Happiness is a funny thing. It’s not funny in the same way that Jim Gaffigan or Pitch Perfect is funny, but it’s funny because it’s fickle. Happiness is the basis of decisions about marriages, career choices, hobbies, and, most troublesome of all, spirituality. Chief among the ideologies that have grown from this fixation on happiness as the end-all-be-all of existence is the idea that God’s primary goal for us is that we be happy. Sure, He wants us to be good people, to worship Him, and to pray to Him, but that’s not really for Him; it’s for us. And the reason it’s for us is, you guessed it, to make us happy.
This all came to a head fairly recently when Joel Osteen’s wife Victoria gave a speech about religion and happiness to their megachurch. Here are just a few of her remarks:
“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God–I mean, that’s one way to look at it–we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we are happy.”
Just wait. It gets better.
“When you come to church, when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”
Sorry Victoria, but you won’t hear me giving an ‘Amen’ to that statement. Because as much as I like it when people are happy, and as much I like being happy myself, there’s a simple, basic problem: what you’re describing isn’t found in the Bible.
Nowhere does God say that His primary goal for us, His number one priority, is that we have this warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts that we like to call happiness. In fact, God has often operated by upsetting the happiness of certain people. Take the words of Jesus, who said “I came not to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). In fact, I would go so far as to say that if God was truly just interested in our happiness, He wouldn’t have troubled us with the gospel. The gospel guarantees our persecution (2 Tim. 3:12), conflict in our families (Matthew 10:35), and ridicule from the culture (John 15:19).
“But doesn’t a father want his children to be happy?” The answer to that depends on what exactly you mean by happiness. Every father has had to make his children unhappy at some point. The father who takes away a box of matches from his two-year-old daughter may soon have a screaming toddler on his hands. In that instance, it is not happiness that the parent is concerned with, but safety. What makes a child happy is not always synonymous with the child’s best interests.
In like manner, God commonly upsets one who might be considered a happy sinner. If I’m in sin, yet I’m happy in my sin, that doesn’t negate the fact that I am still in sin. God is not primarily concerned with our happiness because He is primarily concerned with our best interests, and the two are not always the same. In fact, they commonly run opposite to one another. What are our best interests? Reconciliation of our relationship with God.
As a perfect example of this, take the very first sermon recorded in the book of Acts. Peter (along with the other apostles, although only Peter’s specific words are recorded) delivers a sermon to people who, so far as we can tell, were perfectly happy. After the sermon, however, they were anything but. The passage in Acts 2 says they were “pricked to the heart.” Were they happy, in the sense that we consider happiness in modern American culture? No. No, they were not.
Well then, I guess God had his priorities out of whack, didn’t He? I mean, if He just wants us to be happy, then He’ll shield us from any consequences that come from decisions made in the name of happiness, right?
This needs to stop. Does God want to upset our emotional well-being just for the sake of upsetting it? No, of course not. But his commandments always take precedence over our fleeting emotional state. What’s important to God isn’t that we have emotional highs, but what is important to Him is what’s best for us. We simply need to redefine what we consider best for us, because in many cases, it’s not what God says.
So yes, God expects you to remain faithful to your spouse, take responsibility at your job, and remain faithful in your service to Him. If we’re to take Scripture seriously as we ought, then I’m reminded of Paul, who said “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). When I think of the life circumstances of Paul and Jesus, I don’t think of people who commonly had reason to be happy in the way we understand the word. But I do think of people who gave their lives completely to the will of God, whether it was convenient or not, and were rewarded for it.