The questions that follow are ones with which I wrestled in the writing of Hoping for Happiness, and which I continue to think about regularly. I hope these thoughts will help you to find real happiness and rest in it.
1) What is the difference between joy and happiness?
Many Christians think of joy as deeply spiritual and virtuous, and think of happiness as experiential, untrustworthy, and fleeting. Joy is rooted and unshakeable while happiness lives on the whim of a mood and the serendipity of circumstance. As we saw in chapter 10, these definitions are unhelpful and cause people unnecessary turmoil.
Certainly, people can have a version of happiness without having joy in the Lord. Temporal happiness is all around us all the time. Happiness, in this sense, is not the purview of Christians alone. Matthew 5:45 tells us that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust,” so it’s clear that the good gifts of God are enjoyed by all people to some degree. People eat and drink. People fall in love. People marvel at the beauty of the Matterhorn or an Edgar Degas oil painting. But this happiness—a tug toward the eternal—is incomplete. It is meant to lift people’s eyes to the things of God. Instead most people make their way through life moving from one temporal happiness to another.
This version of happiness is the beginning of something lasting and magnificent. But without an eye toward the eternal, it is happiness without joy—a fleeting pursuit of the next good feeling. However good it looks on the surface, at its root it is idolatrous and dangerous.
So you can have a version of happiness without joy, but you cannot have genuine joy without happiness. To be joyful is to be glad, to rejoice, to be grateful, to be at peace. Joy should be magnetic and compelling, not life in the doldrums. In short, to be joyful is to be happy in those things that are lasting and transformative. A professed joy that lacks happiness is nothing but an articulated belief system, and it is hypocrisy.
When we recognize the inextricable wovenness of genuine happiness and joy it relieves a burden of unnecessary guilt over enjoyment (evangeliguilt) in life’s pleasures. It gives us permission to—and even compels us to—find laughter and peace in the midst of life’s worst circumstances. The complex reality of human emotion is that we rarely experience just one feeling at a time. We find that we can be truly happy in the midst of suffering even though we are grieving and burdened because of the suffering. We don’t need to extricate our joy from our happiness or put one on a spiritual pedestal while the other plays in the yard. To do so is to falsify both.
2) Is unhappiness sin? How about unhappiness in the midst of suffering?
Well, that depends.
In chapter 4 we took a long look at how we live under a curse because of sin. Nothing is as it is supposed to be. And every human knows this at a visceral and often subconscious level. We feel the wrongness of injustice, unkindness, illness, brokenness, and death. They make us unhappy, and this unhappiness is a reflection of God’s image in us. We are designed to abhor what is evil, what is wrong, what shouldn’t be. This kind of unhappiness is right.
This means that when we suffer, we are free to lament—to grieve with faith that God is in control. We should abhor the pain that a cursed reality has brought about. We ought to yearn for resolution, for healing, for justice, and ultimately for the return of Jesus to set things right. The Gospels tell of Jesus weeping over the death of a friend, mourning over the plight of a city he loved, and pleading with God for a way out of the suffering of crucifixion. He was rightly unhappy with the devastation wrought by sin.
But he was never selfish. His unhappiness did not turn to complaint, to blaming, to bad moods, or to mistrust of his Father. Just the opposite. When Jesus asked, “Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me,” in the same breath He prayed “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). He was unhappy, but trusting. He was unhappy, but obedient. He was unhappy, but he did not let it direct him away from the course God called him to.
Our unhappiness becomes sinful when it focuses on the self. We instinctively do this all the time—and the effects can be devastating. We allow the brokenness in one area of life to splatter its acid all over other areas of life, so that we become blind to that for which we should be thankful. Or we experience a wrong of some kind and our reaction is disproportionate and causes even more wreckage. Or we wallow in unhappiness, as if that will somehow make us happier, rather than seeking the happiness Christ offers through his Spirit and through so many good gifts.
Unhappiness is part of life until we go to meet Jesus or he returns. We will never be completely happy, completely satisfied, or permanently at peace in this life. And this does not have to be sinful. In fact, it can be God-honoring as we respond to life’s unhappiness in the manner Jesus did—selflessly, joyfully, trusting God, pressing on.
3) Are my expectations right, realistic, and godly?
So much of happiness is tied to what we expect. But how do we know if what we expect is right? Here are some filters we can run expectations through to help determine if they are realistic and god-honoring.
Who are my expectations benefiting?
The easiest thing in the world is to think of ourselves first and only. It is our sinful nature to prioritize ourselves at the cost of anyone else, and it is contrary to everything Scripture teaches about serving others, considering their needs, bearing with one another, and taking up our crosses as followers of Jesus. If the primary, or only, beneficiary of your expectations is yourself, you need to consider how they align with what God says is right and true.
When you head into a relationship, are you thinking primarily of how it will be good for you, or how it will be good for the other person? When you join a church, are considering only what it offers you or what you can bring to it? In any decision, are you considering the cost to yourself or only the benefit? Are you willing to absorb that cost for the good of others, even if it is unpleasant? And have you considered how the benefit to you might actually be a cost to others?
Who do I depend on to meet my expectations?
This question goes hand-in-hand with the one above. It is impossible to have expectations that truly depend on God and are also self-centered in their outcome. To depend on God (to “fear God”, Ecclesiastes 12:13) is to put him first. When we do this, it rearranges or replaces our selfish motivations and orients us toward expectations that truly please God. When we have expectations that are selfish we can be sure that they are dependent on ourselves, or other people, to fulfill them.
That’s not to say we don’t need other people or that leaning on them is wrong. God has designed us for relationships in which we depend on one another. But there is a significant difference between the kind of depending on people that puts all our faith in them and the kind that recognizes their need for God to empower and enable them. The former places a burden of expectation on people that will inevitably lead to disappointment. The second acknowledges their God-given abilities and capacities with gratitude, while resting in God’s ongoing work through them. This is freeing and gracious.
When our expectations are God-dependent they become God-defined. We simply can’t expect God to do anything that God didn’t say he would do. Remembering this keeps us from hoping for things that dishonor God, while enabling us to expect remarkable, mind-blowing things from God by faith. We often will not know what to hope for or expect in particular situations, but when we depend on God, we know that he will do what is best—whether or not our expectations come to fruition. When we depend on ourselves, or on others, we risk becoming proud or embittered, depending on whether our expectations were met or not.
What do I know of the one I am depending on?
When we depend on God, we know that our expectations are in perfect hands—but they are also in mysterious ones. God will do things we never thought possible and that we never asked for. His wisdom is too great and wonderful for us, so we will never know the full picture of why and how he does what he does. However, if we know him well—his character, his word, his promises—we will find peace and happiness in the outcomes he gives. If we don’t have a firm grasp on God’s character, we’ll struggle to believe and find peace in outcomes we did not expect or want.
When we depend on people, even in a healthy way, we need to be equally aware of who they are—image-bearers of God with an incredible capacity for good and evil. We are fools if we don’t let this shape our expectations of people. They can bring us great joy and do us real good, but they will inevitably let us down too. There is only one person who works for our good in all things, all the time—and it’s not our spouse, or our friend, or our pastor (Romans 8:28). This is why we depend on God even as we depend on people. It is only through God’s work that people do good and can be trusted. Another way to put it would be: who does the one you depend on depend on?
4) How do I freely enjoy life without guilt? How do I keep enjoyment from becoming idolatry?
One of the main reasons I wrote this book was because I was tired of wrestling with guilt over having fun and enjoying myself. It seemed strange that God would give so many wonderful gifts only for me to feel guilty for enjoying them. On the other hand, I could also recognize my propensity for turning good things into idols, and that wasn’t ok either. Thus began my efforts at wrangling these tensions into a (hopefully) coherent and biblically faithful book. In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, and hopefully a dash of Solomon’s wisdom, I’ll conclude with the following thoughts.
Be grateful in everything. If you acknowledge and thank the source of your blessings it is so much harder to turn them into idols of any kind.
Appreciate good gifts as God intended. Savor the delicious things. Laugh at the humorous things. Thrill at the exhilarating things. Enjoy the entertaining things. Cheer at the joyous things. Ponder the deep things. Rest in the peaceful things. Reflect on the somber things. Wonder at the beautiful things. Cherish the precious things. And share them all, for happiness is multiplied when gifts are experienced together.
Live the life God has given you to the fullest. Imagine taking a child to the playground. If she continually came back asking, “Am I swinging right?” or, “Am I sliding right?” you would eventually say, “Just go play! Enjoy yourself. Have fun.” We are like that child when we worry too much about how to enjoy life rather than simply being fully engaged and enjoying it.
Repent often and eagerly. We will get things wrong dozens of times every day for the rest of our lives. We will sin in our hearts, minds, and actions. We can either let our sins drive us from God, or we can remember the work of Christ and take our sins to God, our good Father, who stands ready to forgive and is generous with good gifts. When we repent the Holy Spirit changes us, by degrees, toward holiness, where perfect peace and happiness are found.
Fear God and keep his commandments. These words are the final instruction of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, and they are the perfect summation of our pursuit of happiness. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). It is the grounds for all gratitude. It is the orientation of our hearts to truth and right expectations. It is dependence and honor and trust. From it flows a desire to keep God’s commandments because we see them as life-giving and good. In God’s words we have freedom to enjoy, strength to overcome, and a promise of true happiness.
This is an excerpt from my book Hoping for Happiness. A biblical framework for living a grounded, hopeful, and genuinely happy life, this book gets far beyond the topic of work and helps us to throw off both the unrealistic expectations that end in disappointment and the guilty sense that Christians are not meant to have fun.