I recently listened to a sermon called God Never Said That: God Wants You Happy. After watching the sermon on my iPad I totally get the point of the sermon and agree with the overall message. The world’s definition of happiness is very different than the Christian’s definition. And yes, God doesn’t call us to pursue happiness above all else.
However–and this is a big however–I believe Christians should reevaluate happiness in light of the scriptures. At face value the title of the sermon conveys an idea that God somehow minimizes our happiness and joy. Overall, we as believers tend to perpetuate this concept—and sometimes even to the point where living the Christian life seems only possible for the stoics.
To be honest, I know many believers who are not happy. But—they’re hanging in there. And one day—when all the planets line up—or they leave this old world to experience their new bodies, they will finally be happy and experience joy.
What’s interesting is that many Christians and the world as a whole both see happiness as a by-product. If we just do X, then we will find happiness. The world says, “If you become successful, you will attain happiness.” Likewise the Christian says, “If you will just obey this commandment, you will have lasting joy.”
I want to challenge this thinking a little, because there are many scriptures where God seems to be putting the cart (happiness and joy) before the horse (attaining or doing something). There are many occasions where the apostles seem to be saying something profoundly different from our traditional logic. James says to consider it all joy when you face adversity and trials because it produces perseverance. Notice he’s not saying the perseverance (doing or attaining) produces your joy. He puts joy first. In Philippians 4:8, Paul tells us to first—think. Think and dwell on what’s good, what’s noble, what’s right, what’s lovely, what’s admirable.
Over and over, Paul uses words like: know, reckon, remember, consider, think, dwell, rejoice. Paul uses these words in the context of many things. He’s beckoning believers to wake up and realize what they already possess. He points down to our feet like we are Dorothy and reveals we’re already wearing the ruby slippers. Could one of those slippers be happiness?
I think Paul is telling us all throughout New Testament scripture that happiness and joy are part of the new spiritual mindset. It’s a realization of the new creative work God has done and is still doing in us. Joy and happiness appear on the scene very early in our new birth. Think about the time you experienced God’s Spirit transforming you, bringing you into the family of God. Was that a sad, lackluster moment in your life? No, absolutely not. Don’t you remember the joy? How soon we seem to cast that joy aside and minimize it.
I’m not saying that Christians won’t experience troubles in this life. Or that somehow we can just continue to live on the emotional high of happiness. Or that we can shelter ourselves from pain, sadness, or suffering. That’s not what I mean by lasting happiness and joy. I’m talking about something that’s part of our new spiritual mindset. So no matter what our circumstances, we come back to contentment, joy, what’s good in our life, what’s lovely, what’s right, and the realization of who we are in Christ–how God has tremendously blessed us.
Just to be clear—I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking. That philosophy pushes that if you believe a certain thing long and hard enough, you will become that thing. And we all realize the limitations of this way of thinking. This can often lead to very unrealistic goals and frustrations.
But joy and happiness do have a strength, an advantage. Scripture says that the “joy of the Lord is our strength.” Not just an outcome. Not something we get far off into the future. Joy is a present strength. Think of joy and happiness as tools God uses to cultivate the new character He’s shaping within us. We don’t simply attain joy and happiness as we mature and grow. No, they can be the very things that bring about growth and a renewed character. More than just A fruit, they can serve as the water and fertilizer from God to produce more fruit.
So let’s not put happiness and joy last in our life. Let’s assign them a higher importance. Stop looking at them as just the by-product of our spiritual growth. More times than not, they are the catalyst for Christian maturity. By all means pursue God first. After all He’s the embodiment of our true happiness. But let’s understand the role happiness and joy play in the Christian life.
I leave you with an exercise that I encourage you to take up on a daily basis. I’m borrowing this idea from a book called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. Although the book approaches happiness from a psychologist / secularist viewpoint, I still believe it’s a good read.
Even secular psychology can discover principles from God. This is His world after all. And I might be misjudging Shawn’s viewpoint. He seems to imply a belief in God, although he doesn’t emphasize it. Shawn posits that we can train our brains to be more happy, by focusing on the good in our lives. What I like about Shawn’s book is that he backs up his claims with scientific studies.
I submit to you the idea that Paul already presented Shawn’s exercise in Philippians 4:8.
Here is my modified version of Shawn’s excercise. So find a notebook or journal and at the top of each page write the words:
At the beginning or end of each day, write down at least 5 things in your life that you associate with one or more of these words. Make this a ritual, but make sure it’s a meaningful exercise. Take some time to savor the good things in your life and remember how God has blessed you.