Written by: Jeff B. Miller, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
I’ve heard these statements a million times: “God doesn’t care if you’re happy.” “God didn’t create you to be happy. He created you to serve him.” Or at best…”Happiness doesn’t matter; it is purpose that matters.”
I’ve heard this from every corner of the Church. But is it true? Most would say that happiness is fleeting and unimportant and that it is joy that matters. Still though, what does that mean? They say that joy is not a feeling, but, like love, it’s a choice that could become a feeling if you’re lucky (not lucky—we’re Christians—I mean “blessed”).
But why are Christians, and even non-Christians, of the world today so afraid of happiness? There are at least two reasons I can think of. One is that hardly anyone is happy, and if they are supposed to be happy, then they have yet another thing to be guilty about: that they are not happy.
The other reason is that happiness is associated with hedonism and lack of discipline. You can be disciplined, or you can be happy. You can be spiritual, or you can be happy. You can be obedient to God, or you can be happy. You can work hard, or you can be happy. You can lay down your life for Christ, or you can be happy.
They might say, “Jesus was the man of sorrows.” And they might point out that “Jesus died for the joy set before him,” but the man never cracked a smile that we are told of.
How confusing and sad.
There is a third reason why Christians aren’t usually happy, and it’s that unhappiness often acts as a penance. We’ve been talking some about the contradictions most people live with that cause conflictedness and unearned guilt. People believe they should be better, they should pray more, give more, obey God more, evangelize more, be nice to their kids more, give up their desires more, be more humble, more, more, more of the hard things to do, and less, less, less of anything enjoyable.
But they are never satisfied with themselves and how they’re doing, and if they ever manage to do as much as they think they should, they are immediately guilty of thinking they’ve done as much as they should. All that’s left is to run to the church, repent, and do whatever the pastor says. Maybe then they’ll feel okay.
Oh, and one more thing, many preach that true happiness is found in God alone.
Okay… I’ll give you that, but happiness in God encompasses and enfolds all things, so it makes room for happiness in other stuff when you are living in and for God.
John Piper calls this Christian hedonism which says something like: You were made to crave happiness. But God intends that he be the only source of that happiness. Only he can satisfy that craving.
By this logic, hedonism is to life on earth as Christian hedonism is to the Christian life on earth. Piper is saying that the truest desires of the human heart are hedonistic desires, so real faith is directing those desires for pleasure toward a hunger for God.
Here’s why I think that’s wrong. It assumes that there is anything good about hedonism, which is pursuing pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Hedonism makes you do bad things—drink, smoke, have sex with someone you’re not married to, for instance.
Piper says to redirect that to desiring God, and what is implied is if you don’t want to do that, you might not be a real Christian.
This makes the point of life on earth experiencing God in some kind of rapturous spiritual experience, even a very Baptist one like Piper prefers.
To this way of thinking, loving anything, or finding happiness in anything is suspect at best and pure evil idolatry at worst.
To be sure, we should enjoy the presence of God. Worshiping him and praying to him should be fun and make us happy.
But if hedonism is not the goal of life without God, then it should not be the goal of life with God either. When I say hedonism is not meant to be the goal of life without God, I am saying that even a non-Christian can learn that his life goes beyond hedonistic pursuits and desires.
Anyone, just by virtue of being human, will learn at some point that they should delay gratification, think long-range, and do something helpful and important with their life. When Christians assume that non-believers are just dying to murder, rape, and pillage but for the state’s laws, they are being dishonest. There are millions of non-believers who long for something besides temporary pleasures. They want love, they want purpose, they want to feel a sense of self-worth that comes from feeling they have value to add to the world. That is a far cry from simple hunger for sweets, booze, and sex. Most of them even know that their desire for the praise of man is an empty desire.
So hedonism is not the goal for the majority of humans, because the true desire of any human is to live with purpose. For the Christian, Christian hedonism is not really the true desire. We think it should be, so we try and try to make it so, but we still find ourselves wanting to do something with our lives, to add value, to build and create. And we also love to succeed, to win, to gather strength, to achieve goals.
Many times, as soon as someone in the church begins to do this, everyone will gather around to cry, “You’re doing that in your own strength!”
But this is a false accusation based on ignorance and their own guilt about their own lack of industrious creative activity. If they’ve laid down their ambitions, then so should you! (They think.)
Others will become hyper-spiritual, so they can “hear God say to go and build something.” I won’t get into that here except to say being that sort of prophet before you can create something is unnecessary for the image bearer of God who was put on this earth for the very purpose of being creative, being a builder (Gen 1:28).
So Then How Can We Be Happy?
I’m glad you asked! Emotions are not meant to rule us, but they are meant for at least two tasks. The first is to help us know if we’re on the right track. The second is purely for the purposes of living a rich life where feelings matter and add to the quality of experience.
Let’s look at the first task of emotions, helping us know when we’re on the right track. If, and only if, you have done the work to know your values, their order, your principles (God’s laws), and your purpose, which is also your strategic objective, then you can begin to trust your emotions. A general sense of well-being will show you that you are likely living according to what you have worked out to be important.
Let’s say you have identified God as your highest value, work as your next highest value, your family next (remember why work comes first, because you need work to support a family. Looked at another way, family would rank much higher than work). Next is church, then friendships, community service, hunting, fishing, golf, and finally, your favorite TV shows or sports to watch. This is a very oversimplified list, but you get the point.
Now look at your calendar and your budget. Did they show that you are living out these values in order of importance? If so, you will likely notice a feeling of happiness. When you achieve some goal toward attaining or keeping one of these values, without of course violating a higher value, then you should feel joy and happiness.
Inversely, you should feel sad if you fail to attain or keep a value. In chapter 2 we talked about waking up alone on an island. Your values are real simple in that situation. First, God. You're praying; you're seeking his presence, his comfort, his friendship. You are asking for his help. Next: food, shelter, safety. In other words, work. The burning question is “are you going to be able to survive? Do you have the skills to stay alive? The skills to pay the bills?” The bills are your empty stomach, the freezing temperatures, and the wild predators stalking you. When you’re in that situation, and you are searching, searching, searching for some food, imagine you see a rabbit. You chuck a rock at it and knock it out, securing dinner. Would you feel happy? You bet you would?
And what did we say is the difference between that situation and the one that you’re probably in as you read this on your electronic device? The complexity of a comfortable society. No, the answer is not to go out into the woods, although you’re welcome to if that’s what you value. The answer is to get in focus! Focus, focus, focus.
What’s the value? What’s the goal? What are you about to do as soon as you get done reading this book? How does that relate to what you said was important based on your values, that is, those things that you want to attain and hold onto? You must constantly be asking this question with the understanding that to know the answers is to take action.
Then it will never be a question of procrastination. Why would you procrastinate once you realize it makes you happy to do what’s best? You only procrastinate when you have forgotten why you’re doing what you’re doing. When the layers of complexity make you forget why you eat healthy, work on your business, work on your marriage, or pour into your children, your appetites take over, your lusts, and then your emotions cannot be considered reliable.
Ending Depression is Not the Goal
Most people, when they feel depressed, focus on how to end their depression. But that is backward. If you are depressed, one of two things is going on. You are either losing or failing at something that is important to you, in which case, being sad makes sense, or you are drifting in confusion, and without intentionality of your activities minute by minute.
You might be thinking, “I thought you were saying we’re supposed to be happy all the time.” Not at all. On the contrary, there are plenty of things to be sad about, even if you are living a purposeful life of perfection. There are still dangers, obstacles to overcome, loved ones to pass, and even competitors who will get in your way and beat you sometimes. But consider that even that is part of the joy of life, since overcoming obstacles is highly rewarding, and happiness is all the sweeter when you’ve experienced some sadness and setbacks.
Even the emotion of grief is powerful when it’s connected to the loss of people we love. Somehow, we find deep meaning in loving someone so much that we grieve the loss of them. That usually means we’ve experienced so much joy from them that it’s worth the grief, which, if we do it right, won’t last as long as the joy.
I’ve heard it said that our minds are like computers, and we, ourselves, are programmers. Focus on our values is programming the computer, the mind. The algorithm that’s being run dictates that our emotions line up completely with our amazing life. With that said, I say, strive for happiness and joy, and don’t make too big of a deal about trying to make a distinction between them. Know what makes you happy, that is, know what brings you life and life abundant; go get it, because, actually, it’s what we were created for!
You’ve heard it said that joy and happiness are two different things, but I tell you… not really.
I’ll add this: you’ve heard it said that happiness is not a life goal, but I tell you that in a certain way it is the goal of everything—a fantastic life for the glory of God.
Jeff B. Miller, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Jeff B. Miller has written hundreds of books as a ghostwriter and has begun to put his name on some things. He writes about faith, the agency we have as individuals with choices, and power we have to create our worlds through stewardship and owning our judgments. With a unique approach, JB helps clients and readers eradicate people pleasing, imposter syndrome, and makes them bullet proof to those who would abuse them or seek control of their life and choices.