As a society, we don’t excel at nuance. This means that many cleverly stated falsehoods go unchecked. We especially love a good false dichotomy, particularly if it rhymes or is alliterated. It matters less if it’s true than if it’s memorable.
One such statement that has laid waste to many people’s happiness, and even their faith, is some version of “God wants you to be holy, not happy.” While some might put it that bluntly, more often it is applied to specific areas of life. “Marriage isn’t about your happiness but your holiness.” “Church doesn’t exist to make you happy; it exists to make you holy.” “It’s a parent’s job to lead their children toward holiness, not happiness.”
The guilt so many Christians feel for experiencing pleasure is born of the belief that to chase after happiness is to run away from God. This isn’t to say we can never be happy, but rather that happiness is, at best, a temporary and surprising circumstantial bi-product of doing what is right. We can desire and run after happiness or holiness, but not both.
A brief definition of holiness is: growing in Christ-likeness through the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives so that we pursue the things of God. So, if it’s true that God wants us to be happy, then pursuing the things of God cannot be in opposition to happiness.
So why is this false dichotomy so prevalent and so powerful in the lives of so many churches and believers?
The Wrong Kind of Happiness
The movie The Princess Bride contains a memorable exchange between self-important criminal mastermind Vizzini and Inigo Montoya, the revenge-driven Spanish swordsman. Vizzini repeatedly uses the word “inconceivable.” Everything that surprises him is “inconceivable.” After numerous such exclamations, Inigo looks sidelong at him and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” This is how I feel every time I hear someone pit happiness against holiness. The only way happiness and holiness can be put at odds is to misdefine them both.
We do this, first, by cheapening happiness and reducing it to something trite. The “happiness” that stands in opposition to holiness is cheap, flimsy, and temporary. It is the kind found in things of little significance that we think will fulfill us but really won’t last—the kind of happiness that we hang on weak hooks and with wrong expectations.
Certainly there is a bastardized version of happiness that can be found in sin too. Pornography arouses. Gluttony satiates. Laziness relaxes. Drunkenness stimulates or numbs, depending on what we need it to medicate. Sexual promiscuity is enthralling and ecstatic. Workaholism gives a sense of accomplishment. Gossip titillates. Criticism leaves us feeling superior.
While the feelings last, that is. Then comes the inevitable crash, leaving us with a need for another hit to keep the high going. And every high is lower than the last, so we increase our intake. In the end we are as strung out emotionally and spiritually as a heroin addict is physically and mentally. What we thought of as happiness was mere emotional self-manipulation.
This kind of “happiness” looks nothing like the joy we saw in Psalm 16, or the pleasure of enjoying every good and perfect gift. It’s not the happiness we have when we expect the right things of the right things—a solid, grounded happiness that’s earthy but not worldly, and is simply good.
So in one sense, to pit this twisted type of “happiness” against holiness is biblically right; it is in opposition to pursuing the things of God. But to call this “happiness” is inaccurate and leads people to believe that pursuing things of God reduces enjoyment in life.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Holiness Without Happiness
Misdefining happiness is only half the problem. Misdefining holiness is the other half. At least part of reason we do this is because we’ve already misunderstood happiness. Once we reduce happiness to something that is opposed to godliness, we end up seeing holiness as a dry husk; a matter of suppressing our desire for the sake what is right. We know there’s a reward in heaven—a significant reward to be sure, but it offers a bleak outlook for enjoyment during the duration of our lifetime.
If we remove happiness from holiness, pursuing the things of God is drudgery. It is a grind. We become like Sisyphus, the figure from Greek Mythology cursed to push the boulder up the hill only to see it roll down again, day after day after day for our whole lives. We become driven by a sense of moral dread and the burden of obligation. Holiness becomes a word we loathe rather than the wondrous calling and invitation it actually is in Christ. We mustn’t miss the fact that God says that the pursuit of joy is a pursuit of holiness. Remember the command to “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4), “Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous” (Psalm 97:12), and the significant number of times Jesus says to rejoice (e.g. Matthew 5:12, Luke 10:20, Luke 15:6). Consider that in Galatians joy is listed among the fruit of the Spirit. We are commanded to be joyful and told that joy will be a result of life as a follower of Jesus.
Some of you may be a bit uncomfortable right now, because you have come to believe that joy and happiness are distinctly different. In this line of thinking, happiness is a temporary, trite emotion, while joy is altogether different—a deep, lasting, rooted, and significant spiritual virtue. So, the thinking goes, joy is our reward for holiness, and happiness is something unreliable and mostly devoid of spiritual significance.
Let me pose a question in response. What would you think of a person who perpetually promoted joy, spoke of pursuing joy, expressed the deep riches of joy, but simply didn’t seem happy? They would be very confusing, right? It would seem at odds and maybe even hypocritical. That’s because joy without happiness is nothing but a theological description, at least if it remains that way. Joy that doesn’t bring about happiness isn’t genuine joy. This doesn’t mean that we will always feel happy. And it doesn’t mean that happiness will always come easily. Our peace and wholeness and comfort in the Lord will not always immediately bring about laughter and rejoicing. But real biblical joy is always moving us toward those things.
It’s true that the Bible says little about the word “happiness.” And of course, Scripture commands us to rejoice, making clear that this is much more than a mere feeling—it’s something we can choose, rather than something we passively experience. But another biblical word helps us understand the connection between happiness and joy: gladness. This is a feeling of pleasure attached to joy, an uplifting of spirit, a bubbling up of happiness. Scripture describes serving the Lord with “joyfulness and gladness” (Deuteronomy 28:47), people being “glad of heart for all the goodness that the Lord had shown” (1 Kings 8:66), and people having “light and gladness and joy and honor” (Esther 8:16). Psalm 32:11 rounds out the picture by saying “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice.” Gladness is paired with joy and rejoicing; it is the feeling that stems from them and fuels them.
This means that when joy in the Lord is lived out, it breeds happiness—the Psalm-16-every-perfect-gift-with-right-expectations kind of happiness that is rich and deep and profound. This is the sort of happiness that is capable of mourning with those who mourn and living realistically under the weight of a fallen world, because it’s rooted and realistic. It can comfort the sorrowful and uplift the weary rather than badgering them with trite chipperness and insisting that they look on the bright side of life. It’s happiness that reflects God’s holiness rather than diminishing it, because if joy is our reward for pursuing holiness, then so is happiness.
Happiness through Holiness
Having said all that, our pursuit of holiness will still be work, because of our sinful nature. It takes effort and discipline. But for those who are in Christ, this effort is done in the power of the Holy Spirit:
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
We work for godliness, but it is God who works in us. It takes effort by us, but God is the mover and accomplisher. What’s more, God works in us “for his good pleasure.” So, even more than our holiness makes us happy, it makes God happy.
This is vital to understand, because it moves us far away from thinking of holiness as drudgery. Yes, it is work. Yes, we will fail. Yes, we must persevere. But it is God who works in us, and he delights to give us the Holy Spirit who teaches and empowers and enables us toward holiness (Luke 11:13). This is a new spiritual dimension entirely, and one that reverberates with hope and happiness.
It is amazing how the changing of a single syllable can alter an entire theological argument and even the trajectory of a life. If we change the framework of our thinking from “happiness and holiness” to “happiness through holiness,” we alter one tiny word and literally everything else in life follows suit. Instead of being pitted against one another they become interdependent. No longer do we have to choose between doing the work of following Jesus or pursuing happiness. Instead we find that pursuing holiness, in all areas of life, through the power of The Holy Spirit, under the smile of God, is where true happiness is to be found.
To put it a different way, pursuing holiness pays off. In this life. As we pursue holiness, “we walk in the light” (1 John 1:7). We step out of spiritual darkness where we hid in shame and guilt and frustration and loneliness and step into the light of Jesus with all our sinful junk. And that’s where we find freedom. Freedom to be forgiven over and over again as we fight against and sin and still fail. Freedom in the Spirit to pursue the things God love. Freedom to grow genuine deep relationships. Freedom to enjoy the things of earth as God’s good gifts not as idols. Freedom from pain we have inflicted on ourselves or even that others have inflicted on us. Freedom to keep repenting, knowing that God welcomes all who are in Jesus with open arms.
In the moment, many of these actions feel like sacrifice and self-denial. It’s difficult to give up idols because of the prominence we’ve given them in our lives. It feels humiliating to repent. Turning from habits of sin is hard. Meaningful relationships are risky because vulnerability is frightening. Changing the course of our lives from self-centered to God-oriented can lead in uncertain directions. But each action is simply denying a self we left behind when we became Christ’s. They are risky, in that we can still be hurt by fellow sinners, but we know with certainty that we are accepted by God. They are losses, but only of things by which we no longer want to define ourselves and in which we no longer want to find our worth.
Pursuing holiness is the pursuit of happiness, in this life and the next. Nobody should be happier than a follower of Jesus.
Holiness through Happiness
For a Christian, everything you just read should feel right. We can grow in happiness as we grow in holiness because of the freedom we find in Christ. But we can also grow in holiness as we pursue happiness. It’s true. The Bible gives us a model how.
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)
This verse begins in such a striking way; with happiness. “Delight yourself.” Find delight. Then it locates where and how that delight should be: “in the LORD.” This is a pursuit of happiness in the things of the Lord. It is freedom to run after all the delight and happiness we can find, in the Lord—his words, his presence, his people, his gifts, his direction for our lives.
And when we do that, “he will give you the desires of your heart.” That does not mean God will give you whatever your heart previously desired. It means that he will give us those delights we are seeking in him. By pursuing happiness in the Lord our very desires are reshaped. We want new and different things which God is pleased to give us lavishly.
To extrapolate this out, it also means we will begin to desire new results from old pleasures. If food was once how we filled the void of loneliness, by delighting ourselves in the Lord we will begin to desire food for enjoyment and out of gratitude. If sex was once how we sought love and validation, by delighting ourselves in the Lord we will begin to see it as the gift God intended between husband and wife within the safe and comforting bounds of marriage. If work was once where we found accomplishment and identity, by delighting ourselves in the Lord we will begin to see it as a means of using abilities he’s given us for purposes of his kingdom.
This means that, as we grow in holiness, we are free to pursue happiness because it is ultimately located in the things of God. Our delight in friendship reflects our part in the body of Christ. Our enjoyment of work and creating declares our status as image bearers. Our pleasure in eating points us to gratitude for God’s provision and for the skills of the one who prepared the food. The peace we find in cool breezes and rolling surf is the peace of the Lord shared through his beautiful creation.
God does, indeed, want us to be happy. He wants us to enjoy and to revel and to delight. God wants us to be holy too. What a miracle of his wisdom and love it is, then, that he has given us everything we need to find both.
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.