To the world, Christians largely appear like morose, morbid, head-hanging, downcast, guilt-ridden sheep come in from the rain. Some Christians are convinced of this too, that the progressing Christian must continually remain under the devastating knowledge of sin. So mostly the informed Christian spends his time crying, thrashing, beating himself up, shaking his head profusely, avoiding with great panic all sorts of situations that are probably harmless.
Preachers speak about “joy” but this appears an elusive concept, or at very best a far different thing than happiness. They say joy is permanent, happiness is fleeting; joy is reliable, happiness is unstable; joy is real, happiness is a delusion. But shouldn’t a Christian safely be able to say “I am happy” without any sense of irony or guilt? Can’t a Christian, without fear of theological rebuke, proudly proclaim, “I’ve found happiness” . . . ?
A friend of mine, a pastor, was telling me about the difficulties of working at his church. Not because of the people, but the staff. He said, “You know, I love serving but they’re asking way too much. I’m worried about my own happiness.” I wanted to give him the general stock answer that it’s not really about our happiness, that “happiness” is a worldly concept, and that such a thing is theologically incorrect. But he continued, “That’s something I should be worried about. I want to be happy.” I wasn’t sure how to reply. I couldn’t think of any Bible verse or biblical knowledge that argued against him. And he wasn’t some wicked hedonistic homewrecker, so I had to get to the bottom of it.
Depending on the translation, the words happy or happiness show up in the Bible about twenty times, most notably in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. The words joy and rejoice show up over four-hundred times. The most apparent thing is that happiness is almost exclusively used in relation to an external circumstance, where as joy is mostly centered on God. It would be easy then to conclude that joy is the real deal and happiness is hardly a worthy goal. Except the Bible never says that.
I’m reminded of 1 Timothy 4:3-5, which says,
“They [hypocrites] forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”
God created stuff. The problem is that we pervert the stuff for our own ends. But the stuff itself isn’t bad. Sex is good, food is good, shelter is good, friendship is good. Like the figures in comic books, we can use these things for good or for evil.
Joy is in God: because of Heaven, because of His Son, because of what he did on the cross, because our faith in His grace has saved us, we have the joy. That doesn’t change because God doesn’t change. Happiness is in the stuff of life: His blessings, His creation, His gift of breathing and blinking and thinking. He can take away this stuff any time He wants.
The problem is not in what He’s given us, but when we put our entire stock in it. Apostle Paul writes “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,” and so we see in thankful people a real happiness. They know that God allows it at all. It might as well have been that we didn’t own a thing, didn’t even have the ability to breathe, and yet people reject life bitterly or reject who it comes from. We get that prideful American entitlement that stuff is my stuff instead of God’s. If our stuff becomes about us, we’ve already lost out. It’s like a fish complaining about all the water he swims in; without the water, he couldn’t complain because he’d be dead.
Jesus’ first recorded miracle was to supply a wedding with wine. Some will mistake this as “Party Jesus” and come up with all sorts of bizarre conclusions about the Christian life. No, the Christian journey is not easy. It’s not a constant rockshow of rainbows and sunshine. The Bible promises persecution in this world. But there is a certain giddiness that comes with the Christian life, a sort of wild awe in knowing we can talk to God. And Heaven is pictured as a wedding ceremony, a feast, a gathering, a choir of praise.
Jesus didn’t have to make more wine: he could have entertained the wedding some other way, like breakdancing with the apostles or busting out the hymn karaoke machine. Yet wine he makes, and at once we see the fusion of joy and happiness. Really the point is seen in John 2:10, when the master of the banquet says, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” The best was saved for last, and at the wedding they got just a taste. Happiness today; joy in the eternal future.
Christians: It’s okay to be happy. We’re not called to be somber all the time. It’s okay to laugh at jokes, smile in prayer, jump in worship, and read the Bible with excitement. It’s true that we must daily recognize our sin, be broken before God, and humble ourselves to Him, but this is done with such a relish because we get to, and want to. That happiness though is just a small reflection of God’s infinite glory. In Heaven it’ll be a ridiculous overdose compared to the paltry emotions we feel now. The phrase “pales in comparison” really pales in comparison. We’re driven not by guilt, but ultimately by grace, and so go ahead. Smile it up.