We may have come across this saying that “God desires our holiness more than our happiness”. Undoubtedly, since God is holy, He desires any follower of Christ to learn to deny himself lest he engages in an activity that brings him pleasure but leads him to sin at the same time. Thus, a Christian should rightfully guard against being involved in an adulterous affair or getting into a same-sex marriage, thinking that it would bring the happiness or fulfilment that he so yearns for.
At this juncture, it is necessary to note that the Bible does not really make any distinction between the word joy and happiness as if they are fundamentally different. Within the Bible, you will not find one being valued above the other as if joy is more desirable in contrast to happiness, which is commonly understood these days as superficial and circumstantial.
Instead, one will discover that these two English words are synonyms. Depending on the version of the Bible, these words are used alongside or interchangeably along with words such as “gladness” and “blessed”. This is because in its original Hebrew (eg. asher) and Greek (caras, euphrosunes), these words do have a wide range of meaning and can be appropriately translated as such. Thus, in Esther 8:16 (NIV), the verse reads as “For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor” while in the ESV it is “The Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor”. Similarly, in Acts 16:17 (NIV), the verse reads as “… provides you with plenty of food and fills your heart with joy” while in the ESV, it is translated as “… satisfying your hearts with food and gladness”.
Likewise, Christian leaders in the past were not embarrassed to use the word “happy” to describe what today is understood as joy or gladness. Here, Randy Alcorn who did extensive research on this subject cites the example of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), a Puritan pastor-theologian, who in his reference to John 15:11 talked about “The happiness Christ gives to his people is a participation of his own happiness”. We can also be quite certain that in the chorus “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey”, the hymn writer was not mooting for some happy-clappy spirituality.
Instead of splitting hairs in trying to define joy and happiness, the distinction we should be pressing is between false, superficial happiness and authentic happiness. It would also be helpful to understand the proper relationship between holiness and happiness. As Christians, our happiness is to be rightly ordered. As one author puts it, “our happiness must be subjected to our holiness”.
While happiness is a basic human need, the challenge is that an unbridled pursuit of happiness can easily lead us to do whatever is right in our own eyes. One of the reasons why Adam and Eve fell prey to Satan’s temptation was that they doubted God’s goodness and were deceived into believing that happiness can be found apart from God.
To a large extent, this is what we find happening in the world. Many have even come to the conclusion that if something makes me happy, then it has to be good, not just as a matter of personal preference but also morally and ontologically. As such, one should never question another’s pursuit of happiness but should rather embrace and celebrate it. Not surprisingly, such a worldview is creeping into the Christian community and it is paramount that our churches rise up to contend with such a wrong-headed pursuit.
For a start, Christians need to realise that holiness and happiness are not mutually exclusive. It is rather unfortunate that some have this mistaken idea that the Bible does not mention anything about God’s people being happy or that God prefers us to live an ascetic lifestyle devoid of emotions and deprived of the pleasures in life. Nothing can be further from the truth than having a picture of a God who is a cosmic kill-joy.
A quick survey of the Torah would show us that besides instructions on how Israel is to live in the Promised Land, there are also specific instructions on how God’s people are to celebrate (Lev 23:33-42, Deut 16:9-17). Suffice to say, the feasting with family and community as Israel obeys God and recalls God’s faithfulness would hardly be a muted or dreary affair.
Perhaps, the best example of how holiness and happiness are not mutually exclusive is seen in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus was without sin and no one who knew him would consider him a moody recluse. In fact, as he reached out to others with the Gospel, he ended up being maliciously labelled as “a glutton and a drunkard” (Matt 11:19, Lk 7:34). Finally, we are reminded by the writer of Hebrews that Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross”. Indeed, obedience to God can and will ultimately lead to our greatest joy and happiness even if in the process there may be pain and suffering involved. As God’s people, let us pray that we will increasingly come to believe and experience this truth that there is happiness in holiness. Indeed, the good news is that a holy and good God would not desire anything less for His people.
Rev Edwin Wong
July 24, 2016