gospel is good news only to those who know they need it. If I had been happy without Jesus, I never would have turned to Him.
1. Charles H. Spurgeon, “Titles of Honor,” The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, vol. 58 (Salisbury, MD: Delmarva, 2013).
Excerpted from Happiness. Published by Lifeway Press®. © 2015 Randy Alcorn. Used by permission.