Our own culture puts a strong premium on happiness as the highest good. And while the idea that the goal of life is the pursuit of happiness may seem obvious to many of us, this hasn’t been the assumption of all people historically, and I would argue was not the assumption of the writers of the scriptures.
Now, certainly happiness is a good thing. It is good to be happy. But this is obviously not the only good. There are other good things like justice, faithfulness, courage, virtue, humility, loyalty, etc. We generally still recognize that things like these are also good, but in our culture we tend to put the emphasis on happiness or pleasure as the highest good or at least one of the highest goods.
Now, modern folk are not the first people to prioritize happiness. You could argue that the ancient Epicurean philosophers prioritized happiness similarly (don’t @ me history nerds). Of course, their understanding of happiness was much more rooted in the enduring satisfaction of community and friendship, not the kind of transitory, YOLO happiness that we often obsess over. You can see this in how we value convenience to the point of absurdity, while cutting ourselves off from things that truly make us happy in a long term sense, e.g. family, friendship, learning, the cultivation of virtue. Instead we focus on transitory immediate gratification, things like drugs and alcohol, sex, sedentary consumption (i.e. Netflix bingeing and the like), social media, etc.
This kind of cultural fixation on happiness then seeps into Christianity when we assume that the purpose of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints is to make us happy. We force Christianity to take on a therapeutic role. We come to church on Sunday to make us feel better, to uplift us, to refuel our spiritual fuel tank, so that we can go back to our real lives during the rest of the week. We insist upon our own preferences in worship, whether that be guitars and praise songs or organs and chanting. We become consumers of a religious product intended to satisfy us and make us feel better.
And lest I be misunderstood, this is not a rant against the evangelical megachurches that Lutherans love to mock. Lutherans do this as well whenever we separate the free gift of forgiveness from a life of repentance and the pursuit of Christlikeness. This of course is not to criticize the freeness of the Gospel; truly there is nothing we need to do or can do to earn forgiveness. But we so often ignore in our own circles that once our lives have been invaded by the forgiveness of Christ, nothing can ever be the same. Our lives will be changed as we live pursuing conformity to the new life to which we have been called to by Jesus.
This of course means that the Christian life will make us uncomfortable. It will cause us pain and suffering as the Spirit puts to death in us the sinful desires that bring death and slavery to ourselves and those around us. The Christian life assumes sacrifice. We sacrifice our desires, our resources, and even our own lives for the good of our neighbor. This is the opposite of the pursuit of cheap happiness championed by the culture around us, which seeks to maximize the satisfaction of our own desires and goals.
For example, when it comes to romantic relationships, our own culture sees them as essentially transactional. The relationship is valuable so long as I am taken over by some transcendent feeling of “love” for the other person. But once this feeling goes away, and/or once I stop getting what I want out of the relationship, we are called to ditch it as soon as possible, lest our freedom to pursue our own happiness be curtailed by someone else.
Instead a Christian perspective calls men and women to mutually submit themselves to each other. It calls us to crucify our own desires in the pursuit of service to the other person. Husbands are called to do away with the desire to control their wives and assert their own authority and to treat their wives as disposable objects that exist merely for the satisfaction of their own sexual impulses. Likewise wives are called to respect and honor their husbands and to do away with the desire to undermine, belittle, and nag to get their own way. Instead both are called to reflect the love and sacrifice between Christ and his church.
But of course, this so rarely happens. Instead when things go sour, we look for a way out, perhaps telling ourselves that this is not the person we’re truly meant to be with (a toxic idea), after all doesn’t God want us to be happy? And in this way we can use our cultural assumptions about cheap happiness to theologically justify all manner of evil, divorce and abandonment being just one example.
We’re not called to be happy. We’re called to be faithful. We’re called to sacrifice. We’re called to a life a continual dying to self. This is not the YOLO pursuit of happiness envisioned by our culture. Thank God.
God Does Want You to be Happy
Now all this being said, I think there is a sense in which we can in fact say that God does want us to be happy. But it’s an entirely different kind of happiness than what we’re used to.
I say this because it’s not as if God calls us to a life of suffering and pain for its own sake. We don’t want to fetishize being uncomfortable and unhappy as if these were good in and of themselves. Happiness is good. In fact, I believe we can say that in the long run, God desires nothing less than highest joy and happiness for his people.
The issue is that it’s an entirely different kind of happiness. The happiness that Christians are called to is not the immediate gratification sort of happiness of our own day, but it is a deep joy that comes out of living life the way it is intended. We delight in God’s law because God is the creator of all things and to live in harmony with God’s created order is a good thing. Our own twisted desires lead us astray from living life as the creator of life has intended. This is why we cannot rely uncritically on our own desires. This is not to say that our desires are wicked in and of themselves, but that we must be critical and skeptical of them lest they lead us astray.
Of course, this side of the resurrection we will not be able to experience the full joy that comes with living in harmony with God’s good order for his creation. But we can experience hints and shadows of it even now. As Jesus teaches us, the Kingdom of God is among us even now. We may await the full revelation of the Kingdom when Jesus comes again, but it is present among us right here, right now.
Accordingly, we can experience some of the happiness that God desires for us ultimately now. This happiness does not become the end or goal of our life, but it becomes a companion on our journey through this life as we seek to live the lives God has called us to.
So then, just like Paul we learn to be content in all things: happiness and sadness, fulfillment and disappointment, victory over sin as well as struggle with sin. And amidst all of this we know that we have been called to carry our own cross daily as we follow the road that Jesus has tread before us. We know that it is a journey that walks through suffering and persecution and even death. But it is a road that also leads to new life and resurrection, where there will be no more pain or sadness, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes in the midst of the joy of his presence.