16 September 2017

God Wants You to be Happy


Does God want you to be happy?

(Well, of course He does! How else do you explain the existence of coffee? and chocolate? But no, really -- this is a serious question for many people, this question of whether or not God wants us to be happy.)

TV preachers say yes, and He wants you to be healthy and wealthy, too. The idea being smuggled in there, of course, is that you can't have happiness without money and pleasure.

Knowing that following Christ does not make for a life of ease, and wanting to affirm that one cannot serve God and mammon, some Christians have therefore been led to conclude -- and actively teach -- that God has no interest whatsoever in our happiness. At first glance, the evidence would seem to be on their side. Many of the trials and travails that befell our predecessors in the faith certainly didn't seem like occasions for happiness: Job suffered the loss of literally everything he had. Moses put up with the people of Israel in the wilderness for four decades. Ruth and Naomi endured the loss of their husbands and moves from their respective homelands. Nehemiah braved persecution and opposition for rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. The Apostle Paul was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, incarcerated, and finally beheaded. Then, of course, there were all the ordeals faced by the unnamed heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11:35-38, none of which likely made any of them very happy, and none of which God intervened to prevent.

On top of all this, they say, God said that we should be holy, but He didn't say much about making ourselves happy. Besides, bad things happen to us through no fault of our own, and God doesn't always stop those things from happening. This is proof positive that happiness does not matter to God.

Well, I'm just going to say here and now -- I don't have the answer for why God allows suffering. People have been puzzling over this question for centuries, so I hope I don't disappoint anyone too much by this admission. (Though I suspect it has something to do with God allowing people their free will.) I do think however that we can get around some of the confusion about whether happiness is in general something God approves of.

First of all, I think we have let the Happiness Downers get away with too much by allowing them to define happiness as nothing more than a mere emotion. They insist rather that God wants us to be holy. True enough. The root concept of holiness is "wholeness" -- wholeness in body, mind, and spirit. This means that you can't have wholeness without happiness following close behind. It therefore makes perfect sense to believe that as God wants us to be holy, so He desires us to be happy. And since no one is holier than God, I'd venture to say no one is happier, either. If holiness and happiness are inextricably linked, then the holiest ones are indeed the happiest ones.

We should also keep in mind that God created human beings for perfection in the Garden of Eden. I don't see how this could have made them anything other than happy. Likewise, the final destination of redeemed humanity is life in the presence of God, which is surely the very essence of happiness. The fact is that happiness bookends the story of humankind regardless of how much heartache and suffering occurs in between, which suggests that happiness was in fact what God wanted for us all along.

One caveat, however: during the time we spend in that middle part of the story between Creation and Redemption, God's path to happiness will oftentimes seem long and circuitous and include detours through unpleasant times. It will necessitate growth on our part, and growth involves struggle. These things are necessary, not because there is something wrong with God's idea of happiness, but because we live in an imperfect world and also because we are fallen mortals who tend to try to take shortcuts to the goal.

This concept will be familiar to you if you've ever heard the idea that sin is just desire for a good thing wrongly obtained. Idolatry, for example, happens because people turn their inherently God-given desire to worship toward something or someone other than God Himself. Stealing and coveting happen because we desire good things, but we try to get them in wrong ways, or with wrong motives. Sins of immorality, both inside and outside of marriage, happen because we desire closeness, intimacy, and fulfillment.

Our own proposed paths to happiness usually end up either off a cliff or at a dead end, and this is why so many Christians think that God does not want us to desire happiness. What they should rather understand is that God wants us to desire His kind of happiness. This means we desire what He wants, and what He wants is a relationship between Himself and us, first and foremost. And I think that's really the best kind of happiness.

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